Monday 19 March 2018

Review: The Quiddity of Will Self by Sam Mills

Corsair, € 9.99


It's easy to understand someone nurturing a secret fandom of Will Self.

His fantastically craggy face, richly ornate vocabulary and wryly sensible Newsnight contributions have put him up there with the likes of Germaine Greer and Stephen Fry as Britain's most telly-friendly intellectual. He's also a quite brilliant purveyor of epoch-shaping fiction, who has embraced chronic laziness -- or "idling" as he calls it -- as a lifestyle choice. There really is a lot to love. Still, it's hard to imagine that there would be enough people out there to form a Will Self fan club and that the president of said club could write a novel (largely about Will Self) and that it would be any good. And yet, The Quiddity Of Will Self, by Sam Mills, though slightly overlong, is mostly enjoyable.

Part love story, part murder mystery, part meditation on the state we're in, the book is a kind of literary Being John Malkovich, with Self taking the place of the actor. It follows Richard Smith, a young wannabe writer pissing away his life after coming into some inheritance money. He discovers the corpse of the murdered Will Self, except that, rather than actually being Self himself, it is, in fact, a transsexual who was surgically altered to look like the celebrated writer, whom she idolised. It only gets more absurd from there on in.

Finding himself under suspicion, Smith tries to infiltrate the fan club, in the process getting to know some over-the-top literary types who plunge him into a dark world of orgies, alcohol and board games.

Most of the action takes place against backdrops that readers of Self's novels will recognise -- eerily deserted galleries, derelict mansions, louche Soho clubs -- and the book is seasoned to choking point with plot and character references to Self's work. Lengthy extracts are also quoted, (unnecessarily, it feels) and some of the scenes in the book seem a little self-consciously designed to shock.

Along the way there are there are demented psychiatrists, macabre literary cults and a strange interlude with a talking kitchen.

It sounds too weird to be enjoyable, but the themes -- the extent to which art mirrors life and vice versa and whether the writers who teach us about life are worthy of worship -- are well drawn out. And for the unconverted (I wouldn't say knowledge of Self's work is a pre-requisite for reading this) the cultish depths of Mills' affection for the author is genuinely infectious. It all feels slightly tongue in cheek as well, which adds to its literary curiosity value, while detracting from any lasting emotional power.

Part Five, a piece of self- referential fiction simply entitled Sam Mills, is hilarious and sees the author wondering how she will sell her unmarketable opus.

Will Self himself offered his "suspicious support" to the project. He may be pleased to learn The Quiddity Of Will Self predicts him winning the Booker in his 80s.

The book itself is unlikely to garner such adulation, but it does provide brief moments of genius and is quirky above and beyond the call of duty.

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