Book World: Will Self's 'Liver,' reviewed by Richard McCann
A Fictional Organ With a Surface Anatomy of Four Lobes
By Will Self
Bloomsbury. 277 pp. $26
The title of this quartet of new stories by British novelist and satirist Will Self is almost as charming as it is aggressive. There are doubtless thousands of stories and novels whose titles contain the word "heart," but only Self, with his passion for the grotesque, the comic and the fantastical, would name a collection of stories after the "noble organ" -- as 17th-century British physician William Harvey termed the liver -- that most Westerners probably now think of as little more than a sickening item in their grocer's meat display case, a glossy, shrink-wrapped slab of brownish viscera, bleeding out onto its foam tray.
Each of the four "lobes" in Self's "Liver" -- a collection of vaguely linked "hepatofictions" -- features one or more human livers. Most of them are cirrhotic or cancerous, and all of them are in wretched condition, as are their owners, whose dismal maladies serve as metaphors for toxic decay. Decay is so pervasive, in fact, that in Self's story "Prometheus," it affects even the diseased "body" of London, host to the "tumour of the Swiss Re tower, the tapeworm of the Thames, the fatty deposits of Broadgate and the Barbican."
Decay also affects the Plantation Club, the private Soho drinking establishment that provides the setting for the collection's lead story, "Foie Humain." The club's proprietor repeatedly spikes his barman/lover's lager with vodka, performing upon him a kind of human gavage, not unlike the force-feeding that goose farmers do in the Dordogne when making foie gras. In the end, however, it's the proprietor himself who loses his liver -- to a most unlikely chef. But the story's brilliance lies not in its narrative, which feels at once too clotted and too saggy, "proceeding not with straightforward honesty," as the narrator himself describes it, "but waddling through needless digressions and lunging into grotesque interpolations." Rather, Self's brilliance lies in his acute rendering of the miasmal Plantation Club, "an aquarium filled with absinthe," which he models closely on the Colony Room in London's Soho, the private drinking club founded in 1948 by the famously rude and foul-mouthed Muriel Belcher. She adopted as her "daughter" one of the club's first members, the painter Francis Bacon, who appears in Self's story as a world-famous painter of "brachiating apes," "well-built nudes" and "neotenous golems, their heads part skull, part the melted plastic of dolls." It's there in the Plantation Club -- "an establishment where stasis was the prevailing mode," with "a permanently fizzing rod of neon screwed to the nicotine ceiling, lending a mortuary ambience to the already deathly scene" -- that Self's bohemians destroy themselves with alcohol and the cruelly lacerating remarks they regard as wit.
Thanks to its startling language and grim sense of humor, along with its almost ceaseless sense of claustrophobia, "Foie Humain" is arguably the collection's best story, along with the novella "Leberknödel" (liver dumplings), in which a widowed hospital administrator travels to Zurich, with "its reassuring orderliness, its stolid vitality," to be euthanized in a private clinic. Once there, however, she changes her mind, and soon afterward her disease goes into an inexplicable remission that the local Catholics who befriend her regard as a miracle. Although the novella's elements never fully cohere -- its chapters, for instance, are named for the parts of the Mass, and it alludes repeatedly to Carol Reed's "The Third Man," with Orson Welles and Trevor Howard -- "Leberknödel" is the only work in this collection in which Self drops his ironic tone, particularly in his empathetic depiction of the protagonist's pained and aging body.
Still, these are largely what one might regard as high-concept stories, inspired and constructed more from the shrewdness of wit and intellect than from feeling. In "Prometheus," for instance, a London advertising man allows a griffon vulture to feed on his liver in exchange for renewing his "genius at breathing fire into the most sodden products." In "Birdy Num Num," which takes its title from a Peter Sellers routine in Blake Edwards's 1968 movie, "The Party," the narrator is a hepatitis C virus, observing a chaotic gathering of infected human hosts.
Certainly, there are real and original pleasures to be had from these stories, particularly from Self's extravagant and startling sense of language, as well as from the imaginative extremity of his vision. But they are not warm or merciful. These are for those who like their stories brainy, cunning, hard-edged and diabolical.
McCann is the author, most recently, of "Mother of Sorrows," a collection of linked stories. He teaches at American University.