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Friday, September 30, 2022

Big Snake Little Snake by DBC Pierre review – like a pub conversation about life, fate and the universe | DBC Pierre

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DBC Pierre’s new book is part memoir, part grand-theory-of-everything: 29 liquid vignettes looped around his time in Trinidad, where he makes an ad with a parrot. The parrot is mostly by the by. Big Snake Little Snake, subtitled “An Inquiry into Risk”, is the Booker prize-winning author’s tenuous premise to tell you everything he thinks about chaos, life and fate. It reads like a very long conversation with a stranger at a pub, except it is good.

“Dirty But Clean” Pierre (nom de plume of Australian Peter Finlay) finds a literal Little Snake on the doormat of his island home. Little Snake, he finds out, is also #27 in Trinidad and Tobago’s lottery game, Play Whe – and thenceforth Pierre’s spirit guide to the “vibrant maths” of the universe. This loose symbology sets the tone for the book: sparkling, good-natured conspiracy theories, wheeling haphazardly around something deeper.

His broad idea is that the world is all maths (“we swim through maths all our lives”), but at some point we (capitalism, society) have grabbed the wrong end of the stick and become obsessed with the “binary logic” of data and predictions, chasing effect over cause. Pierre, noted internet-avoider, craves what is hidden, rich, unmeasurable; his tone – a formal jester – mostly saves this from getting too earnest.

We should stop trying to “plaster over this whole writhing world of odds”, he says. But perhaps, he also says, consider … pushing them around a bit. Create a “bow wave” into the maths of the world, listen for the “ping-ping-ping that tells us conditions are live and active” – and play the odds with fate.

This line of thinking lends itself instantly to gambling, which Pierre extols at length as a way to cut through the warped odds of so much of history and human relations – to “reach into the ether”. Darker elements float in his tall tales of Texas and Mexico, and this ode to backgammon and the brotherhood of the betting shop, the “courting of natural uncertainty”, glides a bit cutely over the ruin it wrought in Pierre’s own life. (A wild and convoluted story that Big Snake Little Snake – out of modesty or convenience – avoids in the main.)

Still, it’s a beguiling idea, especially taken in the spirit it’s delivered (vague, friendly, hyperactively determined): games of chance as “a portal to the wider mechanisms of the universe … a finger into the current to see if it gives or takes. To see if we are favoured. If we are lucky. If we are alive.”

It feels religious. (“It is,” Pierre clarifies.) He maps out an untidy but lovely cosmology: humans are made of so many “cascading chances”. Risk, at the betting shop or otherwise, is the “crackling socket of reality”, less about a win than “signposting our love of unfolding life”. Pierre’s ensuing wormhole takes in Einstein, Schrödinger and Niels Bohr, block universe theory, quantum entanglement and parallel worlds; great if you like that kind of thing, and anchored by the affable one-liners and gallows humour that shone in Vernon God Little if you don’t.

Peering at “the space where maths decoheres into reality”, Pierre treats Trinidad as a case study. His affection for it is tangible: the street parties and death metal bars, the duck curries and folklore, the “neon scarlet ibises that … come back at night like red blood cells”. But vivid as your setting might be, to write that it “bursts with fruit and sex” is to play with an island fantasy that’s anachronistic at best, or just flat-out exoticising. Pierre grazes the Republic’s history, but prefers to lean in on cheerful generalisations: “I believe in both tropics and tropes.”

The book’s hazy formula is an excuse to do exactly what he wants, which seems to sit somewhere between Martin Amis and AA Gill: a copywriter’s breezy charisma, dash of the petty crank, and a permanent aura of hangover (very white).

As many critics have pointed out (both more and less kindly – increasingly, less), the thing about Pierre is he can really write. Big Snake Little Snake is more languid than his novels, less feverishly grandiose than his other non-fiction, mixing humour (guests “slouched around like dropped towels”), romanticism (brown snakes are “introverts who hide and make venom and love”) and straight beauty (the sun “trembles through this cane smoke as it would through running water”) with an ad hoc confidence pretty easy to enjoy.

Not written by a Booker winner, it’s entirely possible it’d moulder in a submissions folder. But another theory: in his weird mix of louche and sincere, holy and self-cynical, Pierre has caught the moment, or vice versa. Giddy substacks about the divine fill our inboxes; cinema’s dipping into the multiverse via Daoism. Given how bad the odds look on most things (climate, inflation, inequality, death), chatting up the mystic has a sort of sense.

  • Big Snake Little Snake by DBC Pierre is published 1 July in Australia ($29.99, Allen & Unwin); and is out in the UK (£14.99, Cheerio)

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