The Quantity Theory of Insanity
American readers got their first taste of Will Self’s genius for depicting the Ionesco-like absurdity of contemporary life in Cock & Bull (1993), a pair of complementary, comically obsessive novellas which, parodying Philip Roth’s The Breast (1972; rev. ed., 1980) parodying Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” (1915; English translation, 1936), take a weirdly angled look at sexual stereotypes and more. Appetites whetted for Self’s brand of postmodern perversity, they got their second course in My Idea of Fun: A Cautionary Tale (1944), an explosively comic novel that combines Nietzschean will to power with the entrepreneurial spirit of postindustrial Britain to give new life to the old story of a left-leaning author looking aghast at what Margaret Thatcher has wrought. Together the two books prove that Self is, as Granta magazine proclaimed in 1993, “one of the best of the young British novelists.” The Quantity Theory of Insanity, his first book, appearing tardily in the United States, along with a second collection, Grey Area and Other Stories (1996), published in the United Kingdom, demonstrate that Self is one of the finest and most wildly imaginative writers of short fiction from England or anywhere.
Self’s Jewish background and his having read philosophy at Oxford University figure in his fiction far less noticeably than the years he spent as a heroin addict and his stint as cartoonist for New Statesman and Society and other magazines. The consummate satirist, Self is as intelligent as Jonathan Swift, as fantastic as Nikolai Gogol, and as nasty as Martin Amis, but the writers he resembles most are Nathanael West and Flannery O’Connor. The latter’s guiding principle was “For the near blind you must write large,” and this Self does. His cartoonish characters and narrative situations exist in the gray area between the seemingly realistic and the absurdly phantasmagoric, where researchers publish their findings in the ridiculous yet reputable-sounding Journal of British Ephemera while those less academically inclined try to satisfy their craving for something substantial by eating a bag of “the new poly-flavoured crisps: wiener schnitzel and red cabbage.” A similar air of (im)plausibility surrounds the stories’ self-generating logic: “There’s a fat ham of a man down there who went mad one day and drank some bleach. They replaced his esophagus with a section cut from his intestine. On a quiet night you can hear him farting through his mouth.”
As its full title suggests, The Quantity Theory of Insanity: Together with Five Supporting Propositions is a story cycle and as such bears a certain generic resemblance to works such as Dubliners (1914), Winesburg, Ohio (1919), and The Housebreaker of Shady Hill, but Self’s North London has less in common with James Joyce’s city, Sherwood Anderson’s town, or John Cheever’s suburb than with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). It is specific and familiar on the one hand, bizarre and hallucinatory on the other:
Rosemount Avenue was one of those hilltop streets in suburban London where the camber of the road is viciously arced like the back of a macadamised whale. The houses are high-gabled Victorian, tiled in red with masonry that looks as if it was sculpted out of solid snot. Calling it an avenue was presumably a reference to the eight or so plane trees running down each side of the road. These had been so viciously pruned that they looked like nothing so much as upturned amputated legs.
Rosemount Avenue is where the narrator of the first “supporting proposition,” “The North London Book of the Dead,” finds his dead mother living. As she explains, “When you die, you move to another part of London, that’s all there is to it.” Actually, that is not all there is to it. The dead, he learns, exist alongside the living and have their own companies and support groups, even their own telephone directory, The North London Book of the Dead. (In My Idea of Fun, the same title refers to a rather different text, a kind of postindustrial Tibetan Book of the Dead, “a set of instructions for the dying” made up of the names of generic products chanted until voices merge “into one incantatory hum.”) The son responds incongruously: Why, he wonders, is his previously snobbish mother living in unfashionable Crouch End? Why did she fail to call him to say that she was back? Why is she calling him now at work? “I’d never live down the ignominy of having a mother who phoned me at the office.”
The insanity quotient increases in (and on) “Ward 9.” The story concerns Misha Gurney, a new art therapist on the mental ward of a vast hospital. Patients and staff here are equally odd: Dr. Zack Busner, with his...
(The entire section is 2001 words.)