Things Can Get Pyrotechnically Mean-Spirited When a Brit Reviews a Book By a Brit

From a Washington Post review, by Matthew Adams, of the book Will: A Memoir by Will Self:

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. . . .

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.

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