Will Self The Quantity Theory of Insanity (1991)
Collections of this kind traditionally suggest short stories gathered together from other, earlier sources, but The Quantity Theory of Insanity has so far as I am able to tell always been sold as Self's debut, and I've a hunch it may have been written as such. Whilst each of these six short tales is certainly self-contained, the book as a whole features such thematic blurring as to read like a novel, albeit a novel with its narrative simultaneously pointed in six different directions.
Prior to writing for a living, Will Self had a crack at stand-up comedy, and I was thinking about how both this and his stint on Shooting Stars made a lot of sense in view of these short stories, when I found an interview with The Literateur in which he says:
I did, and still do some stand up comedy so it came naturally to me, the idea of trying to make people laugh in that way. And I suppose that's how the stories in The Quantity Theory of Insanity, my first book, came to me. They were riffs to begin with, they were things that I would entertain people with - these preposterous stories. So it was a natural outgrowth of the sort of things I’d done before, turning them into more serious fiction.
Just to be clear, this isn't Spike Milligan. The humour runs deeper and darker, as in The North London Book of the Dead wherein it is revealed that the dead of the capital don't so much die as just move to a different part of the city; or Understanding the Ur-Bororo which introduces the world's most boring tribe; and then there's the title feature which takes Rupert Sheldrake's faintly ludicrous morphic fields a step further by classifying sanity as a finite resource varying from one place to the next much like air pressure; so for example, Sid's return to mental stability sees a decrease in ambient sanity elsewhere:
And the onion-growers? Well, even though we had to wait to quantify the data, we could see with our own eyes that they had started to exhibit quite remarkably baroque behavioural patterns. With Sid palliated they now not only believed in the beneficial agricultural influence of Ceres, they also believed that Ceres was a real person, who would be visiting them to participate in a celebration of the summer solstice. Some of the really enthusiastic communards even sent out to Lerwick for twiglets and other kinds of exotic cocktail eatables, all the better to entertain their divine guest.
The stories are linked in so much as characters and themes reoccur to map out a roughly coherent territory, although as with the assorted fruitcakes of the title story, the connections are metaphysical rather than causal.
Jesus. Did I just write that?
The Quantity Theory of Insanity holds together quite well as a sort of non-linear novel, which may be intentional given Self's interest in the psychogeographical, the logic of apparently random associations and so on. It seems subdued in comparison with his more recent writings, with some individual stories having too little narrative direction to really work in isolation - Mono-Cellular, if prophetic, is otherwise barely comprehensible.
He went on to better, weirder, and probably even funnier things, but this is nonetheless astonishing as a debut.