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Will(iam) Self Biography

Nationality: British. Born: London. Awards: Geoffrey Faber Memorial prize, 1993, for The Quantity Theory of Insanity.



The Quantity Theory of Insanity: Together with Five Supporting Propositions. London, Bloomsbury, 1991; New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995.

My Idea of Fun: A Cautionary Tale. London, Bloomsbury, 1993; New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994.

Junk Mail. London, Bloomsbury, 1995.

A Story for Europe. London, Bloomsbury, 1996.

Great Apes. London, Bloomsbury, 1997; New York, Grove Press, 1997.

The Sweet Smell of Psychosis, illustrations by Martin Rowson. London, Bloomsbury, 1996; New York, Grove Press, 1999.

How the Dead Live. New York, Grove Press, 2000.

Short Stories

Cock and Bull (novellas). London, Bloomsbury, 1992; New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1993.

Grey Area, and Other Stories. London, Bloomsbury, 1994; New York, Grove Press, 1996.

Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys. New York, Grove Press, and London, Bloomsbury, 1998.

* * *

Will Self is a satirist on the order of Swift and Voltaire writing in the England of Malcolm Bradbury, David Lodge, and Martin Amis. Drawing on his experience as a heroin addict, a philosophy student at Oxford, and a cartoonist, he has crafted a style perfectly suited to his time and place. He pillories the absurdities of modern England and possesses a special genius for making the ridiculous appear credible. Passages of grotesque realism, horrific humor, and absurdist fantasy are delivered in an unnerving deadpan that manages to be at once sinister and slangy, erudite and wildly funny.

The stories in The Quantity Theory of Insanity: With Five Supporting Propositions introduce his chief targets. His English bear a curious resemblance to the Ur-Bororo, a "relentlessly banal" tribe bent upon "boring one another still further." (As for Londoners, "When you're dead," one narrator's dead mother explains, "you move to another part of London, that's all there is to it.") On Ward Nine for the "metamad," therapists and patients exchange places according to Dr. Zack Busman's latest "cost-effective" theory. Busman, who reappears in several stories here and in Grey Area, serves as one of several representatives of pseudoscientific theories and Thatcherite economics that attract the author's special ire. The Quantitative Theory of Insanity, for example, proposes "a fixed proportion of sanity available in any given society at any given time." In a brave new world where sanity is available on the time-share plan and (in "Mono-Cellular") plankton farmers sit down with Child Bankers to discuss investment opportunities in the adoption market, people have clearly lost the ability to think critically, to distinguish the genuine from the bogus, the important from the trivial, the morally monstrous from the financially feasible. They have (in Grey Area) lost a sense of "Scale"; they are addicted to Inclusion, an antidepressant drug that makes them perfectly passive consumers indiscriminately interested in anything and everything.

The absurdity is even wilder in Cock & Bull. In the first of these two complementary stories, a submissive Carol discovers the joy of sex via masturbation, grows a penis, and sodomizes her husband to death, thus avenging past wrongs by becoming a grotesque version of masculinity at its very worst. In Self's daisy chain of dominance-submission plots, husband Dan is not the only one being diddled. The narrator finds himself first trapped and then raped on a train by a donnish gay-bashing anti-Semitic ancient mariner-like companion who turns out to be the fully metamorphosed Carol. The reader will undoubtedly empathize with the male narrator's feeling of female helplessness and complicity after having sat there "like a prat, listening to a load of cock … and bull." Unlike "Cock: A Novelette," "Bull: A Farce" begins in Kafkaesque fashion with the manly Bull waking up one morning to discover a vagina growing behind his left knee. His physician takes a more than clinical interest in the suddenly helpless Bull, who, busy discovering his female nature, is quickly seduced and soon abandoned. Foregoing suicide, he ends up a single parent in Wales, as complaisant now as Carol once was.

Sex is given an economic twist in My Idea of Fun: A Cautionary Tale. Self's novel takes its title from I. B. Singer and its underlying subject from Freud: the channeling of the sexual drive into primitive sadistic fantasies and postindustrial business ventures. With his split, "borderline" personality, the narrator-protagonist (first as I then as he) in effect resembles both Carol and Bull. However, unlike Cock & Bull, My Idea of Fun: A Cautionary Tale is polymorphously perverse, its satire more diffuse, its metamorphoses more numerous. The son of an absent father and an overprotective, class-conscious mother, Ian Wharton is an "eidetiker" who learns to use his psychological gift (or curse) for his own benefit as a marketeer under the tutelage of The Fat Controller. Either a real, if endlessly, metamorphosing person or a figment of Ian's disturbed imagination, The Fat Controller is most obviously a sinister version of the character in a series of children's books subsequently turned into a commercially successful TV series (with its own set of spin-off products) in Britain and America. Serving as Ian's "personified id," The Fat Controller acts as the perfect guide for an age in which "people had begun to feel less awkward about being greedy and of wanting more than their fair share." In this "cautionary tale," eidetiking allows Ian and his tutor to indulge in their murderous fantasies without needing to act them out. In a Thatcherite world of relentless marketeering and postmodern simulacrum, of virtual reality and virtual money, all differences between the real and the imaginary may seem beside the point. It is, however, very much to the point of a writer whose display of stylistic effects and range of literary reference (from De Quincey and Dostoyevsky to Maurice Sendak and Thomas the Tank Engine) do not so much distract from as lend weight to the social consciousness that is at the heart of Will Self's pyrotechnic art.

The premise of a character waking up after a night of debauchery and finding that the rest of the world has turned into apes would, in the hands of Kafka, become a horrific tale; but with Self, who brought back the character of Simon Dykes from his short story "Inclusion" for Great Apes, it is a species of de trop satire. The stories of Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys succeed, to varying degrees, as humor; but Sweet Smell of Psychosis is unmistakably the genuine article. It is an old tale, that of the innocent come to the big city, but in Self's hands the story of how Richard Hermes succumbs to the charms of sexy Ursula Bently is made fresh. Particularly amusing is his portrayal of a media personality with the quite believable appellation of Bell: no surname or given name, just Bell. The Sealink Club they all inhabit is "a dark, humid environment in which fungal tittletattle could swell overnight," and their London is a place in love with its own image in the mirror (not to mention the sweet smell of opium). Throughout it all, Self remains behind the scenes, pulling the strings and ensuring that everything will go as deliciously wrong as it can.

—Robert A. Morace,

updated by Judson Knight

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