Tuesday, 12 July 2011

My Self

Realising that I have far too much Will Self in my book collection, I nonetheless embarked on The Butt  recently. Not one of his best (he can be patchy, though I love the best - Great Apes, for example. Or The Book of Dave, whilst I found Liver a bit of a drag) it is nonetheless redolent of Graham Greene - it even has an Honorary Consul, as well as plenty of sweaty hat brims - and JG Ballard, creating a dystopian, nightmarish land (Australia? Not quite. Which is odd) with ridiculous, overblown laws and customs, and strangers who bear uncanny resemblances to family members. Yet it is somewhat rambling; does not hold the attention well enough, does not have the same terrifying believablilty of Ballard at his best, the same depth of feeling of Greene at his best, and fails - I would venture to suggest - to strike the right balance of black humour and terror. Needless to say, there is also the obligatory over-use of the thesaurus. Far be it from me to pejoratively cast anyone as 'brainy' for using big words. Heaven knows, I used to go through back issues of the Reader's Digest like a whirling Dervish looking for the 'It Pays To Improve Your Wordpower' section. But still, there's a slight clunkiness about the sprinkling of 'empurplement' and 'ever-ramifying' throughout the text which - I daresay - lessens the narrative power of the tale.

The most unsatisfying aspect of the novel by far though is Self's decision to take on an American voice in his main character, the anti-hero Tom. Will is nothing if not quintessentially English, and I feel that the device (of having Tom come from the USA) in order to contrast the power of this nation with the faded and pathetic post-colonial England as emodied by Prentice hardly seems worth it. Tom does not come across as a real American, despite Self having him use words like 'mall' and 'buddy' and one squirms a little on these occasions, it has to be said. Maybe it wouldn't have been possible for an Englishman to have had the limitless credit facilities which Tom seems able to draw on or some other such consideration, but I must register my protest.

Nonetheless, I wouldn't wish to suggest that this is a gimcrack book. There are some excellent sequences, and Self frequently captures the moment in a few choice words (particularly his descriptions of off-season tourist locales - sad, jaded and corrupt. Wonderful) and there are occasions when - sweltering on the 329 bus as it crawls up Green Lanes with its mad cargo of London folk - like the buildings - thrust haphazardly against one another that I struggle to discern where the book ends and reality begins. An Asian girl chatters non-stop into her mobile phone, a family of fat kids stare intently across the aisle, a baby wails incessantly and the automated voice tells all that 'seats are available on the upper deck'.

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