Sunday, 14 November 2010

The Butt by Will Self

Well Self is a sci fi writer. He tries to hide it, but a brief glance at his oeuvre should be enough to convince. It's there in the title story of his first collection of short stories “The Quantity Theory of Insanity”, which recounts the results of an experiment at a mental hospital in London. There are clear SF influences in this story – H P Lovecraft, J G Ballard, David Cronenberg, to name just the most obvious. More mainstream readers try to hide it under murmurings about Burroughs, or Kafka or Alasdair Grey or Jonathan Swift, but those of us that are in the know are not fooled!

Will's written at least two explicitly SF novels, Great Apes and The Book of Dave. Great Apes is a version of Planet of the Apes, but instead of an American astronaut landing in an ape-dominated post-apocalypse, it has a British artist deposited in a contemporary London where all humans have been replaced by intelligent chimps.

Unlike the movie, these chimps keep their chimpy nature intact: they live in houses decorated with ropes and climbing frames, in tribal groups based on chimpanzee packs and, accordingly, fornicate almost continuously with each other as a way of social bonding. It doesn't have much in common with the movie – more perhaps with Pierre Boulet's original novel – but it's a classic SF premise that Self pursues with all the vigour of the most assiduous world builder.

His ape society is a convincing place that works to its own, apparently consistent rules in the best SF tradition, and it certainly covers a lot of the same satirical territory as the originals, but Self has his central character also transformed into an ape – on the inside he's human, on the outside he's ape. This opens up a lot of thought on the nature of identity and learned cultural habits. As well as it's satirical intent, Great Apes is a thoughtful novel of character, as the main character deals with this transformation (through therapy with Self's own Dr Benway figure, Zack Busner).

The clumping foot of nerdism is also on display in The Book of Dave, where Self creates a post-global warming flooded British isles, where only the high spots remain. Life on the remnants of Britain is lived under the influence of a religion based on the journals of a deranged taxi driver. A futuristic narrative involving secret and repressed scriptures resembles A Canticle of Liebowitz in its treatment of future religion and the degradation of knowledge over generations.

This is contrasted with a  contemporary narrative of the adult life and disappointments of Dave Rudman, taxi driver and the titular author. Dave's marriage breaks down and he loses contact with his son. Seeking support, he joins a a kind of Father's for Justice group that encourages his worst instincts. These come out in his journals, which he fills with violent and misogynistic proclamations and  general cab-driver style rants on various issues of the day. He ends up burying the journals in Hampstead, where they are found hundreds of years later and inspire the religion of the future plot strand.

The present-day strand provides the story with a solid grounding in the realities of masculinity, but the society founded on Dave's principals, provides a typical SF commentary. Self bolsters this with a number of second-world genre elements, the made up language, the complicated religious life and well-thought through society; at even has a map at the front – how much more generiffic can you get?

His latest novel, The Butt, doesn't have a map, but it feels like it should. Once more, we have a vividly imagine secondary world, this time the unnamed colonial country where Tom Brodzinski is dragged into a mind-boggling labyrinth of litigation after flicking away the butt from his last cigarette. It's a world of complex legal obligations based on Anglo-Saxon adversarial law and the strange traditions of the lands native inhabitants. Self clearly has Australia in his sights here, but the satirical exaggeration takes in a whole history of complicated  post-colonial relationships. It's the sort place that might be a former colony of Gormenghast with a the justice system based on Kafka's The Trial.

It's partly a satire of post-colonial tourism, partly a colonial fish-out-of-water farce, and, of course, partly Will Self. This last being the case, the quaint funny foreigners quickly give way to something else, a dark shamanistic presence that plunges into Tom's troubled psyche. I couldn't help feeling that this books manic edge was also intended to reflect the fevered state of withdrawal, in general and from nicotine in particular. This brings us to Burroughs, and the story ends with another Benway-style mad scientist, a sort of cross between Colonel Kurtz and a anthropological Dr Moreau.

All that said, the funny foreigners stuff does sit a little uncomfortably. In some ways it seems a very old fashioned book, a kind of package tour farce from the seventies, and the funny foreigners recall unfortunate stereotypes. Given the choice between treading the ground carefully or striding on through, Self clearly chooses the latter, and makes the natives as utterly confoundingly alien as he can. They don't even seem to be on the make in any conventional way that Tom can work out, and it's partly his desperate quest to discover what it is his accusers actually want from him that drives him on.

It would be great if Will could just embrace his nerd self and get with the (profitable, nb!) genre bandwagon. I'd like to see him write an episode of Dr Who, for example, or write the screen play for a high-concept horror series. Who better to breath new life into the Alien franchise, or give The Terminator a scary new incarnation, as it were? He's shown his acting chops on Shooting Stars, so perhaps a guest role as vulcan next to Simon Pegg in the next Star Trek movie? I could imagine him as a sith lord in any one of Lucas's upcoming Star Wars projects (not exclusing video games!), after all his aristocratically cadaverous good looks aren't a million miles from Christopher Lee. Don't you think?


  1. Do you think it's a reluctance on the author to embrace nerd genres or his publisher? I only mention that as I think 'Transition' was released as Iain Banks here and as Iain M Banks in the states only because of the relative sales of each name in that territory. I'm sure that's the sort of decision a publisher makes?

    Of course, that's just which shelf the book ends up in the bookshop. The actual content is a decision of the author, but does it really matter that Self doesn't say 'Hey! Over here. Read my new Fantasy horror novel'? As long as we know his books are sci fi, that should suffice. Of course, it's be great to have him on the team but, as I think you've mentioned previously, the 'them and us' attitude that existed in the 1980s has been eroded somewhat.

    I agree that I would enjoy seeing an episode of Dr Who, or Being Human, penned by Self. Even perhaps something less obvious: I found the infiltration of Poirot by Mark Gatiss particularly satisfying. He could even write such a thing under a nom de plume if he's worried by genre tags.

    Of course, how do we know he's not doing that already? :-)

  2. There are multifarious ways of defining genre, not all of which have their basis within the text - section of the bookshop is often conclusive, as you allude, and this is related to a marketing type of marketing profile that defines an author's pool of likely readers. When you consider the content, how you might tell the genre of a book if there's not a sign over your head telling you, I think it's a bit knottier, and most books are a conglomeration of genre elements and other stuff that's harder to categorise. I think Mr Self's satirical tendencies will always incline him to the fantastic - he's drawing on Swift, Orwell, Huxley and so on, who all get splashed by the genre brush from time to time.

    I'm nearly done with a review of Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True love Story for The Zone that addresses this whole mainstream/genre question at some length. I'm not sure I have a definitive approach yet, but I'm sort of getting there!

    As for Will diving deeper into genre, well, I was having a bit of fun there. He's one of my favourite writers, but I'm not sure he's got the right sort of chops for real genre SF. I don't think he could resist being too subversive and obscene for any of the major franchises (and he doesn't seem interested in writing for the screen generally). I'd love to see him try, though!

  3. Doesn't he satirise rayguns-and-galactic-empires SF in one of the short stories in "Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys"? Suggests he's pretty interested in SF as a genre.

  4. It's been a while but I don't remember that one. I recall that "Caring Sharing" was a pretty straight "if this goes on!" SF dystopia that could have been written by Vonnegut, Sheckley, Harrison, Pohl etc.

  5. Demonstrating your blogs impact as a thought leader I picked up Self's 'Liver' this week from the library and the first story is a great example of your point. Very Ballard with a dash of the grotesque and one of the best short stories I've read for a while

  6. Oh, I haven't read that one. His short fiction is generally pretty solid so you should enjoy it. The Grey Area and The Quantity Theory of Insantity are both really good.


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