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Will Self: On Critics, Ulysses, and that Orwell article

Will Self is one of the most prolific and controversial journalists and writers of the last 25 years. Last month, Shark, the second novel in his trilogy of psychopathology, war and antagonistic-protagonist Zack Busner, was released to time almost providentially with his article in The Guardian proclaiming George Orwell a “supreme mediocrity”. But is that really what he said? On 9 October Self is appearing at Ilkley Literary Festival to publicise his newest release. And so, braced for a conversation that I knew might leave me having bitten off more than I could chew, I spoke to him over a cantankerous studio phone that played an unhelpful time-out game with our conversation. This is the seventh time you’ve used anti-psychiatrist Zack Busner in your writing. What is it about this character that keeps you coming back to him? Oh, well I don’t know. He’s been around since 1991 in my first book, and he’d appeared in bits and pieces in other narratives, but he never had an internal life until Umbrella. When I was thinking of Umbrella I did consider not using him, but then it just seemed like, there he was. So much of the material of novels is the stuff that’s lying around, and he’s just been lying around a lot. But he does all sorts of things for me as a character. I’ve always been interested in psychiatrists as the gatekeepers of sanity, which is now our modern form of morality. In Concept House in Shark, there’s a blurring between patient and psychiatrist. Is that part of how you see mental health? No, the Concept House in Shark is based very, very securely on the kind of houses that R.D Laing’s Philadelphia Association set up. I had a friend who stayed in one in Notting Hill in the 1980s, so I saw it myself at close hand. Shark’s narrative is completely circular. It starts and ends on the same sentence, so you can literally read it around and around, if you really wanted to... Well, I hope you do really want to. I’ve read it twice already, so you must have done something right. But circularity’s a really common theme. You have the shark circling, and you have Claude describing army drills “circling tighter and tighter like a tan fish trying to eat its own tail”. If everything’s circling around like that, do you see Shark as a pessimistic book? At this point, the studio phone hung up on us for the first time. Luckily, Will Self is not one to let a minor technology malfunction throw him off, so we picked up, quite naturally, where we’d left off. I don’t know what happened to you there, but I was just saying that you haven’t mentioned the most important circularities. What gets Busner thinking about the residents at the beginning of the book, is that he notices the paper bags with the discarded tampons under the sink. So the menstrual cycle is the most important circularity in the book. It begins with an acknowledgement of synchrony between women’s menstrual cycles, and ends with the death reverie of the mother. And the other main circularity that informed Shark, since it focuses on Hiroshima, is the circular orbit of the proton around the nucleus of the uranium 238 atom. In fact, the entire book is structured like an atomic model of uranium 238. As for whether it’s a pessimistic book, I don’t know. I think the point I’m trying to make, and I’ll probably resolve your question in the third volume, is whether the relationship between humans collectively, and technological innovation, is productive or pathological. A lot of people say your books aren’t easy to read, and you’ve argued that literary fiction doesn’t know it’s dead yet. Are you trying to resurrect it, or are you just having a lot of fun at the wake? I think I’m just having a lot of fun at the wake. But do you set out to write books that encompass more of the English language than other writers? I’m both puzzled by difficulty, and by people saying that my writing’s difficult in its vocabulary. I just don’t understand what these people have been reading. They quite clearly haven’t read Ulysses, because it’s about 100 times more complex than anything I’ve ever written, and deploys a vocabulary that’s about 40 times wider. So none of these critics, presumably, have read Ulysses, if they think my stuff’s so bloody hard. Speaking of your wide use of language, you wrote a controversial article at the end of August calling George Orwell a supreme mediocrity. No, I said that he had been appointed supreme mediocrity by those kinds of English people who love a talented mediocrity. I never said that Orwell was a mediocrity. The piece has been widely commented on by people who quite clearly didn’t read it. Your argument seemed to be that keeping the English language stagnant, and having an ideal of what the perfect English was, was unhelpful and wrong in the way that language evolves. Yes, it just is wrong. If you read the piece you’ll see that the attack is on the first paragraph of Politics in the English Language, where Orwell states something that is factually wrong about the nature of language. I just despair of our culture that some fucking hack then comes along and thinks he wants to have a pop at me, and he doesn’t bother to read the piece, and doesn’t address any of the fundamental points I make. But I don’t really mind. My motto is that I just want to be misunderstood. Well, you certainly are that. Finally, what is it about Ilkley Literary Festival, and literary festivals in general, that you seem to enjoy doing so much? Because you’re quite a regular on the festival circuit. I get paid for it. It’s part of my job. My job is to write books and present them to the reading public, and that’s why I do literary festivals. Is it something you enjoy doing though? Speaking to the public face-to-face about what you’ve written? Well, up to a point. But I don’t get a hard on thinking about it! [Laughs] I don’t think you’re going to put that line about getting a hard on into your article, are you? I’m saved from answering that question by the dying of the phone line. When we resume, it’s for Will to drop in his final sliver of information, and turn the cantankerous phone into something quite serendipitous. Hello again. This is ridiculous. Never mind. Technology, you see. Technology and pathology. And the next book in the trilogy is, in fact, called Phone. And that gives you the hook for your article, doesn’t it? Certainly, it does. It may be Will Self’s motto to be misunderstood, but in conversation he’s disarmingly unambiguous in a way that suggests that he may be right. The true problem doesn’t lie in the difficulty of his writing, but with a critical group of people who don’t always take the care to understand. Will Self will appear at Ilkley Literary Festival on 9 October. Shark is available to buy now. )

Next article in issue 79


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