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  • The Zoo Keeper’s Strife: Will Self’s Psychiatric Fictions
  • Jason Lee

The insanity of psychiatric discourse is highlighted admirably by Richard Bentall in his 1992 paper “A Proposal to Classify Happiness as a Psychiatric Disorder.” Utilizing sources such as the British Journal of Psychiatry, Bentall makes a mockery of the disease approach. He quotes The Psychology of Happiness, where Michael Argyle writes, “If people say they are happy then they are happy.” The rules for identifying happiness are therefore the same as those for identifying known psychological disorders, making their diagnoses arbitrary.2

Will Self’s work frequently pulls the rug out from under us, revealing that happiness was a myth all along. Perceived optimistically, this serves the purpose of broadening our understanding of what it means to be human, leading to a deeper happiness. Through his body of fiction and nonfiction, his appearances on television shows both serious and whimsical, his newspaper columns, and with such a name, writer and public intellectual Will Self has become a version of a fictional character himself, akin to his own invention, psychiatrist Zack Busner. (Like Self, Dr. Busner appears to be half American, half British.) Along with fellow psychogeographer and writer Ian Sinclair, geography is paramount in Self’s work, and it is at Reddington Road, Hampstead, that his alpha male par excellence, Busner, abides, a character whose history is strikingly similar to the so-called “antipsychiatrist” psychiatrist and best-selling author and poet, R. D. Laing.

The egomaniac Busner appears as an antagonist in numerous short stories, and in the longer fictions The Book of Dave (2007), Dr. Mukti (2004), and Great Apes (1997). The title character in Dr. Mukti, a psychiatrist, takes constitutionals around northwest London, Self’s descriptions of which emphasize the habitual and animal character of human nature. The unstable Dr. Mukti functions as an animal-robot-machine, [End Page 196] carving out his manor just as Self would later do on his own urban walks, which he fictionalized in Walking to Hollywood (2010), a book divided into three sections, each defined by a psychological disorder: OCD, psychosis, and Alzheimer’s.

Self’s true geography is the slippery unconscious, which is always one step ahead of the conscious mind. Key zones are suicide, drugs, psychosis, psychology, psychotherapy, and psychiatry, the differences between and within the latter three areas negotiated within these fictions. Underlying these is an investigation of philosophy, spirituality, and religion, and how humans, on a primeval level, manufacture meaning in their relationships with one another. Some of Self’s fictions, such as “Ward 9” and the title story in the collection The Quantity Theory of Insanity (1991), interrogate society’s assumptions, with the stories philosophically probing the absurdities of the mental health system and questioning constructs of reality. Self’s psychiatric fictions mirror the real world, where, just as the patient fits into the ideology of the ward and becomes insane if he is not already, the ward adapts to the patient’s madness and becomes an extension of this insanity.

The title story of the collection Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys, published in 1998, concerns Bill, a psychiatrist returning to London from his holiday home in Orkney, in his turbocharged toy. One of Self’s least comic tales, but probably his best, its central character states a commonly held belief that temporary diversions such as culture, particularly comedy, merely stop the linear march to death.3 An alcoholic, dope-smoking, divorced, and now locum psychiatrist, Bill has given up analyzing patients. But when he picks up a hitchhiker, his analyst mojo returns and he gives his final analysis, dissecting the man’s psyche like a frog. Bill is against the “Laingian stuff,” as he puts it, of being fully at one with the patient, but at the same time he empathizes with “these extended psyches.”4 Reading the subtext, the two men are identical, the childhood games of the hitchhiker mirroring the adult life of the psychiatrist. The story ends with “the ghost that was piloting the machine” taking “a long final look in the rearview mirror” before leaving the road.5 The ghost in the machine is already a dead...


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pp. 196-208
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