With a penchant for using obscure and obtuse words, and often with a grotesque sense of humor and an absurdist take on the world that satirizes almost everything, Will Self admits his work is not the most accessible. When giving reasons for writing he said “I don’t write fiction to identify with and I don’t write a picture of a world they can recognize. I write to astonish.”
Take, for example, Self’s 2012 novel Umbrella, which follows the stream of consciousness of a patient suffering from encephalitils lethargica: a disease which attacks the brain and can leave some victims both without speech or movement in a coma like existence, drifting between the real world and a dream like state of awareness. The book has very little structure with no clear breaks or chapters, and the narrative stumbles through a minefield of character perceptions. However, although a somewhat difficult read, Umbrella has earned Self critical acclaim and was his first ever Booker prize nomination.
Well aware of his talent for shocking people, Self claims: “What excites me is to disturb the reader’s fundamental assumptions. I want to make them feel that certain categories within which they are used to perceiving the world are unstable.”
Largely focussing on drugs and mental health issues, Self employs his skills to outrage certain parts of his readership in order to astutely highlight the absurdities of modern culture. This is often achieved through the subject matter itself.
In his 1997 Great Apes the protagonist appears to suffer from a psychotic breakdown in which he ‘wakes up’ in a world where chimpanzees are self-aware and humans are the equivalent of chimps. By this mere twist on human evolution, Self goes on to satirize Western culture in abundance by showing the actions and attitudes of humanity as extremely odd when not performed by a human, despite the animals being on the same mental plane. In his later novel The Book of Dave, Self battles organized religion when he sets his world in a dystopian future where the word of a mentally ill cab driver is taken as gospel.
Discomfited commentators have often taken to analyzing Self’s own history to explain his literary obsessions with drugs, sex and psychosis. A prolific drug user throughout his teens, Self gained public notoriety when he was discovered taking heroin in the toilet of John Major’s plane whilst he was covering the election as a journalist for the Observer newspaper. Since this incident however, Self has claimed to have abstained from narcotics since 1998.
Of course, maybe it’s not the subject matter itself that irks some critics but rather Self’s ability to transcend two different, and often polar opposite, worlds. This can again be seen to align with his person history, being a publicly educated Oxbridge graduate who is also aware of the seedier side of life. It is this duality and transcendence that allows his writing to excel and exceed expectation.
A regular essayist on the subjects of drugs and mental health, Self also uses his knowledge of the subject and his literary eloquence to contribute to current affairs program that broach these issues, such as the BBC’s Newsnight and Question Time. Self has also appeared on television shows of a less serious nature; highlighting his satirist sense of humor, Self was a regular guest on the comedy panel show Have I Got News For You, before he became disillusioned with its lack of cutting satire labelling it a ‘pseudo-panel show.’ He was also briefly a team captain on the surreal quiz show Shooting Stars and aired his grievances on Grumpy Old Men. Although he has limited his TV appearances in recent years, Self writes many radio shows in which he gives his opinions of the state of things within literature, culture and politics.
A man of many talents, Will Self still has the ability to shock people, disturb them and make them laugh. A true testament to his skill as a writer is that, regardless of what it is, Self has always been able to provoke a reaction.