Will Self Fore & Aft
'The Quantity Theory of Insanity by Will Self, 1991, Vintage, ISB 978-0-679-75094-9, 211 pages.
‘Will’, by Will Self, 2019, Viking, ISBN: 978-0-670-91861-4, 386 pages.
The English writer Will Self’s ‘Will’ of 2019 reminds us of his long list of publications. It includes a dozen novels, several short story collections, and a raft of non-fiction. His journalism and TV work have kept him in the public eye and made his reputation as an artisan of the unexpected while assuring that he’s not an outsider on the cultural scene. The six stories of ‘The Quantity Theory of Insanity’ marked his literary debut in 1991 and were a signpost to where his writing would be going. The reader should not be intimidated by the title. Self often gestures to the theoretical. It goes with his infatuation for long words fresh from research laboratories. But both can be ignored as harmless tics on the edge of his writing. In fact, ‘theory’ here will only figure seriously in the title story and then only as a verbal illusion.
The setting of the stories is almost exclusively London. Self, born in a suburb, has a particular love/hate for them. He buzzes like a nagging housefly across his native city from one accursed green border to the other. Tourist jaunts they are not, being more in the spirit of T.S. Eliot,
“A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many”
Self needs something solid and touchable on which to build his stories, which regularly take off into the unreal and—here the title is right—the insane. That sets him apart from the great un-realists like Franz Kafka or Samuel Beckett who didn’t bother much to put a sturdy frame around their fantasies.
To be noted, peeking into several stories, is Dr. Zachary Busner, Zack to his sedated patients. “An ageing hippy with grey, collar-length hair, a consultant psychiatrist at Heath Hospital”, he will figure largely in Self’s great trilogy of novels, ’Umbrella’ (2012), ‘Shark’ (2014) and ‘Phone’ (2017).
In the first of the short stories, ‘The North London Book of the Dead’, the narrator’s mother dies, which means she goes off to live in another of the city’s neighborhoods where the deceased have set up a kind of commune for themselves. They go on forever making tea and shuffling around in carpet slippers with their leashed pets in tow. It’s the shortest story but not to be forgotten. Thirty years later in ‘Will’, Self will still be trying to get his mother off his back, like the monkey addicts carry.
As we move on story to story, the various narrators will gradually misplace their reason. He with the undead mother is sane. But the young man who works as an art therapist for the mentally disturbed in ‘Ward 9’ is contaminated by his pupils. In ‘Understanding the Ur-Bororo’, the friend of the anthropologist watches him fall into the fatal boredom of the Amazonian tribe he has studied and then succumbs himself, all in the London suburb of Purley. ‘The Quantity Theory of Insanity says there’s only so much sanity in the world and we have to take turns embodying it. The theory’s author loses his psychic footing at an international conference when it can’t be decided whose turn it is. The narrator of ‘Mono-Cellular’ has retreated from City of London corporate shenanigans to an incestuous intimacy with the furnishings of his Finchley home. Only in the final story, ‘Waiting’, does a narrator straighten himself out. But he does so only after grappling with the madness of a friend who has thrown his lot in with a clique of motorcycle couriers. Never ever, by the way, has any fiction so pounded the London pavement. The victim explains,
“They’re driving at all hours of the day and night, existing at a level of frayed neural response that we can only faintly imagine. They’re operating not at the level of other traffic, a straightforward level of action and anticipation, but at the level of nuance, sheer nuance. They perceive the tiniest of stimuli with ghastly clarity, and respond. Think of it, man. Weaving your way through heavy traffic astride a monstrously overpowered motorcycle, always pressured to meet a deadline, the ether plugged into your helmet. They have to mutate to survive”.
‘Will’, three decades later, is all about Will Self, seen, of course, by himself. It’s hardly a tell-all mémoire, more the tracing, with embellishments, of the drug theme, through his youth until 1986 when at twenty-six, he assures us, he was cured of his heroin addiction. But he wasn’t finished with hard drugs until he sealed his reputation as a heroin addict with the larger British public. Self, a journalist covering the election campaign of John Major, was discovered using the drug on the Prime Minister’s jet. His employer, the Observer, fired him. Suddenly he was much better known than for the seven books he had published. He noted this anomaly of British culture at the time, "I'm a hack who gets hired because I do drugs”.
The chronology of ‘Will’ ticks on to his twenty-sixth year but begins, backside first, with the final 1986 part that we can call block 1. This shows Self at the bottom of the addiction pit. The writing spares none of the horror but also makes clear what ties him to drugs. Self admired William S. Burroughs—“Brother Bill”—on the subject, but surpasses him in describing it. Horror in Burroughs was assuaged by sarcasm and observation from a step away. (‘Junkie’ 1953) Self is the figure on the cross who draws us into the fatal adventure by his thrashing about. Block 2 takes us back to Self at eighteen, a middle-class boy with tolerant parents who finds his comfortable suburban nest unbearable. It’s a mystery that ‘Will’ for all its truth-telling vigor and intellectual savvy never admits to solving.
Three years later, block 3, finds Self at Oxford, graduated to a reckless level of stylish self-destruction. His close friendship with Caius, a wealthy fellow student boasting aristocratic connections, will do neither of them any good. Caius is, in fact, Edward St Aubyn whose Patrick Melrose novels were turned into a television series with Benedict Cumberbatch in 2018.
From bad to worse, Self, having made a mess of Oxford, ends in Australia where his father now resides. The enigma of addiction has a comic side, and Self finds the same objections to life on another continent as he did in Hampstead Garden Suburb. In a further twist of irony, while the parents of Caius are truly venomous, Self’s are nothing worse than bores. Yet both young addicts will end block 4 rushing about India chasing heroin in flight from distress that psychiatry would explain by their relationship to their mothers and fathers.
Block 5 brings us back to the beginning,1986 and Self destroying himself at pace. His mother finances an expensive rehab course. He goes along but maintains a satiric and superior distance. Here something not quite right comes into Self’s account. It’s probably the inevitable flaw in all confessional writing. Self at twenty-six has admitted with gusto to some pretty dark deeds. But it was his story. There is another story he didn’t tell, and he objects to the rehab practice of standing before the group and having that story torn apart. The ‘Will’ he has presented is not, we might say, the whole story. However, the strong hand of the rehab director brings him in line, and for the first time in ‘Will’, he shows some affection for his mother.,
Self’s style favors progress by association of ideas, which can have a whirligig effect that makes light of chronology. One of his sentences can include a pause of suspension points … and an afterthought in italics. But his rich 21st Century writing, nourished by only two drugs, nicotine and caffeine, repays our perplexity.