From a literary technician’s point of view, it could be said that there is an awful lot wrong with Verhulst’s The Misfortunates. Despite an incredible opening chapter, the story is slow to get going, with over half the novel having passed by the time we move out of the realm of anecdotes and into something that resembles a plot. Furthermore, the structure of the novel is strange to say the least. For 120 pages we are in the mind Dimmy, a boy on the brink of puberty, growing up in a family of alcoholics. Even this voice is unconventional, as many of the events the first-person narrator dramatises are events that he couldn’t possibly have witnessed. When, in the final quarter of the novel, we begin to jump back and forth indiscriminately between this young Dimmy and his older self, the structure becomes unidentifiable. These techniques would not get you anywhere in a creative writing class.
None of that matters though. If this novel proves anything, it is that the so-called ‘rules’ of literature do not matter a jot. From the opening page to the closing, The Misfortunates is ceaselessly entertaining. Verhulst works his plot fantastically well, showing us that, in young Dimmy’s life, there is no real story, just an endless series of events, more disturbing by the moment. But the novel never feels draining and difficult like so many novels about deprived children do. Instead, it bursts with humour and energy that never lets up. Even when the novel makes you want to cry, it makes you want to laugh at the same time.
The first chapter may be one of the best openings of a novel imaginable. Turning on its head the trope of a rich child looking down on their poor impoverished relations, we see Dimmy meeting his cousin Sylvie. Sylvie’s mum has married her way out of the depravity of Dimmy’s family and found herself a rich man. Dimmy is therefore suspicious of Sylvie. He suspects her ‘of playing the piano and ballet dancing in pink tutus’ and feels pit for her because ‘university was a certainty on her horizon’. But by the end of the chapter, Sylvie is hammered on diesel and pissing behind a tree, after unwittingly getting ogled by a man who doesn’t know he is her real dad. Oh, and she gets a nice close up view of his ‘shit-bag’ too. Lovely stuff. If the reader had any doubt about what world they were in, they don’t by the time young Sylvie walks in singing ‘The Cherry Picker’s Song’. You can probably guess what that’s about.
Admittedly, a lot of what follows does not quite meet the standards of this chapter, but it rarely dips far below them. What is most impressive about the novel is how vulgar and disgusting it is, and yet how beautiful at the same time. The fantastic cast of characters make Trainspotting look like Jane Austen, and yet they are all completely lovable and believable. Yes they are all perverted. And yes they all care more about drink than their children. But no, they are not monsters. They are actually a heart-warmingly messed up family that you can’t help but get emotionally attached to as the novel progresses.
Any Cop?: The Misfortunates may not be the ‘best’ novel I read in 2011, but it is the most enjoyable. Having actually first been published in Dutch in 2007, this translation by David Colmer will get its first airing in Britain in early January 2012. Thank you David Colmer. Thank Portobello Books. And most of all Thank You Dimitri Verhulst. You made the last few days of my life a very enjoyable place to be. Honestly, how can anyone not like a book that opens a chapter with the line: ‘Palmier was perfect mermaid material: she was slim and she stank of fish.’