Included in Granta magazine’s influential “Best of the Young British Novelists” 1993 issue before he had even published his first novel, William Woodard Self would become one of Great Britain’s quirkiest and most high-profile writers. Eschewing the self-effacing demeanor and style of, for example, Kazuo Ishiguro and going well beyond the personal and literary flamboyance of, say, Martin Amis, Self quickly became the “bad boy” of British literature, whose cocaine-fueled lifestyle in London’s trendiest literary circles was consonant with his belief that the artist must have “the courage of his own perversions.” However, the writer, who seems the very personification of cool Britannia and the literary equivalent of shock artists such as Damien Hirst, has been highly critical of the cultural sensibility with which he has been identified, as is evident in his disdain for the sophisticated but facile and merely fashionable nihilism of American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. It is this seeming paradox that is at the heart of Will Self’s important and distinctive writing.
Self grew up in the Hampstead Garden suburb, the kind of eminently safe but deadening North London neighborhood in which much of his fiction is set. His father, a professor of urban planning at the London School of Economics, and his neurotic American Jewish mother divorced when he was nine. Self’s early drug use had blossomed into heroin addiction by the time he completed his degree in philosophy at Oxford. After brief stays in Australia and India, he returned to London, working as a cartoonist before turning to writing. Even as his fame and celebrity grew, the negative aspects of his addictive personality became more pronounced. The low point came in 1997 when, just embarked on a new marriage (to Deborah Orr) and with a child on the way, reports that he had used drugs aboard John Major’s campaign jet led to his being fired by The Observer. Soon after, he gave up drugs and alcohol and settled down to a more domestic life, continuing to write fiction that has kept its satirical and stylistic edge while taking on a greater emotional intensity.
“I don’t write fiction for people to identify with,” Self has said, “and I don’t write a picture of the world they recognize. I write to astonish people.” Astonish the six-foot, five-inch Self has, in fiction that is extravagant, excessive, unruly, and irreverent. He is often criticized for being self-indulgent with his verbal pyrotechnics, but his scabrous, blackly humorous writing is furiously funny, as full of energy and outrage as it is devoid of plot and character development. As a self-professed writer of surrealist fiction, Self specializes in the deadpan delivery of the bizarre and sudden swerves into the fantastic as women grow penises, men vaginas; humans and apes, doctors and patients change places; fantasies become reality while reality becomes a grotesque distortion; and the dead live. The fiction may be idiosyncratic, but it is certainly not unprecedented. Jonathan Swift, Voltaire,...
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