The Butt

By Christopher Tayler
The Guardian, March 22, 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

Will Self is completing a story cycle called Liver. "It's two novellas and two stories, all on a liverish theme," he says. "One's about an alien who cultivates human alcoholics to use their livers as a kind of foie gras. And I'm just doing the second draft of this novella about a woman who goes to Zurich with liver cancer to have an assisted suicide."

Psychogeography, a selection of the columns he writes for the Independent, came out last November. And this month he's publishing The Butt, a 350-page novel that he describes as "a little bit of a jeu d'esprit". It tells the story of an American tourist visiting an imagined continent, part Australia, part Iraq, with "a bit of southeast Asia there as well".

Born in London in 1961, Self grew up in Hampstead Garden Suburb. His father was a professor of public administration at the LSE; his mother was a transplanted New Yorker who was in flight, Self says, "from her Jewishness". It was "not a happy home", and Self soon discovered drugs and alcohol. By the time he left Oxford, where he studied philosophy, he was addicted to heroin. His first story collection, The Quantity Theory of Insanity (1991) won praise from Doris Lessing and Martin Amis and launched him as a media figure.

Self finds naturalistic novels "preposterous most of the time. They're far more about an invented reality even than the things I write." As for character, he's never been very interested: "Doesn't do it for me." He has just been reading Martin Amis's The Second Plane and says: "He has this great riff about how it's enough to dismiss a work of fiction now if the critic doesn't like the characters — a conception of fiction as a sort of tea party." He also considers novelistic "depth psychology — not that I read a lot of fiction — not very true". In life, "people's motivations are so often not just obscure to them, but absolutely fucking mad".

He is friendly with Amis and admires him hugely, though their political views, he says, are "radically different. I don't know where Martin gets this terrible animus from, and I don't know where he gets the anxiety from as well." After September 11, Self thought "for about a week, that there must be a bit of re-evaluation about what the project is. But then I decided that it wasn't necessary".

When Self was starting out as a writer, he seemed to go at things in a nihilistic way: "I've always said that my satire is about getting people to think." In the absence of an authoritative consensus morality, "you're trying to get people to stop wanking and lying around thinking crap and just think about moral questions. I don't honestly think I've ever been in any real doubt about what my own personal moral notions are. They got lost for a while in the shitstorm of intoxicants. But they were never completely obliterated."

He bridles at a suggestion that his famous drug problem started in adolescent rebellion. "No, no, no," he says, "not at all, none of it, none of it. That's a misreading. I'm an arch-conformist. In fact, one of my favourite movies is The Conformist. I'm exactly what my parents would have wished me to be. Obviously, the hard drug addiction was very upsetting for them. But I went to Oxford, I'm a writer — where's the rebellion?"

Will Self

The Daily Telegraph, May 28, 2006

Edited by Andy Ross

Will Self warmly waves me down the stairs of his south London home. I head into the kitchen and study the coffee pots. Then he asks if I liked his new novel, The Book of Dave. "Yes," I say. "Good," he says.

In the public imagination, Self is a freak-show sesquipedalianist. Roll up and see the man with the world's biggest vocabulary! The intellectual who snorted heroin on John Major's jet! In literary circles, he is known as a brilliant writer of darkly grotesque short stories; named among Granta's best of young British novelists in 1993 before he had published a novel.

The Book of Dave is Self's most successful novel to date. "The book was very much inspired by this scholarly study of biblical archaeology and textual exegesis by a couple of Israeli archaeologists," he says. "What these two Israelis did was to systematically go through the Bible to show there is no historical evidence for any of it whatsoever."

There's a quality to Self's low-decibel articulacy that seems to suck the words from those around him. I have seen it happen at parties. Self, pipe in hand, expounding. And a circle of people looking stun-gunned. But as a boy, he was oppressed by the words of others. "I was a quite committed and precocious reader," he says. "I wanted to be an actor until I got to Oxford and was revolted by what thespians were like. I thought 'OK, I'll have to do the writing thing then.'"

Self grew his journalistic and literary careers in tandem. "I couldn't get in through literary journalism," he says, "I was too Caliban-like. Too uncouth. I couldn't do it. And I didn't want to, I wanted to write fiction." His only concern is that he writes too much. "At least 1,000 words for publication every day. I'm incontinent about it. Of course, it's all exquisitely crafted. Hmmm."

Despite all the TV and radio appearances, he says writing "is the way I engage with the world. And when I'm not writing, I feel stupid and very easily influenced - a coward. Writing — collecting metaphors, tropes, images — is my 'Windows', my operating system for the world."

But that operating system comes with lots of bells and whistles. Does he see himself as a show-off? "Definitely. Slightly Tourette-ish. Like any person who has difficulty with the normal range of relationships, I either do enormous intimacy or 'wordy bastard persona'. I feel quite compassionate towards myself about it."

Finishing our coffee, we bat about ideas of cultural anthropology. Narrative. God. Cohesion and correspondence. "The book is arguing that what you need for a revealed religion is any old bollocks, it just has to be there in the right place at the right time," says Self.

The Book of Dave

By Jonathan Bate
The Daily Telegraph, May 27, 2006

Edited by Andy Ross

Will Self is at one and the same time a master of demotic speech and a novelist of ideas. His new novel imagines a future in which England has been submerged by rising sea levels and the survivors have returned society to a more primitive form.

Evolution is sent into reverse gear and atavistic violence rules. Language, too, is reinvented root and branch. A lot of Self's sentences have to be read aloud to be made comprehensible: "Vass ve édlite, she'd said, ven iss on fulbeem we C ve lites ahtside, yeah, ve streetlites uv Nú Lundun. An ven iss dipped, we C ve dashbawd, ri, mì lyttul luv?"

The astute reader will perceive that the above extract offers a mixture of mockney and text messaging, with a particular emphasis on the language of motor transport (hence headlight, fullbeam, dashboard). This is because the Hamsters, which is to say the inhabitants of Hampstead, the only London borough sufficiently high above sea level to have escaped the great flood, have reconstructed their language and culture out of a single book that survived by chance. Known as 'The Book of Dave', it is their sacred text.

The Book of Dave is nothing more than the racist, misogynist, fathers-for-justice rant of a London cabbie named Dave Rudman, whose wife has dumped him. So it is that the Hamsters' time is measured by three tariffs, their priestly hierarchy is known as the PCO (from Public Carriage Office), a soul is a fare, and the sun is a foglamp (which may be foolbeem or dipped). 'Dave's curry' stands in for the Eucharist, 'MadeInChina' for the moment of creation. 'Breakup' or 'Braykup', derived from the end of Dave's marriage, is 'the time in the distant past when the promulgation of Dävinanity led to the separation of the sexes.'

Self is an incorrigible wordsmith. The cabbie's rant is Self's device for castigating the inanity of all scriptures. In less enlightened times, this conceit would have earned him a place on the Pope's Index Librorum Prohibitorum and a fatwa from the Ayatollah for good measure.

AR  Most of Self's writing leaves me so cool I haven't read it, but I enjoyed reading The Book of Dave. Great basic idea, tho just a tad labored in the execution. You need quite a lot of the Knowledge about London to really grok it.