For one thing, it is funny. Obsidian- black funny, but funny nevertheless. From anecdotes about reliance on period-pain medication, or an epiphanic moment when Will thinks he is actually addicted to public toilets, not drugs, to a demonic deconstruction of being in therapy, there is a glint throughout the book. If you couldn’t laugh etc etc. The descriptions of Oxford are a kind of inverse Brideshead Revisited, with more opiates than teddy bears. But it is also a profoundly serious work.
An Elephant in Rome
" January 1, 2021 Read this issue IN THIS REVIEW AN ELEPHANT IN ROME Bernini, the Pope and the making of the Eternal City 224pp. Pallas Athene. £19.99. Loyd Grossman Acheerful bricolage of biography, art history, trivia and travelogue..."
— Times Literary Supplement
The paradox of addiction is that one voice in your head cries or moans “stop the world – I want to get off” – while the other, even at moments of degradation, insists on your unique importance. All this Self captures well. He sees both the absurdity and glory of the self-destructive life. As we know he has survived to write some 20 books, all interesting, most highly-praised. What he retains perhaps is the deep-down conviction that the true Will is the man standing on an empty road with 57 pence in his pocket and in urgent need of a fix. I guess the recovered addict who never entertains that suspicion is fortunate.
Will Self is no friend to short words. He surrounds his meanings with verbal barbed wire. For instance: “He thinks of suburbia in its entirety as a dithyramb of the dull: strophe and antistrophe of semis dancing along London’s northern heights.” Put that on Google Maps. Style is the man himself. Bluntly what Will Self’s style says is: I’m a man who knows words you have to look up, dumbo. But once you cross the thesauratic (it’s catching) gulf there’s a well-worth-struggling-for drugalogue awaiting.
As these vignettes indicate, Self is never happier than when frolicking in the hinterland between sincerity and performative, winking hyperbole. There is a pantomimic quality to his prose, with its liberal recourse to italicized emphasis, deployed to a variety of effects. Here it suggests a pedantic schoolmaster’s satisfaction at alighting on the mot juste: “the milky ambience of the opiates … curdled into rancid addiction”. Here it serves to playfully satirize the author’s own preoccupations: “Paul’s the sort of kid who calls his grandmother ‘Nan’ – and was most probably brought up by her, another potent class signifier…”. Elsewhere it denotes that the phrase in italics is a cliché, the stress conveying an apologetic wince on the part of the author. On still other occasions it is gratuitous, apparently designed solely to prevent your attention from drifting – rather like a children’s party entertainer addressing himself to a roomful of five-year-olds.
du jour, to the extent that one wonders why anyone would now be bothered going to the very great trouble of doing anything as trivially transparent and plain old-hat as making stories up. Fiction writer and sometime TV personality Will Self has clearly sensed the current mood, and decided it is high time he got in on the act too. But if Will is to deliver himself of his tuppence worth, what is his (fairly) Unique Selling Point in this sea of self (lower-case) -confession? Why, his years in the throes of addiction, with particular emphasis on his intravenous drug use.
And what about the style? Self writes with the same propulsive prose that he has deployed in his masterful recent trilogy, Umbrella (2012), Shark (2014) and Phone (2017), replete with riffs, puns, recursive loops and characteristic ellipses and italics. Perhaps Will is just another Selfian character, subject to absolute authorial control, the fragmented derangement of his youth woven into an intricate and coherent whole by the mature author.
It could be that Self has decided that this is the best available narrative analogue for the working of the human mind, and that he’s from now on determined to ... stick to it. To do it again ... annagain. Or it could be that he’s fallen victim to the view that if you have a hammer everything looks ... like a nail. If you don’t dig it, you won’t dig this. I dug it in the fiction, but I only half dug it here: it has an evasive quality where memoir seems to ask for more directness; or, at least, a different sort of indirectness. And sometimes it just seems like an affectation. Buying smack from an off-duty nurse, he writes: “As she’d urged Will, cheerily, to take a pew ... it became clear to him that the patient Janey was nursing ... was herself.” You can make the case for the first set of italics, perhaps – but not the second.
The whole memoir feels like it picks up on an early reflection Self makes: that drugs seem to “memorialise chance and fleeting occurrences, fixing them forever in fantastical varnish”. Here we have five varnished moments in time, each pulled out for inspection, each decorated with italicised flourishes (which readers will recognise from the recent trilogy) that serve to represent decoupage imports from other writers (particularly “Brother Bill” – William Burroughs), or the increasingly confident imposition of Self’s own writerly voice.
Apart from a good joke about Canberra (“it is an Aboriginal word meaning ‘Milton Keynes’ ”), there is little to admire in this book, which is perhaps the intention. It knocks itself out to be infernal and it is impossible to feel any sympathy for privileged Will, as he sneers at the world, continually shoots up and snorts in lavatories, wheedles and whines. He is always in funds, travels to India, Australia, Portugal and Sri Lanka whenever he fancies. He never acknowledges what an agonising worry he would have been to his family, whether or not they lived in Edwardian Hove or stinking bourgeois Hampstead.
Wherever he travels in the world, all his locations feel the same; it’s never clear what exactly is happening, and he spends more time describing faecal matter than other humans. As for the “why” — why is he like this? — the only clue he offers is something he mysteriously calls the “voids”. Some are white, some are black, some are grey. Self seems to be saying they’re responsible for his addiction, but that’s all I can tell you about them. There’s always a sense that he finds the job of communicating a bit beneath him — and as a writer, that’s a pretty fatal flaw.
The dehumanising effects of addiction were brilliantly explored 70 years ago in Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm. Self recalls that one of his “mum’s fave words” was “empathy”. Self’s memoir is vivid but oddly unengaging on a personal level, unlike Algren’s classic. Admittedly, I am doubtless one of the “dumb-f—king-straights” who lack his appetite for real hard drugs. Or even, as it turns out, the desire for a vicarious high.
Like many drug memoirs, Will provides a not entirely pleasant, quasi-immersive experience: to ingest its headachy prose and sickly imagery as Will overdoses in Mile End and slumps in hallucinatory immobility in a New Delhi toilet is to feel your blood turning a sour sort of yellow. Self’s writing has the same technicolour velocity, malign comedy and arbitrary use of italicisation and ellipsis as his best novels, but it also imitates the fuzzy contractions in time and the odd discontinuity leaps of an addict’s brain in ways that gradually offer diminishing returns.