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The future language:
a trip into Adam Thirlwell's literature

Adam Thirlwell was born in London in 1978. A precocious writer, he published his debut novel, Politics (Vintage) in 2003, at the age of twenty-five, and was named a Granta Best Young British Novelist in the same year. His writing has appeared in high-profile international publications, such as The New York Times, Le Monde, Esquire, The Guardian and la Repubblica. He is the London editor of The Paris Review, possibly the most influential literary quarterly in the world.

His latest novel, Lurid & Cute (Jonathan Cape) once again engages with the central themes of Thirlwell’s literature – desire and romantic relationships – while also introducing visionary elements that take on the future of contemporary society. Set in the near future, the story unfolds in a nameless metropolis, a hybrid between a Western and a tropical city. In his interview to World, the author was keen to discuss his ideas of the future, and what he believes it will look like.

At the beginning of Lurid&Cute, the protagonist wakes up next to a woman that isn’t his wife. The setting is a global megalopolis: a huge, boundless non-place. Thirlwell himself hails from North London. The suburbs where he grew up was the kind of place that “could be anywhere,” he tells World. As you drive through such places, you don't see many houses, maybe a few here and there, a supermarket, a clinic or a cemetery – the kind of spaces it is nearly impossible to build a relationship with. You feel the same way you would in Los Angeles or Hong Kong.

Globalisation compresses distances, diluting individual cultures. An awareness of urban spaces can be the first step towards understanding how the world is changing. London makes for an excellent example: the city no longer enjoys the status of industrial and economic capital of the world like it used to in the 19th Century – it has been pushed aside by the new, vital impulses from emerging economies. In this vein, Thirlwell imagines a megalopolis combining the atmosphere of Western supercities with the liveliness of tropical capitals, as if Brazil, today, were the metropolitan centre of the world.

If we are headed towards a future where landscapes increasingly resemble one another, a similar destiny might be on its way for language, too. Of course, the question of language is a crucial matter when writing fiction – even more so in the work of a novelist like Thirlwell, who’s always been interested in language theory and translation. Any language is by its own nature destined to evolve or die. However, in the Internet era, English has been singled out as a universal language of exchange. 

Rarely handed down in its pure form, it is constantly altered by its interactions with other languages, such as Chinese or Spanish. Often, it is hyper-simplified, peppered with grammatical mistakes or translated into its very basic components, as in the result of a Google Translation. The very title of Thirlwell’s new novel Lurid & Cute is a nod to popular Internet memes.

Ultimately, what is most striking in the work of the British author is his surprising willingness to avoid convention. Broad cultural change often causes the intellectual elite to revert to tradition, with a tendency to seek refuge in the nostalgia of the past. Reading Thirlwell, we experience the opposite pull: his work simmers with a genuine excitement for the future, and the unpredictable, human and artistic challenges it has in store.

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