I love seeing Will Self on television. He has an excoriating, acidic wit and delivers lacerating commentary on current affairs with searing insight and refreshing dollops of cynicism. He is also frighteningly intelligent, uses plenty of big words and does not dumb down in a false pretence to be just ‘one of the lads’.
This book is a collection of stories. The longest story, Dr Mukti, is a 130 page novella. The remaining stories are shorter. As you might expect, the tales are dark and brutal; unpleasant characters inhabit inhospitable urban landscapes and do nasty things to each other.
What I liked about the stories:
Set in London, it was interesting to read descriptions of places I knew, if only vaguely. Will Self is not afraid of adjectives and he paints very vivid pictures of the grime and grimness of London streets and tower blocks. Neither is he afraid of metaphors. Nor of big words with obscure meanings. His characters are, in the main, well drawn and believable.
Dr Mukti, the main protagonist in the eponymous novella – ‘Dr Mukti’ – was convincingly portrayed.
161 is set in a tower block and is based on an unusual circumstance. The first part was neatly told, with a menacing, claustrophobic atmosphere.
The Five-swing Walk was nicely evocative of those aimless afternoons spent trying to entertain very young children.
Conversations with Ord was inventive and had some great descriptions of London parks and banks of The Thames.
The best story, for me, was the final one in the book; Return to the Planet of the Humans. This was an extraordinarily convincing portrayal of a sentient ape, trapped in a human body and attempting to cope with human society.
What I didn’t like about the stories:
Metaphors are useful when they illuminate and illustrate.
The problem with these stories is that the metaphors swill around within their clauses and subclauses, sloshing about aimlessly and dampening the writing with scummy remains of verbosity, as if just emptied from a bucket of filthy water containing the sloppings from a half-hearted attempt by a man with a ash-tipped cigarette hanging out of one side of his toothless mouth to clean eons of scrofulous scum from the inner recesses of a tile-lined, decaying, Victorian public convenience. (Do you get my point here?)
Dr Mukti could have been – and should have been – condensed into a much shorter tale.
161 contained a vital flaw in the mechanics of the story. Basically, without giving too much away, we are asked to believe that a blind man can see a gang approaching his tower block.
The Five-swing Walk was a fine story – until the end. I thought it nicely described the ennui of parenthood, contrasting with the simple pleasures of childhood. I thought the story was saying something profound about parenthood and families. But the ending degenerated into an unnecessary horror scene. This did nothing to enhance the narrative and seemed a cheap way of ending the story.
Conversations with Ord was lazily executed and the worst story in the collection, in my opinion. If you are going to spend the opening three paragraphs of a short story describing somebody’s half-decorated flat, that description should have some significance to the rest of the story. The actual conversations with the fictitious Ord were amusing, but did not appear to drive the story forward and were distracting. I concede that I may have missed the point and others may enjoy this story far more. The ending was great – pity it didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the story.
Return to the Planet of the Humans was a great story; a pearl in the mud.
I found this book hard reading. I like the occasional difficult or unusual word. But using an obscure word should be done for a reason – because it is the right word for the prose, chosen for its nuances and connotations. Too often, I felt words were chosen to show us how clever Will Self is and what a wonderful vocabulary he has – in other words, to impress rather than to enlighten.
And finally, in what appears to be a litany of criticism, I must say I found the unrelenting cynicism and downright unpleasantness of the scenarios somewhat wearying. Yes, there are grotty, litter-strewn, concrete-clad, soul-destroying areas in London. But there are also beautiful, evocative, moving, life-enhancing vistas too. Some variation in mood and tone might have created a more enjoyable reading experience.