This book is unlike any other I’ve read.
That, in itself, is a reason I’m glad I read it. In a world in which too many books are reminiscent of other books, this one is truly unique.
It may sound a little odd to praise the book’s uniqueness, when it has another writer’s name and face on the cover. And it’s even more odd when you read it, because the prose itself mimics Will Self’s style in places, and there are references to Self’s life, books or characters on almost every page.
But this is no Will Self knockoff. It’s a novel that takes an obsession with Will Self as a starting point for a dizzying, multi-sectioned, multi-layered romp through questions of fame, genius, identity and much more.
The book starts off as a murder mystery: there’s a body, and a suspect who must clear his name. But as we discover that the dead woman had undergone plastic surgery to make her look more like Will Self, it becomes clear that there is much more going on. The suspect, Richard, gets drawn into the mysterious world of the Will Self Club, with its secret membership and bizarre rules and scary initiation rituals.
Before this plotline can be resolved, it is discarded, and we move forward to a section where Richard is either incarcerated or involved in a public art project under the supervision of a certain Professor Self, and then forward again to 2049, a few years after Will Self’s death, and then back to the present, whatever that is, where we meet a character who shares the name of the author, Sam Mills, but, unlike the author, is a man. This Sam Mills is a struggling writer trying to get a book called The Quiddity of Will Self published while feeling his creativity decline every time he gets blowjobs from a woman in a Will Self mask.
The sudden ruptures mean that this is not one of those novels where you feel “invested” in the characters and what happens to them. It’s more the kind where you keep reading just to discover what on earth the writer has in store for you next, and to see whether she can keep the literary high-wire trick going. For the most part, she does. Some sections are better than others, and at 432 pages it was starting to feel a little long by the end. But it’s hard to take issue with a book which defies so many conventions. If I’d been editing it, I wouldn’t really have known where to start.
I should say at this point that I’m not much of a Will Self fan. I read The Book of Dave, but it didn’t really agree with me, and I’ve tried bits and pieces of other books with similar results. So I’m sure there are lots of references that I missed, but I didn’t feel as if this spoilt my enjoyment. There’s lots of sex, lots of cocks in various states of engorgement, and lots of obscure words that made me glad, for once, that I was reading on a Kindle with its instant dictionary. Some words I needed to look up, apart from the quiddity of the title: synaesthesia, corybantic, chthonic, toque, choncate, flocculent, barbellate, sempiternal sciamachy, stertorous, crapulent, saccade, pontid, horripilant, gelid, inspissated, onanastic, lissom, lappet, sesquipedalian, adipose, metaphrand.
But to me, the writing was best when it was less verbose and more direct:
Being back in London confirms that I belong in the capital … I have always returned to her arms of clotted traffic and her leggy streets knobbled with the swollen gonads of black rubbish bags. I live in Stockwell, and if Trafalgar is her heart and Brixton her liver, then my homeplace is her cunt, dirty and moist, gang crime showering the streets with petites morts, her juices flowing sticky through my pen.
I also enjoyed the observation that “We can never speak directly to each other, my father had once advised me, only in subtext. Only the mad speak straight from the heart. You see them on street corners, flailing at the public, unable to conceal.”
So despite my lack of Self-awareness, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. For Will Self fans, it’s a must read. For novices like me, it’s an enjoyable and intelligent literary experiment with plenty of fresh and interesting things to say about the world we live in.