Where Kingsley Amis has come to be seen as the father figure of British fiction of the 1950s and 1960s, and his son, Martin Amis, has replaced him in that capacity in the 1970s and 1980s, the spirit of Britain in the 1990s is epitomized by Will Self. This may come as a surprise to the American reader. Self burst on the British literary scene in 1991 with a tour-de-force, The Quantity Theory of Insanity. Martin Amis himself praised this first collection of short stories as the work of “a very cruel writer—thrillingly heartless, terrifyingly brainy” (Heller 126). Self was immediately hailed as an original new talent by Salman Rushdie, Doris Lessing, Beryl Bainbridge, A. S. Byatt, and Bill Buford. His second book, two novellas, Cock & Bull (1992), drew a more mixed response, partly attributable to the startling sex change that each of the two protagonists experiences. Then, when Self published his first novel, My Idea of Fun (1993), critics moved in for the kill. The novel opens with the narrator telling his readers that his idea of fun consists of “tearing the time-buffeted head off the old dosser on the Tube” and “addressing” himself to the corpse (4). One critic called it “the most loathsome book I’ve ever read” (qtd. in Barnes 3), while another considered it “spectacularly nasty” (Harris 6).
Self’s subsequent books have all contained elements calculated to enrage or shock various sections of his readership. He has published two more collections of short stories, Grey Area (1994) and Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys (1998); two more novels, Great Apes (1997) and How the Dead Live (2000); a novella, The Sweet Smell of Psychosis (1996); and a collection of essays and journalism largely centered on drugs and mental health issues, Junk Mail (1995).
Discomfitted commentators have focused on Self’s unusual childhood and early adulthood to explain his literary obsession with sex, drugs, and psychosis. Born in 1960 in East Finchley, London, Self started smoking marijuana at the age of twelve, graduating through amphetamines, cocaine, and acid to heroin, which he started injecting at eighteen. He remained a heroin addict throughout his time at Oxford University, which he left with a third-class degree. In 1986 he entered a treatment center in Weston-super-Mare, where he claims that he cured his addiction (Shone 39). This did not prevent him from hitting the tabloid headlines in 1997 when he was caught taking heroin in the toilet of Prime Minister Major’s plane while covering the general election for the Observer newspaper. Self continues to inhabit the borderland between middle-class literary life and drug subculture. “I feel a sense of doubleness,” he has said. “I will take occasional excursions into my old world, and I live, I suppose, with a kind of Janus face” (Heller 127).
“Writing,” Self has remarked, “can be a kind of addiction too” (Heller 149). His distinctive writing style, which incorporates this doubleness, has been as much a subject of controversy as his disturbing fictional scenarios. From his first book onwards he has shown a command of vocabulary well beyond that of the average reader or—to their annoyance—most reviewers. Reactions differ widely. Responding to the charge that he uses too many words, Self quotes a friend’s remark that “they never told Monet he used too many colours” (Moir 5).
By now, the whole scandal surrounding Self’s public persona—the sheer violence of response to his trangressions—has begun to seem out of proportion to the provocation. Self’s deployment of excess as transgression has apparently, and paradoxically, called forth a reactionary deployment of transgression as a tactic of containment.
Those reviewers who have defended Self’s fiction as an important contribution to the contemporary British cultural scene have tended to represent him as a satirist in the tradition of Juvenal, Swift, and their successors. Sam Leith, reviewing Great Apes for the Observer, is typical when he remarks that “he works as a sort of wildly horrified Gothic satirist” (16). In...