Just when things seemed to be getting quieter, they got a lot louder again. I’m frantically trying to do a hundred and one things in advance of going down to Wigtown for their Book Festival – as “media partner”, I’m committed to spending ten days in the Hay of Galloway. That, and writing a speech for the prizegiving at my old school, which is prompting unwanted memoirs of Gussie Fink-Nottle.
I’m gradually assembling the Lexicon Heriotiana – we’ve just learned about “Marriage Monday”, which doesn’t involve local landowners wearing antlers on their heads or anything like that. Because of being so close to Edinburgh, it sometimes happens that it’s an Edinburgh holiday while still being a normal working day in the Borders. So the children have to go to school while the parents get a day off.
The reviews: Will Self is a genius. Here’s some thoughts…
Ostensibly, this is a memoir of three walks: a Canadian book tour and associated jaunts with a conceptual artist, “Sherman Oaks”; an account of Self’s walk from his London home, via Pinewood Studios and a transatlantic flight, to Hollywood (where Self attempts to determine who murdered the cinema as an art form); and a final walk along the crumbling Bridlington coastline, a place so gnawed by erosion that the journey would be “impossible for anyone ever to make again. By the time another year had passed the solid ground that had risen up to meet my feet would have disappeared forever”.
But it’s a memoir that Self manipulates and slaps around as if the genre were made from the same pliable material as Daffy Duck’s features. So, in Hollywood, Self discovers he has superpowers, transforms into the Hulk, grows Laura Harring’s breasts and is hunted down by Scientologists; on the Yorkshire coast he meets one of Swift’s pitiably immortal Struldbruggs and somebody does something unspeakable with Margaret Atwood’s patented LongPen in Toronto.
Each section also has a totemic mental illness – obsessive-compulsive disorder, paranoid psychosis and amnesia – which is translated stylistically as repetitions, as mnemonic games, and as the hilarious but horrifying conviction that “Self” is played by Pete Postlethwaite or David Thewliss, and everyone he meets is also an actor (so Bret Easton Ellis is actually a young Orson Welles, and a tramp is Salman Rushdie). The fantastic elements are, curiously, the realistic depiction of mental illness.
Mortality hangs heavily over Walking To Hollywood, and Self is unflinching in the face of it. An epiphany at Spurn Head is not that he wants a longer life, but that he wants to live forever. He even includes a photograph of his naked body, and no reviewer could be as lacerating on Self as he is on himself: “Sherman” lashes his “micro-satires, dirty doodlings in the margins of history”. The walks almost seem like a frantic form of impetus: part fleeing Cain, part wandering Jew condemned to pace the earth till Doomsday.
That is not to say that it is either a morbid or a depressing read: quite the contrary. There is an awful glee, which reminded me of Nietzsche’s aphorism that the thought of suicide has kept many a man alive through the night.
Almost every page has a description or a turn of phrase so memorable and arresting that, as Self powers across the blistered landscapes of post-industrial ruin, the reader lingers. He can conjure phrases like “a Zoloft of interiors”, pharmaceutical products are named after “the bastard offspring of a Turkish fisherman and a planet-eating robot”, Self’s “smouldering feet are stubbed out”, and there are “incisors the size of dentists”. His ability to say and having something profound to say have finally aligned.
Tom, on holiday in an exotic (and wholly imaginary) country decides to give up smoking – particularly since the ludicrous smoking bans are making the habit less convenient. He smokes his last cigarette luxuriously, and flicks the dog-end off the balcony. Unfortunately, it lands on the bald pate of his downstairs neighbour, resulting in a nasty, septic blister. To make matters worse, the old man is technically a member of the Tayswengo tribe, who don’t believe in accidents, and don’t believe intentions matter in the slightest. Soon, Tom is contending with a boozy honorary consul, a sharp local lawyer and various witch-doctors. He is charged with injuring by “a projectile weapon with a toxic payload”, and under tribal law and custom, has to travel to the Tayswengo homeland to make reparation.
So begins a picaresque road-trip, a kind of livid and grotesque Pilgrim’s Progress through insurgent-controlled badlands, out-of-season tourist traps and native sanctuaries. The American Tom is accompanied by a caricature Englishman, Prentice, on a similar quest. Tom strongly suspects he is a convicted paedophile.
There is ample room on the journey for Self’s distinctive and dyspeptic brand of satire, from romper-suit wearing hunters who service the pet food market to a vision of hell in a bauxite mine. Tom reads up on the Tayswengo, and the sinister anthropologist Von Sasser, who studies, and maybe rules, them. There is an especially grotesque sequence concerning the Townships, a lawless enclave run by the rules of the tontine (an agreement where the last surviving member of any group inherits everything, leading to a state of perpetual vendetta). In Self’s hands, it becomes a monstrous vision of the stock market run riot.
Stylistically, we’re in Self territory from the outset. Self does the sesquipedalian (in the first chapter there is the “orchidaceous perfection of her breasts”, and you can expect “mephitic”, “gibbous”, “lenticular” and “cicratization” as well). Then there’s copious slang, and variations of spoken English, from Tom’s “ferchrissakes” to Prentice’s “bally stressed”. And then there’s all the invented language – natives are called “bing-bongs” by racists, and there are numerous ambiguous local words for flora, fauna and folk: binturangs, makkatas and engwegge. The linguistic exuberance might not be as firmly tethered to the plot as in Self’s previous novel, the wonderful The Book Of Dave, but it’s enjoyable and teasing in its own way.
Plot-wise, the novel occasionally feels more riff than tune, with Self going on a frolic of his own, scatter-gunning his targets as they come to him. There are hints of a comic Heart Of Darkness; but the more obvious parallels are novels like Graham Greene’s The Comedians or Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop or The Ordeal Of Gilbert Pinfold, with an innocent – or not so innocent – stranded abroad. The jacket-flap bills the novel as an allegory. If so, it’s a particularly opaque variety. A writer as smart and savvy as Self won’t be content with simply disguising and lampooning obvious types. There is a clear strand about an Anglo-American alliance coming to grief because of their crassness in dealing with foreign societies: equally, there’s a caustic undercutting of “noble savages” and the liberal disinclination to say that anything “culturally different” might actually just be plain wrong. In The Butt, there’s a but for everything.
But at its core, Self’s moral compass is clear. Tom, who “was only doing what he had always done: passively conforming to an invented belief system”, is culpable because he is unthinking. Other characters are equally guilty of thinking too much. Intellectual idealists get as short shrift from Self as apathetic blobs. If The Butt doesn’t quite reach the heights of The Book Of Dave or How The Dead Live, it’s still a far more inquisitive and stylish novel than the soap-operas rendered in prose that pass for novels usually could ever hope to be