Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The Quiddity of Will Self by Sam Mills

I love you, you smug, 
sesquipedalian bastard you
It’s hard to say, when asked as I was recently at a meeting of local writers (who you can follow on Twitter if you wish), who might be my favourite author. If you look at my book shelves, you might see groupings of books by modern authors such as (WARNING - gratuitous alphabetical roll-call):

Paul Auster, John Barth, Richard Brautigan, Thomas Bernhard, Jim Bob, T.C. Boyle, Karel Čapek, Jonathan Carroll, Stephen Donaldson, Glen Duncan, Tibor Fischer, Peter Høeg, Michel Houellebeq, Bohumil Hrabal, Ismail Kadare, Andrey Kurkov, John D McDonald, Harry Mullisch, Haruki Murakami, Cees Nooteboom, Victor Pelevin, Thomas Pynchon, Jon Ronson, and Kurt Vonnegut (my usual go-to favourite when I don’t have the energy to explain).

In addition, you might just spot every book ever published by one William Woodard "Will" Self (minus Sore Sites which mysteriously vanished while moving house a few years back). Whilst a fan, and also willing to admit experiencing an embarrassing and sometimes dispiriting awe at the breadth of vocabulary and metaphor displayed in any of his work, I can’t claim to be quite as impressed or inspired by his work as the author of The Quiddity*… appears to be. Sam(antha) Mills explores the “whatness” of Will Self (as opposed to the “thisness”**) through a stratified post-modern narrative where (s)he appears as a character as does Will (him)Self. ***

Put simply, you might say Mills is experimenting with ventriloquism using Will Self as inspiration and lots of old zeitgeist-y conceits - the found manuscript, the fake diary, a Murder of Roger Ackroyd-type unreliable narrator, and so forth. After a rather excellent introduction, an extract from a fictional work by fictional character Jamie Curren, founder of the sinister and, in the novel at least, fictional WSC, we have Richard, idle twenty-something with obvious mental health issues who becomes involved in a literary detective story around a murdered girl and a mysterious cult, the WSC. We have the dead girl herself, haunting Will Self in his study in an attempt to influence his latest novel (The Book of Dave). We see a somewhat deranged Richard again in part three, in what he initially believes to be an art project where, incarcerated, he is writing a novel (and a diary) in a tower block whilst people come to watch, but which has a sinister A Clockwork Orange feel to it with the malevolent Professor Self (no relation…) and his strange theories and potions. We find Mia in part four, picking up the detective plot but in the future (2049) after Will Self has died (but not before he finally won the Booker Prize aged 82). And in part five, we find Sam Mills him/herself, telling the story of the book’s struggle into life after 9 years of research and writing.

However, to simplify is to do an injustice to what is a book crammed, packed, stuffed with invention, philosophy, questions about identity and gender, Will Self, places, characters and direct quotations from his work, and lots of sex, including a pseudo-succubus in part five. Mills puts her words into diverse mouths with great skill and, mostly, without noticeable dissonance. She gamely attempts the post-modern ironic trope of sesquipedalian loquaciousness***** that Self employs himself, and manages it all without the necessity for the reader to have read any of his novels prior to this one. Those adjectives, used in review columns and which tend to place interesting fiction on the extremes (or indeed, outside) of the mainstream, such as challenging, inventive, innovative, could all be applied without prejudice, and to go back to simplicity, considering Sam Mills’ previous as a young adult author, this is top stuff, easy to read despite what I may have said about verbosity, engrossing and entertaining, and endorsed by the man himself – unless that’s also fiction. If you're into fiction off the beaten path, you should probably read this. 


* Quiddity (plural quiddities); noun
The essence or inherent nature of a person or thing.
Synonym: whatness

** Haecceity (plural haecceities); noun
The essence of a particular thing; those qualities that define it and make it unique.
Synonym: thisness

*** Lots of parenthesis and footnotes can only mean one thing – self-referential post-modernism! The author, a female, appears as a male character writing the book in which the character appears; Will Self plays himself in a fictional**** setting; I get confused by things and stuff.

**** When I say fictional, it does have roots in reality, albeit inspired by the novel – check out The Will Self Club website for more on what Ms Mills does in her spare time.

***** I’ve finally managed to use this in a sentence in a relevant context. You can stop the Internet now. 

The Twelve by Justin Cronin

Another long book where
lots of people die.
Before I get sidetracked into the usual "books are only a device to talk at length about pseudo-intellectual concerns, make dull jokes and pass reference to the suffering of mild and trivial anxieties" side-show, I think I should start this review with an appropriate bang.

I hate Stephen King.


Now I don't know him personally (although his pictures creep me out) and I'm sure he's a nice chap and all that, but his books are formulaic, predictable and appeal to the lowest common denominator-type reader. Not that this is a bad thing (I'm sure James Patterson wouldn't be a multi-multi-millionaire if this were so) but it makes him completely uninteresting to me, because I'm more concerned with pseudo-intellectualism etc. and so on. Hate might seem too strong a word, but it really has gotten to the point where even the mention of his name makes my teeth grate (in keeping with the vague dental theme begun in a recent review I shall hereby disclose that I suffer from dental attrition probably brought on by the profusion of terrible authors that make me clench my jaws shut to stop me from spewing forth bile) and allows my dentist make another down payment on his Porsche Cayenne off-road atrocity. If this bothers you, it's pretty much too late for me to do anything about it, and I'm not sorry.

The reference to King is a valid one when considering Cronin's second book in his vampire trilogy, begun with The Passage in 2010. I recall being awed by the first book, it's breadth and scope, it's wild, untamed nature and complete disregard of the well being of the characters (in so far as quite so many of them were eaten, killed, or turned into vampires). It did go on a bit, and by his own admission, he does write long books where lots of people die, but it kept me attentive and as engaged as one can be when nearly everyone that is introduced as a character gets disemboweled at some point. The parallel should already be evident. King spends a long time creating characters, introducing them and laying on the back story, only for them to disappear into the maws of monster clowns or at the hands of aliens. Cronin has a discernible present, where his principles exist, but goes to great length to sculpt credible and important pasts, many of them, which he then litters with the corpses of those characters with whose existence the reader has just become engaged. Either that or they come back as vampires later on. This is mostly annoying, but bearable, in part because the writing is pretty darned good.

In fact, this is a novel of highs and lows. The writing is good - like a good genre novel the author's voice is happily distant and characters tell the story, their voices believable and authentic - and the action pretty much non-stop, and unlike The Passage which ends leaving the reader gasping at the unfairness of lack of closure, it could stand alone in its own right. However, the lows are sufficient to besmirch its fine, glossy coat with mud and burrs and occasionally wish you'd not let it into the house to mess up the carpets. It is overly long perhaps, and the characters are so numerous that it is difficult to keep track, so much so that there is a dramatis personae included as an appendix at the back. Whilst I said that it could stand alone apart from the first instalment, those characters that do make the jump across volumes I had almost completely forgotten about, even dead FBI agent and (*SPOILER ALERT*) now vampire minion Brad Wolgast. With the weight of forgotten material pulling the story down by the hair, it was a bit of a drag to push myself right to the end. Oh, and the ending? I've read a couple of reviews which had, instead of thoughtful musings, variations on "WTF??!!" It is a little odd, and if you'd not been paying attention, could certainly catch you unaware and leave you confused and disappointed. The plot itself is entertaining, but there are points where one is swaying from the violence, giddy with the quick turns and switchbacks, and intermittently, bored by the sheer number of words on a page, and pages in the book. And, frankly, the titular Twelve didn't put up much of a fight.

To give Cronin credit, and produce my habitual feedback sandwich, I will repeat that the writing is good. The fact that he brings to mind Stephen King (gnash) is a drawback, and the perceived faults outlined above accrue to the detriment of the work, but I did enjoy reading it. I am a little impatient to see where it all goes from here, and am likely to patronise him at least once more, in support of his work if not also by damning him with faint praise.