THE SWEET SMELL OF PSYCHOSIS

By Will Self

Grove. 89 pp. Paperback, $11

This bizarre little novelistic treatment of excrement journalism stems from a nice set of literary ancestors: the full-on clinical depression of Nathanael West's "Miss Lonelyhearts" and "The Day of the Locust"; the early, nihilistic novels of Evelyn Waugh, especially "Vile Bodies," "A Handful of Dust" and "Scoop"; and Walt Disney's "Pinocchio," in which a naive woodenhead comes under the influence of a flock of base and craven villains so awful that they beggar description.

I must admit that I initially read this novel with just a whiff of Southern California disbelief: Surely we don't have people around anymore who are quite so base and craven? Haven't we--at least in the English-speaking countries of the First World--evolved enough so that we aren't quite as bad as Will Self suggests? But just yesterday I went to a fund-raiser and sat next to a severely dreadful person, so secure in his viciousness that I had to drive home thinking: Will Self is right! There are awful people among us; they know they're awful and they're happy about it. They take pleasure in meanness. As far as they're concerned, there's no job too big or too small--genocide or making a librarian cry--they're up for any and all of it.

Our hero, Richard Hermes, is a would-be writer from a provincial northern English city. He's done a couple of magazine articles on speculation and finds himself in London, working at Rendezvous, "the loathsome and affected listings magazine," where he holds down a job as a deputy editor writing blurbs for Chico Franquini's new film "Grave Robber" or the Shell Oil Festival of Indigenous Music or Company Corneille's staging at Sadler's Wells of the original Diaghilev "Rite of Spring." The jaded denizens of London's journalistic community have welcomed the innocent Hermes with open arms, pouring cheap Bulgarian wine down his throat at wild parties, encouraging him to stay up until all hours. Hermes has already had a two-night stand with his anorexic boss, who has a fetish about oven mitts. If he could think, he would think he's living high.

But like West's Miss Lonelyhearts, or Waugh's John Boot in "Scoop," or Pinocchio, Hermes can't think. He's a vaguely well-intentioned dodo who exists to have bad things happen to him. "Everyone knows" that journalists are awful people with scummy minds. Everyone knows that decent fools will always be at the mercy of people like Shrike, Miss Lonelyhearts's awful and destroying boss, or John Boot's colossally unethical overseer, Lord Copper, who makes up wars for the hell of it. At another level entirely, everyone knows that excessive use of cocaine and habitual bad manners lead to dubious conduct. High living, lack of filial piety, failing to go home at Christmas--these are the kinds of things that (almost) turned Pinocchio into a donkey.

Will Self combines these and other kinds of evil in "The Sweet Smell of Psychosis." Poor Richard Hermes falls under the sway of Bell, the hideously cruel, sexually voracious media king, who has several very bad traits: He takes "the news," reduces it to a poisonous pap of non-information, then contrives to spread this meaningless goop all over newspapers, television and talk radio. He's had sex with everyone and everything that moves, and takes every drug known to man. Worst of all, he's mean as a snake, goes about making trouble, leaves no stone unturned to do bad deeds. (I'm not sure, actually, if these three sets of vices go together. I've met many journalistic troublemakers who make their trouble with no more to work with than withering glances and a steady diet of mineral water. It may also be true that you can mash the news to baby food and still be an essentially good-hearted person.)

But to think that way is to miss the point of Self's jeremiad. In his world, London is awful, more foul than foul. People do unspeakably malicious things, play more than hideous tricks. Hermes is helplessly caught up in this (actually very funny) nightmare. Humans are yucky--that's Self's whole point. Journalists are "transmitters of trivia, broadcasters of banality, and disseminators of dreck." And women are right up there with journalists in the Awful Charts. Poor Hermes is madly in love with Ursula Bentley, an amoral dimwit who writes "a diary for a glossy monthly detailing her amorous adventures." Ursula is one step down from a moron, dumber than the proverbial plank, and she functions as a sexual sidekick to the repellent Bell. Ursula is just one more thing that makes the world odious, as far as Self is concerned. Again, Ursula's ancestors can be found in Waugh's "Scoop"--remember the beautiful, heartless girl who carries a suitcase full of rocks through darkest Africa? Or the mindless wife in "A Handful of Dust" who redecorates her husband's ancient and beautiful homestead in sheep's wool and chrome?

And remember the joke about the man with Limburger cheese stuck in his mustache who thinks the whole world stinks? Self has been snacking hard at the Limburger section of the cosmic cafeteria. He's funny, though, in exactly the same way the young Waugh was funny. Self is as gross as he can be--while somehow managing to be puritanically offended by his own grossness. And he's ably assisted in this process by a terrific illustrator, Martin Rowson, who brings this dank, perversely delectable world alive.

The irony, I guess, is that you have to know a society pretty well in order to nail it so thoroughly. Do Self and Rowson spend their time munching bran flakes and giving alms to the deserving poor? Aren't they part of the hellish world they so aptly describe?

Carolyn See, whose reviews appear in Style on Fridays