The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In his memoir, Will Self takes his penchant for erratic journeys to the extreme

The British novelist Will Self once wrote that to immerse yourself in the pages of Georges Bataille is to encounter a style so radical as to give the impression that you are drunk at the wheel. This quality has also characterized Self’s work — both in his early (and most successful) literary excursions and in the compositions he has produced since 2012’s “Umbrella,” the inaugural volume of a trilogy that has threatened to turn his penchant for enjoyably erratic journeys into something close to a car crash.

“Will,” Self’s new memoir about his various youthful addictions, suggests that the car has finally left the road, fallen apart, burst into flames and taken several other vehicles with it. The narrative of the book, rebarbatively cast in the third person, is episodic, freewheeling and associative. It’s also marked by a weakness for supposedly ironic cliches, irritatingly portentous ellipses, the repetition of advice bequeathed to him by his mother and a clumsy habit of attempting to lend his story temporal texture by deploying allusions to (and quotations from) contemporary music and culture. It is also self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing and pyrotechnically mean-spirited.

Self’s narrative consists of five parts, each set in a period that corresponds to a discrete stage of his addiction to drugs and alcohol. Our first encounter arrives in the form of a ludicrously protracted account of Self lurching and trembling his way around London, in an acute state of withdrawal, on a May morning in 1986. His objective? To persuade a friend to give him heroin in exchange for the only thing he has— a couple of apple danish pastries. We then join him in May 1979, at which point he is already getting himself into putatively endearing scrapes (like riding a motorbike around the inside of a friend’s house) and, because he is apparently too bright to need to study for the Oxford entrance exams, developing a “consuming interest” in all manner of narcotics.

After hearing about the diversions that resulted in Self just barely graduating from Oxford in 1982, we skip forward to 1984 to join him in yet another state of withdrawal — this time in a YMCA in Delhi. And then the clock shifts again, and we are back in 1986, as Self is about to enter a drying-out clinic in the English seaside town of Weston-super-Mare. He heroically attempts to alleviate his boredom and disgust with his environment by engaging in back-to-back marathons of masturbation, all the while disparaging the treatment he is receiving and the company of the “thickos” with whom he is made to associate.

None of this is particularly easy to take, even when one allows for the mixture of self-pity, delusion, grandiosity and desperation that typifies the behavior of addicts. And it would be unfair to suggest that Self attempts to exonerate himself from these charges — our pity, gentle reader, he does not seek. But he does seek our collusion in his contempt for the world in which he is obliged to move, and for the people with whom the cruelties of circumstance have forced him to interact. The most conspicuous recipients of this kind of treatment are his friends (whom he despises for finding him “outrageous” and “funny”) and his staunchly tolerant parents, whom Self haughtily criticizes for being conventional, suburban and socially and financially insecure.

This is not to suggest that the book is completely without charm. There is a bleakly comic vignette in which Self, attempting while high to drive across London, stops for gas, spills it on himself, and — only when he is several minutes down the road — notices that he has managed to set fire to his legs.

And there are, on occasion, moments of heartbreak and tenderness, such as when he describes discovering on his ninth birthday that his father has left the family home to pursue a new romantic relationship with an Italian woman; or as when he describes the death of his friend and fellow addict Hughie.

On the whole, however, this is a memoir of substance abuse and self-harm that fails to generate the sympathy, empathy or interest that one customarily associates with the genre. Time in Self’s company leaves you feeling not that you are thrillingly, if figuratively, drunk at the wheel, but slumped, comatose, over the prison of your desk.

Matthew Adams is a British writer who contributes to the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement and the Irish Times. He tweets at @Matthew__Adams.


By Will Self

Grove. 390 pp. $26

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