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Quantity Theory Of Inanity: Will By Will Self Reviewed
Michael J. Brooks , November 16th, 2019 10:44

Once a fan of the author of My Idea Of Fun and Grey Area, Michael Brooks is disappointed with Will Self's new memoir

When did it all start going wrong for Will Self? Once part of the Soho intelligentsia set of the 1990s, and enfant terrible of the British literary scene for a time, not to mention a panellist on the surrealist Shooting Stars TV show; his stock in recent years as both an author and ‘public intellectual’ seems to have been on a plummeting trajectory.

Before going any further I must declare an interest. As a fresh-faced new arrival in London in my early-twenties, some seven or eight years ago, with hopeless literary ambitions of my own, Will Self was someone I held in lofty regard. I had read a sizeable portion of his work, through which I was led to the likes of JG Ballard, William Burroughs, Iain Sinclair, and the Situationists. I was also vaguely thrilled to discover, living then on the scuzzy border between Brixton and Stockwell, that Self was a nearby denizen, and indeed occasionally I’d see him lurching around on his psychogeographic dérives. I’ve also met him on a number of occasions and interviewed him twice, always finding him to be more friendly and easy-going than his formidable public persona might have you believe.

So I approach the question of ‘when did it all start going wrong for Will Self’ with perhaps more generosity than others might allow. His debut book The Quantity Theory of Insanity (1991) was excellent, evidence of a rich and deranged imagination, and subsequent works such as Grey Area (1994), and his journalistic collections Junk Mail (1996) and Feeding Frenzy (2001), were all highly entertaining and stimulating reads. Umbrella, for which he was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012, was a dense Joycean forest of ideas, characters and themes which he largely pulled off with success; although the following two instalments of this ‘modernist trilogy’ – Shark (2014) and Phone (2017) offered gradually diminishing returns.

If I were to precisely place the point at which, for me, Self fell firmly from his pedestal, it was probably his being shot down on BBC’s Question Time in 2013 by Michael fucking Gove of all people; or perhaps a few years later being burned in spectacular style by his own son on Twitter who posted, in response to one of Self’s oft-repeated foghorn calls about the novel being doomed to being a niche pursuit: “He’s an idiot. He’s a novelist who hasn’t sold any of his last two books so he assumes that the whole medium is dying”.

Which brings me to his new memoir, Will. Put simply, it’s ghastly.

The gauge of scorn and withering disdain has always been calibrated quite high in Self’s writing, but here he has dialled it all the way up to eleven. The miserable contempt for himself, the world and everybody else in it, seeps out of every page like the pus from the sores on his arms, which he seems to revel in detailing in different metaphorical flourishes every few pages.

One doesn’t have to be a bleeding-heart liberal to feel sympathy for anyone who gets messed up and addicted to drugs to such a destructive degree. However, it’s hard to maintain that sympathy when Self has used his own youthful drug use in so blatant and consistent a way throughout his career to try and conjure an aura of rackety, bohemian, Hunter S. Thompson-esque notoriety about him. No doubt, in the days before the novel was doomed, this served his book sales no harm at all given the bizarre vicarious thrill the chattering classes and the types who attend book talks and literary festivals seem to have for those ‘liberal elite’ figures who take drugs and report back on it like a foreign correspondent from a country they’ve always wanted to visit. He most certainly indulged in the post-Trainspotting landscape of ‘heroin chic’ whereby a debilitating and socially destructive drug was lacquered with a sheen of glamour and mystique.

The problem is, this sort of thing was edgy and ‘dangerous’ when Thomas de Quincey wrote about eating opium in 1821, or when Aldous Huxley wrote about comprehending the concealed world of wonder in the creases of his trousers, or William Burroughs wrote about scoring dope from young boys in the streets of Tangier. But it’s now nearly 2020, and absolutely no one should care about such fetishistic drug diarising. Perhaps if the intervening years since kicking the habit had given Self enough scope to reflect with some degree of wisdom and clarity before imparting something vaguely new into the national conversation (whatever that is and wherever it supposedly takes place) about drug addiction, then it might be justified. But he doesn’t, and nor does he bring us any closer to the gritty reality of that existence as did the 1981 film Christiane F., or offer any measure of grimy absurdism as per Irvine Welsh, so it’s quite simply a complete bore. As he concedes on page sixty-eigh, “there’s nothing remotely exciting about heroin addiction”. Which begs the question, then why has he decided to inflict nearly 400 pages of this indulgent paean to his former junkie self on the reader?

As bereft as the ‘Will’ protagonist is of any apparent redeeming qualities, he is almost a scream compared to some of the other odious characters that make his acquaintance along the way. Caius is an equally drug-addled university friend from a wealthy aristocratic family who insists on “lunching Will” at Michelin-starred restaurants and screams at the “boorish ambulancemen” who revive him from an overdose, “careful with this jacket, it’s fucking Savile Row!” Will’s mother features prominently as a rather unhinged and snobbish character who mollycoddles her son, imparts her bourgeois prejudices against anyone who uses the term ‘nan’ or serves cheese cubes at a dinner party, forgives him any brattish misdemeanour such as crashing the family car while drug-driving, and who gets most of her pleasure from undermining and humiliating Will’s mild-mannered and quietly eccentric father. Not that his father manages to escape Self’s sneering condescension, despite getting the impression that through good old nepotism, as far as his early academic and professional life was concerned, he was walking through doors opened by fatherly connections.

Druggy indulgence and adolescent affectation towards other ‘subversive’ interests such as homosexuality and socialism aside, he might be forgiven these sins were the book written well, but sadly it is not. There are the tiresome italicised idiosyncrasies of the stream-of-consciousness schtick that Self has been deploying since Umbrella; most egregious is his use of “again…annagain” which might possibly recur once every couple of pages. He also lapses now and then with dripping lethargy into apparently un-ironic cliché – he closes a paragraph on how he had a motorcycle that he drove unlicensed and untaxed with the line “Will knew it at the time – he was riding for a fall”. Or the dialogue, never his strong suit at the best of times, which hums with inauthenticity; I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone, Cockney or otherwise, actually using the phrase “you’ve got some brass neck”.

The majority of Self’s novels (see Great Apes, The Book of Dave, The Butt) are intriguing conceits that would be perfectly serviceable short stories that have instead been force-fed Mr Creosote-style with glutinous verbiage and digressions until they combust in a tiresome morass of word vomit. The minor tragedy of Self’s career is that, although trying to fashion a comparable image and reputation to his contemporaries Irvine Welsh or Bret Easton Ellis, he hasn’t written anything that is held up in the same generation-defining regard as Trainspotting or American Psycho. You get the sense that he desperately wants to be seen as a latter-day Ballard, but the trouble is in terms of the actual quality of the writing and depth of ideas, he simply isn’t fit to clean the warm leatherette of the great man’s car.

The problem I’ve often felt with Self’s work is that, like the band who never manage to write a song quite as good as the first one of their first album (looking at you Pearl Jam, Interpol, Rage Against the Machine), he’s never written a sentence or conjured an image quite as uniquely inspired as one from the first paragraph of his first book – “cancer tore through [his mother’s] body as if it were late for an important meeting with a lot of successful diseases”.

Just when you think the protagonist can’t get any more hateful, the wretched coup de grace comes towards the end when Caius reveals that he had been a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of his father over several years, to which the author responds – “it was always Caius who got everything, whether they be material things … and even these extreme experiences, which, self-annihilatory or not, would undoubtedly make good copy…” Even in these morally bankrupt times it will be hard-going to find a sentence quite so repellent and poorly-judged in any other book published this year, and should not have found its way past an editor.

Indeed, one has to question Viking Press’s decision to continue publishing Self’s work at all when by his own admission it doesn’t sell, and instead just bolsters his name as a ‘personality’ at talks and events, which again, by his own admission he hates doing. So why not spare his misery and invest that precious publishing and marketing budget in fresh and exciting emerging literary voices, of which no doubt there is an abundance? At least until he can evidence some kind of return to form, and as a former fan I wouldn’t say summoning one was beyond him, but on the basis of this interminable memoir he has a long way to go.

Will by Will Self is out now through Viking Press