For a novella published under the Hammer imprint, DBC Pierre’s Breakfast with the Borgias seems to have a fairly loose grasp of what horror feels like. If it weren’t for the Hammer name, its horror credentials could quite easily be overlooked. It is neither frightening nor suspenseful. Though at times baffling, it isn’t especially unnerving and the closest it comes to malevolence is in a teenager’s hurt feelings. What we are left with is plodding description of an essentially unchanging scenario and the slow revelation of an irritating and predictable twist.
Breakfast at the Borgias hinges on a potentially rich conceit: if horror frequently turns on failed communication and bewildering isolation, what might the genre do in a digital age when everyone is connected all of the time? Pierre’s novella briefly looks like it might have an interesting take on this richly suggestive discrepancy between genre conventions and digital communication but very quickly descends into barstool philosophising about ‘the way we are now’ and why young people these days are always listening to loud music or texting or wearing hoodies that hide their lovely faces. None of which blends especially convincingly with the body of the plot which (for reasons that become obvious) has a distinctly 70s feel about it. What might have been a source of originality is reduced to little more than a premise for something much more conventional.
When the story opens, Pierre’s protagonist, a computer scientist named Ariel Panek, is caught in a storm on the way from Boston to Amsterdam for a conference. His plane is grounded in a thick fog and a man who is used to constant electronic communication – or ‘connectivity’ as Pierre seems to think people say – is cut off from an apparently career-defining event and his secret girlfriend, Zeva Neely, who he had arranged to meet on his arrival. Ariel – pun, presumably, intended – proceeds to spend a large portion of the book searching for a mobile signal. The Cliffs, the guesthouse where he is waylaid, has no internet connection and the only mobile reception to be found is on another guest’s phone.
Zeva is one of Ariel’s undergraduate students but, perhaps in an (unsuccessful) effort to make their relationship a little less sleazy, we are explicitly told that she is 23 years old. This attempt to diminish the age gap (Ariel is ‘barely 30’), is undermined by the fact that Zeva spends most of the novel behaving like a little girl. ‘She cuddled the screen to her chest’, worries what her parents will say and stands crying on a train station platform because her boyfriend hasn’t texted her. The tone of their relationship is established in the first few pages with an off-key joke about date rape. The levels of implausibility in this set up are only surpassed by its lazy sexism.
Almost every woman – or ‘girl’ – Ariel encounters is, at one time or other, intent on sleeping with him despite the fact that he seems eminently unlikeable and more than a little bit weird. Even Gretchen, a self-harming ‘young girl’, offers herself to him in one of the novel’s more uncomfortable scenes. One of the first indications that something is going awry – and the much-delayed horror plot is finally getting started – comes when this girl falsely accuses Ariel of assault. What follows is a series of scenes in which we, and the accused, eavesdrop on the police as they sympathise with a vulnerable girl who tells them she has been attacked. We seem to be expected to disapprove of their unreasonableness and take this sequence in the spirit of Kafkaesque bureaucracy with Ariel as an innocent and perplexed victim, ensnared by false accusations. As Ariel not very elegantly puts it when he confronts her ‘you have trapped me on suspicion of assault’. This phase of the book strays into worrying territory and suggests that Pierre’s concept of modernity – ‘the future’ that he bangs on about in his first few pages – doesn’t extend far beyond technological innovation and certainly doesn’t include a more enlightened or equitable relationship between the sexes. An emotionally damaged young woman crying rape strikes me as a strange premise for a horror plot. Handled with subtlety and skill it might have worked; here it just feels awkward and ill-judged.
My biggest issue with this book, though, is its strained prose and over-stuffed metaphors. This is especially distracting when used to describe complex – but only half-digested – scientific ideas. I lost count, for instance, of the number of times ‘algorithm’ was used as a metaphor for just about anything. Other supposed similarities are so inappropriate that they read like non-sequiturs, for instance, ‘Unlike the dead whose bodies get lighter when they’re gone, her screen grew heavier the more she stared at it’. There’s something about his style that strikes me as analogous to ham acting; very energetic but misjudged and ill-timed. The ideas about parallel dimensions and atomic entanglement are interesting, as far as they go, but are never adequately explained or developed. I was left feeling that these are little more than flourishes in a book that seems smugly, but unjustifiably, pleased with its own cleverness.
Any Cop?: This novella takes a potentially rich conceit and spectacularly fails to follow through with it. It hasn’t the barest iota of tension or threat, seems to want to have its unsubtle say about any number of complex ideas, and is crammed with barely digested scientific theory. It is a horror story which manages not to be the least bit horrifying, with a plot that is by turns baffling and boring.