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Self, Will

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1961-    ) UK journalist and author who early established a name for savagely gonzo Satire, both in his fiction and his nonfiction, where his targets run from adversarial anatomies of the State of the Nation to similar explorations and exposés of his own psyche, sparing nothing in his descriptions of his early years of drug addiction, and of his erratically transgressive acts as a human being. His work in all genres has the scatological intensity of Jonathan Swift, or of Louis-Ferdinand Celine (1894-1961). The take-no-prisoners Demolition Modernism he espouses (see Modernism in SF) may reveal a less valiant refusal to stop walking the walk than expressed by another of his clear predecessors, Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), and he conveys relatively little of the uncanny underlying strangeness of J G Ballard, which so savagely estranges the surface banality of his sf tales; but Self's range, though demonstrating an occasional journalistic superba, is clearly wider than his models'. His corrosive targeting of the failure of the culture of the West over the last century to make humane sense, or to provide models of understanding the world that do not provoke epistemological rage, has increasingly established him as a central British voice in the new century.

Self's sf cannot be easily understood without reference to his Modernist scrutiny (and refusal of) narrative conventions, though his first novel, My Idea of Fun (1993), is initially clear enough in its violent depiction of the inner life of an incipient, self-proclaimed Superman who gets guidance from (and who also instructs) the Devil (see Gods and Demons); the Shapeshifting Antihero of The Sweet Smell of Psychosis (1996 chap) is also Devil-like; Dorian: An Imitation (2002), which reconfigures Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (July 1890 Lippincott's Monthly; exp 1891), is also relatively straightforward: a young man's Computer-generated image decays over a period of years, while he remains young (and immune to AIDS). The Book of Dave: A Revelation of the Recent Past and the Distant Future (2006) is more complicatedly set in a Ruined Earth version of southern England 500 years hence, a land long drowned from the effects of Climate Change and other Disasters. The surviving civilization in this world is shaped in obedience to a maniacally literalist understanding of the journals of a twentieth-century London cab driver, whose descriptions of his own dysfunctional life are hypostasized (in a manner common to most fundamentalist Religions with scriptures to obey) into catechism. That this may seem to be Galaxy Quest (1999) without the laughs scants the exemplary pointedness of the tale.

The central premise in the title story of The Quantity Theory of Insanity (coll 1991) – which recurs in the Zack Busner sequence (see below) – is a paranoid assumption that humans are coercively linked together in their sharing of a fixed amount of planetary insanity, which constantly shifts from one person to another, to keep everything balanced. Other stories and novels make Equipoisal use of metamorphoses, often invoking Sex and Gender issues, as in the joined tales comprising Cock & Bull (coll of linked stories 1992), where a man awakens to find a vagina growing under his knee, and a woman grows a masculinist penis; or in Grey Area and Other Stories (coll 1994), featuring tales like "Between the Conceits", which is narrated by one of the eight real people in London, everyone else being a puppet; or in A Story for Europe (1996 chap), a tale of Identity Exchange; and in Great Apes (1997), where Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis (1915) is transformed into the story of a man who awakens one morning to find himself in a world inhabited solely by apes (see Apes as Human). His refusal to admit that he has himself become an ape lands him in a mental institution. Liver: A Fictional Organ with a Surface Anatomy of Four Lobes (coll of linked stories 2008) assembles four tales in which the Decadence of the modern world is articulated through various understandings, physical and metaphysical, of the human liver, from Prometheus's regenerating torture machine to disease vector (as narrated by a virus) and cannibalism (members of a club deliberately turning their livers into foie gras, presumably with an end in view).

Psychogeography: Disentangling the Modern Conundrum of Psyche and Place (2007) and Walking to Hollywood: Memories of Before the Fall (2010) are Fantastic Voyages through the modern world, disguised as discursive travelogues; though the latter, which incorporates a hallucinated memoir of the author, is in fact a novel about Hollywood (see California), in which the narrator responds proactively to the surrealities of this world by turning into a succession of Superheroes. The ongoing Zack Busner sequence comprising Umbrella (2012), Shark (2014) and Phone (2017) attempts to expose, through a stream-of-consciousness immersion in its psychiatrist protagonist's attempts to grasp the relationship between psychoses and true sight, the mutating realities of Western experience. Phone climaxes in a transform of the nature of home for a "quantity theory of insanity" (see above) to the Internet, which to maintain the same occultish sovereignty over us all is preparing to reboot global consciousness, inhabiting the whole, and making the whole add up. [JC]

see also: Melvin Burgess.

William Woodard Self

born London: 26 September 1961

works (selected)


Zack Busner

  • Umbrella (London: Bloomsbury, 2012) [Zack Busner: hb/Greg Heinimann]
  • Shark (London: Viking, 2014) [Zack Busner: hb/uncredited]
  • Phone (London: Viking, 2017) [Zack Busner: hb/uncredited]

individual titles

collections and stories



previous versions of this entry

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