Monday, 11 March 2013

Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys

Will Self Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys (1998)

During the three days it took me to read The Divine Invasion I came across at least two references to Finnegans Wake and three to Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, which struck me as odd given that only one of these occurred in relation to Dick's novel, popping up as I was skimming some background detail, and I'm not actually convinced I'd heard of Borges before. Now looking into the internet ephemera relating to this specific collection of short stories by Will Self, once again I come across the name of Borges. It's as though the cosmos is trying to tell me something, which is of course relevant to Philip K. Dick, possibly also to Jorge Luis from what I gather, and certainly to Will Self.

All three write or wrote within different regions of the vague hinterland of magic realism - or let's at least assume as much for the sake of argument - writing the impossible as common place, and the common place as magical. This squares neatly and synchronously with a line from third century Christian writer Tertullian quoted in Dick's Divine Invasion: Certum est quia imposibile est, roughly amounting to this thing is improbable and is therefore plausible; which in turn relates to Dick's observation regarding the surreal science-fiction novels of A.E. van Vogt, that fiction is often more convincing when things don't quite add up, when loose ends remain unresolved, because that's how real life occurs.

Arriving finally at my point, the above should probably be taken into account with Self's fiction, which dutifully invokes a reality at least as richly anatomical and honest as Lucian Freud's paintings of sagging breasts and wonky eyes, and which convinces to the point of defusing any surprise, any suspension of disbelief that might ordinarily be required when things turn weird. Amongst these stories are insects forming themselves into letters so as to spell out sentences across a work surface, requesting that the human in residence kindly cut it out with the fly spray; and there's the baby whose first words are revealed to be spoken in business German; and the emotos - twelve foot tall engineered humans whose sole purpose is to cuddle their neurotic upwardly mobile owners; and yet you never really notice that what you're reading is essentially barking mad.

In case it needs restating, language really is Will Self's bitch, and not just for the weird stuff smuggled in below the radar, but the basic flawless detail of characterisation. His crack-smoking aspirant yardies read as they should without any of the I sat next to one on the bus and isn't that Will Smith great deal that sometimes comes with black characters written by patently Caucasian Oxford graduates. More astonishing still is The Nonce Prize, set mostly in the sexual offences wing of a prison which briefly details a truly repulsive child abuse case without the faintest suggestion of a gleefully smirking author pushing those shock buttons in the hope of a reaction - the sort of thing Iain Banks never quite manages and which renders Irvine Welsh unreadable.

As a collection of short stories, this one isn't even Will Self's best effort, but it's still impressive.

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