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Is Will Self the greatest author you've never read?

Had you been in Liverpool in late 2002, you would have had the chance to watch Will Self write a book. Audiences were led to the twentieth floor of a high-rise and permitted to stare at the back of the British author as he sat and pounded out a 12,000-word novella on a vintage typewriter. Though meant as a “reality art” installation, the project may have worked best as an analogy for Self’s fame: people just can’t get enough of him. That is, in Britain. Though published in North America for more than a decade now, Self’s popularity has never reached the heights that it has in the UK. He started with a bang: before even publishing his first novel, Self was named to Granta’s influential once-a-decade list of the twenty best young writers in Britain. Once he was fixed within its gaze, the public eye proved unblinking. Part of that has to do with Self’s astonishing productivity: in the last fifteen years, he’s published four collections of short stories, three novellas, four novels and an avalanche of non-fiction. Part of it can be attributed to the times—Self hit his stride in the mid-nineteen-nineties when Little England was rebranding itself as Cool Britannia. London’s art scene was red-hot and Britpop anthems filled the airwaves just as the doddering, Thatcher-less Conservatives were swept out of power by the boyish Tony Blair. Mainly, though, Self stayed on the radar because he was notorious. Having only briefly kicked a smack habit that dogged him until his senior year at Oxford (where, according to one acquaintance, Self’s study habits included repairing to his room with Kant and a syringe), he fell prey to the usual blandishments of sudden fame. His was a very public struggle with addiction, culminating in an infamous episode during the 1997 British general election. Reporting on the campaign of then prime minister John Major for the Observer, Self copped to shooting heroin in the cramped washroom of the PM’s jet. Forget the gossip columns, this was a front-page scandal. “It’s the kind of shit you get into when you have a drug habit,” Self tells me over the phone from London. “That’s the irreducible fact of it, looking back on it now.” Though the incident did prompt him to clean up, he was quick to point out that the Observer hired him precisely because he “was a high-profile, known drug user for some years before this.” Feeling defiant, Self was hardly about to take the typical celebrity escape route, which is to slink away from bad press and take a time-out clocked by Betty Ford. When threatened with eviction from the fourth estate, he squatted instead, writing furiously for a variety of outlets. With stints as a restaurant reviewer and architectural critic, in addition to the gritty precincts of literary reviews and cultural criticism, Self has proven as catholic in his tastes as he is voracious in his interests. And that’s just his work as a scribe. Self is today primarily recognized in the UK as a media figure. Sure, his mile-high-jinks are the sort of antics that tend to linger in the mass mind, but that’s old news. Since then, he’s appeared on quiz shows, served as a panellist on satirical news programs and worked as a talking head for an arts program on the BBC. He also had a regular segment on Today, a morning show on BBC Radio 4. “That kind of constituency, which would be maybe half a million people,” Self explains, “is rather more people than I would reach with my fiction.” When his mouth gets dry from all that commentating, Self has also been known to slip behind a video camera and make short films, including Addicted to Arms, a documentary on Britain’s involvement in the arms trade. With Self now surfeiting, it seems hard to believe that there was some initial doubt regarding his very existence. One rumour that raced along the cocktail circuit in the early nineteen-nineties was that “Will Self” was, in fact, a pseudonym for Martin Amis, the reigning enfant terrible of English letters. Such gossip was in some sense inevitable; beyond their biographies (both are the sons of university professors and both attended Oxford), the two share a sardonic outlook, charming insouciance, savage wit and a talent for melding high culture with low. It also didn’t hurt that Amis made his bones penning Money, a landmark satire of eighties excess, narrated by a John Self (no relation). If “Will Self” seemed a likely pseudonym before he managed to publish his first novel, his later notoriety certainly didn’t help ease suspicions. Indeed, for an author whose fiction is consumed by questions of identity and who struggled to escape the vice vise, the moniker “Will Self” packs a fairly ironic wallop. The initial suspicion among the literati that Will Self had to be a cipher has proven remarkably prescient, for Self is deeply skeptical about the existence of the self. Interested more by ideas than plot or character, he dismisses the notion of the self-contained, rational individual as a Victorian hangover. On the Dickensian world of nineteenth-century novels, Self explains: “It’s not a place I recognize or would find very easy to write about. It seems to me the world as I experience it is both far more exciting and stranger than that—and also far more mundane.” This is probably not as controversial as it sounds. Ever since Sigmund Freud “discovered” the unconscious skulking about in our dreams, jokes and earliest memories of childhood, we’ve come to accept the idea that, on some level, we remain a mystery to ourselves. “I think we still live in a maladroit Freudian age,” Self explains. “People are certainly not prepared to face up to the idea that vast quantities of their supposedly rational and orderly psyche are just a shadow play. We all want to believe in the user illusion of free will, don’t we? I’m very interested in making people feel unstable about that.” These days, much of what passes for experimental literature is preoccupied with the conditions of writing. Self, though, is no arch-formalist. He’s less interested in language games than in ’pataphysics, the bastard child of Enlightenment metaphysics and Surrealist tomfoolery. Coined by the French writer Alfred Jarry, ’pataphysics is dedicated to studying the science of imaginary solutions. That sounds pretty earnest, but in practice it’s anything but. When Self wants to ponder the nature of addiction, for example, he turns to the absurd. In his short story “The Rock of Crack as Big as the Ritz,” a small-time dealer discovers his house is built upon a vein of crack cocaine—Magritte meets Marion Barry: Ceci n’est pas une crack pipe. Self, one might say, gives good con-cept. At its pulsing core, his work consists of weapons-grade satire. But even the best satire threatens to go unread if it’s cavalier about character and pooh-poohs plot. So how does Self consistently turn out clever, witty and engaging fiction while ostensibly disregarding the most basic conven-
tions of his craft? It’s his beguiling narrative voice. From the very beginning, Self has displayed an uncanny ability to switch effortlessly between registers while always sounding unmistakably like himself. The volatile mix of precocity and promiscuity (not unlike a small child stage-managing an orgy) has been there from the very beginning, as have the cool intellectual precision and the wicked humour. One character, who believes adopting a mullet can return lost youth, is brought up sharply: “I suspect that Keith thought his coif made him look like a rock star,” the narrator snipes, “but the truth was that he closely resembled a late-nineteenth-century patriarch, deranged by sexual repression and successful imperialism.” Another character tries to rationalize his lecherous behaviour: “All right, he’d been known to grope the odd woman, servitors or foreigners usually, but he didn’t consider himself to be a molester in the proper sense, just an enthusiast.” Self’s fiction turns his characters loose in a world where the banal and bizarre nestle cheek by jowl. In the short story “The North London Book of the Dead” (1991)—inspired, in a way, by the death of Self’s mother—the narrator runs into his own recently deceased-but-not-quite-departed mother who has elected to move to Dulston, a suburb of London where the dead live: “Suburban streets, if you look at them for long enough, always summon up a sense of mortality—of the skull beneath the skin. The Reaper always waits behind the bus shelter.” His longer works elaborate on similarly deranged scenarios. His recent novel Dorian (2002) offers homage to Oscar Wilde and fin-de-siècle decadence by turning the self-obsessed narcissist Dorian Gray into a disease vector for a mysterious illness striking down
gay men in the early eighties (the portrait from the original is replaced here by, what else, a video installation). His most critically successful work, however, is How the Dead Live (2000), a full-length reworking of the notion of a “materialist afterlife” first explored in “The North London Book of the Dead.” “I wanted to write about this, to me, very interesting idea that when somebody you’ve known very well has been dead for a longer period of time, they become deader. It occurred to me that the perspective of the dead person was the best possible one to adopt,” Self admits. “I wrote ‘The North London Book of the Dead’ when [my mother] had only been dead a few years, you see, two or three years. I began How the Dead Live when she’d been dead for ten or eleven years. When she’d been dead for ten years, I thought, hang on for a minute. She couldn’t walk into the room now because she’d look hopelessly anachronistic. She’d look out of place, she’s deader…In a society that is obsessed by styles and modes and by instant decadence, the perspective of the dead is the best way to comment on it. The dead person stands outside of that and can look at that whole giddy go-round with a certain kind of detachment.” When he’s not raising the dead, Self is practising other forms of what he describes as “dirty magical realism.” The term conflates the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges and the dirty realism of American writers like Raymond Carver. “I suppose the kind of magical element in my work has to do with discomfort and getting people to feel unsettled about reality, a kind of ontological queasiness.” This is not, it should be stressed, Harry Potter territory. “I think the salient fact about the Potter books is this phenomenon of ‘kidult’ fiction, this kind of crossover fiction that essentially dumbs adults down without drawing kids up. It makes it possible for adults to feel unashamed about reading this really very substandard stuff.” He should know. As the father of young children, Self is the one who gets nightmares from reading bedtime stories to his Potter-mad kids: “It’s a source of great pain to me. Unparalleled pain.” “What I try to do is what writers of my stamp have been doing since Kafka, which is really just to get readers to suspend disbelief in things that their immediate reaction is to find them incredible in some way. The way I like to do that, usually, is to pile on credible detail, micro-detail, within a macro-fantasticality. What I’m trying to say is that I think the world is fantastic and that truth is stranger than fiction and my kind of macro-fantastical things aren’t really that fantastic compared to some of the shit that does go down. So they really just stand proxy for our inability to grasp the strangeness of the world.” Dirty magical realism has a lot to do with William S. Burroughs, whom Self acknowledges as a major influence. In an introduction that he penned for a reissue of the Burroughs’s classic Junky, Self explains that the godfather of the counterculture believed in a magical universe “underpinning and interpenetrating” our own everyday existence. Self doesn’t buy into the paranoia this occasioned in Burroughs’s crackpot libertarian worldview, by which the possibility that things might be connected was viewed suspi-ciously as a certainty that they must be. Instead, Self uses magical thinking as a way of re-plotting a world in which the old borders have been overrun and the ones that remain turn out to be arbitrary, mere lines on a map. As a cartographer of mental states, Self uses his satirical compass to get a fix on a variety of orientations. In the paired novellas Cock and Bull (published as one volume, 1992), Self presents us with postmodern parables about Carol, a woman who sprouts a penis, and Bull, a man who wakes up one morning to find that a vagina has appeared behind his knee. Typically, the absurdist premise allows Self to turn on a dime from satirizing modern mating practices (one pickup bar is described as a scene “of near-Canadian clubbability”) to pondering the big questions. “It’s often seemed to me,” Self later wrote about these stories, “that we are in the interregnum between two systems of sexuality, and that the strangest phenomena are arising. Is our gender biologically or culturally determined?” In Great Apes (1997), he explores what it means to be human through the trials of one Simon Dykes, a trendy London painter who wakes up after a night of partying only to discover that his girlfriend has turned into a chimp. So, for that matter, has everyone else. Even Simon is a chimp, albeit one in deep denial, suffering from the pathological certainty that he’s human. In this parallel world, Simon is institutionalized by medical experts eager to study his unique delusion and learn something of their own chimpunity (rather than humanity) in the process. “If I can get you to suspend disbelief in the idea that chimpanzees have been the evolutionarily successful species rather than human beings; if I can get you to believe that, then maybe I can get you to accept how strange it is that humans, an animal, have proliferated to such an extent that they will within the next twenty years eliminate their closest living relative,” he acknowledges. “It’s a kind of fact, people absolutely recoil from the philosophical implications of something like that; they simply cannot apprehend it, it doesn’t matter how many times they read it in the newspaper. They really just can’t take it on board.” Self’s most radical gesture has been to suggest that we don’t actually have identities. An eerie fixture in his fiction is the proliferation of Daves. Nearly every story has one, and many have multiple Daves, serial Daves, Daves called Dave 2 or Dave, Too. Why? Since Dave is such a common name, Self uses it to play with the notion of the interchangeability of identity. “It’s a satirical comment on the notion that we’re unique and import-ant and viable when everything conspires to tell us, really, we’re not. We all have the same tastes and consume the same things and ejaculate in the same positions. The Dave-itude, the Dave-ness, the Dave-ity, is an aspect of that, or a way of drawing that to people’s attention in a rather kind-of-uncomfortable and subliminal manner, I suppose.” To be Dave is to be like everyone else. But even more than that, Self suggests, “your very desire to be yourself as individual and unique is just like everybody else.” In what would seem to be a magical coincidence, Self’s upcoming novel, The Book of Dave, is scheduled to arrive in North America in the autumn alongside a reissue of his backlist. Self describes his latest as a post–September 11 novel mainly because it satirizes religion. “In the modern secular West, for a literary audience, it’s all become a bit passé, really, to take the piss out of religion, but I think it’s timely again,” he notes. “The Book of Dave is about an insane London taxi driver who buries a jeremiad against the contemporary world in his ex-wife’s garden. Seven hundred years in the future, this has been disinterred and become the holy book of a future society.” With any luck, it will find the success in a North American market that has so far eluded him. Without the benefit (and curse) of the high profile that he enjoys at home, Self hasn’t been able to storm these shores in truly dramatic fashion. “The sales have always been pretty disastrous,” he admits. So why hasn’t Self found a popular audience here (outside of the North American literary establishment)? For one thing, though he carries an American passport (dual citizenship, thanks to an American mother), Self considers himself first and foremost a London writer. There’s also the matter of his style, what he calls his “high facetiousness.” Though we North Americans welcome political satire, we’re not so sure about the philosophical kind. “It sits ill in a culture that believes in the value of seriousness; that in order to say something serious, you have to be serious,” Self explains. It’s one thing to satirize people and personalities. Ideas are another matter. And beliefs, well, them’s fighting words. So maybe it makes sense that The Book of Dave is set to arrive at a time when evolution drives some people apeshit (or, as Self puts it in Great Apes, humanshit). Maybe, just maybe, Will Self will have penned the next great American novel. If nothing else, The Book of Dave takes part in a distinctively American genre. The jeremiad has a proud tradition that ranges from colonial preachers to the Unabomber manifesto. But it’s more than that. Self acknowledges that for the satirist the nineteen-nineties were trying times: “When you have a morally and culturally relativist context it’s quite difficult for satire to operate.” Satire and religion go hand in hand; for everyone to be in on the joke, satire needs the black-and-white environment that religion keeps mistaking for heaven on earth. One can’t help but suspect that America is finally ready for Will Self.