Admittedly a ‘novelist of ideas’ (as told to The Paris Review in 2013), Will Self is a massive, rumbling, overbearing thunderball of a writer. His satire is always barbed and frightening, his dystopic visions even more so. Mostly received and critiqued as ‘literary fiction’ (though that means nothing to me!), his stories have always been full of the absurd and bizarre, oozing their way into speculative ideas and concepts. Essentially, his work is about the emotional disconnect many suffer from in modern society, the search and understanding of personal identity and purpose, and well…what it means to be human. His most obvious influences are J.G. Ballard and Hunter S. Thompson, but also Kafka, Swift, and Joyce.
Any place you start with Self is going to be befuddling—all his work is, to some extent—but here’s a list to ease you into the madness.
My personal introduction to Will Self was this collection of short stories from 1998, with each story making it clearer and clearer than Will Self’s work was just bizarre and unable to be defined by any genre at all. The first story in the collection, “A Rock of Crack as Big as the Ritz” features a young man back from Operation Desert Storm, changes from an ‘angry, potentially violent, coloured youth’ to a ‘frustrated, efficient, angry black man’ and discovers a seam of crack cocaine running through the basement of the house he’s living in. In “Dave Too” we find that everyone has become a man named Dave. In “Flytopia,” a man wakes one day to find that he is able to communicate with insects, swarms of silverfish spelling out text for him. The best part: this guy wont stop pedantically correcting their typos. It’s hilarious.
Speaking of hilarious, Self’s 1997 novel Great Apes features a man who wakes up from a night of rampant drug abuse to find himself in an alternate reality where chimpanzees have evolved intellectually at the same rate as humans have in our world, though they communicate with sign language (Self sticks to the actual scientific fact that chimpanzees lack the vocal range for human language). Simon himself is a chimpanzee, he’s horrified that his girlfriend is a chimpanzee, he refuses to accept that he isn’t human and so ends up in a psychiatric ward to be treated by the best psychiatrist around—an Alpha male, who spends much time trying to get Simon used to the societal norms of public mating, grooming, incest and casual violence. It’s wild and amusing and a more than a bit horrific, but it’s mostly so well written and with such conviction that it’s hard not to suspend disbelief and be carried away.
Self’s initial plan was to write something in an entirely made up language, like Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker, but eventually (thankfully), The Book of Dave is only partly in the made up language, Mokni, which is based heavily on the cockney English spoken by it’s protagonist, London cabbie Dave. Half the novel is about Dave’s life as an unstable, depressed taxi driver around London, his estrangement from his wife and his difficult child custody battles. Dave writes a book, full of rants and raves about women, divorce, society and life as a cabbie with The Knowledge all stored up in his head. He has it printed on metal plates and buries it in a garden in Hampstead. Fast forward centuries later to the second part of the novel, and much of England has been flooded but the little island of Ham survives, with it’s Mokni speech and strange society and faith based on a book found under the earth—the Book of Dave. Self’s future London is a straight up dystopia, a chilling one based on the ravings of a mentally ill man on the verge of a breakdown.
Lily Bloom, an American living in England loses her battle with cancer and dies, but continues living a surreal afterlife—surreal in that it is just as banal as actual life was, just in another suburb. She is accompanied by an Aboriginal spirit guide, the ghost of her dead 9-year-old son, and a lithopedion foetus as she navigates the world of the dead. She gets a PR job, discovers she can smoke with no consequence and meets the Fats—shapeless forms that are the all the weight she’s ever gained or lost in her life. Lily spends her afterlife in a dead-end job (sorry), watching her two living daughters ruin their actual lives and figuring out the mundane second life she wasn’t expecting to lead. This isn’t a zombie novel or a ghost story but it’s heartbreaking and funny and bleak—just like life.
Self has been reviewing high street food for The New Statesmen for some time now and though they aren’t fiction or genre in any way, they’re a great treat and a fantastic example of his command over language. Don’t expect any serious food snobbery here—Self eats regular food at chain restaurants and popular cafes, sampling both the ubiquitous and the outrightly silly high street fads. His visit to the Cereal Killer Cafe in London’s Brick Lane is compared to the feeling of living in a squat when the only affordable food was cereal (‘the first time it’s a tragedy, the second a frosted farce’), Pot Noodles as causing the collapse of Nietzsche, Chipotle as ‘upmarket Subway’ and snack boxes on Virgin trains as causing him to wonder ‘Is Richard Branson real?’. Self is as always, sharp, on point and in the case of these columns, constantly hilarious. Here, it’s possible to see him perhaps having a bit of fun himself.