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  1. Look, I really did try to like Phone. I loved Umbrella, and Shark was on just the right side of OK. But Phone seems to be the same book told all over again, just without the plot. I gave up at a quarter of the way through.Phone opens with Zack Busner, former psychiatrist, wandering around a hotel in Manchester with his undercarriage out. It seems he has dementia. The narrative – a third person stream of consciousness devoid of paragraphing – slips from the present situation into long (and I mean long) reminiscences/fantasies – never quite sure which. These reminiscences are sordid and salacious – drugs, prostitution, spies hanging around gay bars, unhappy families. They are also hopelessly disjointed, repetitive and don’t go anywhere. This style was exciting in Umbrella where there was a unifying theme – the treatment of encephalitis lethargica. Umbrella had frequent social and cultural references to the 1960s and 1970s; it had wit and it had panache. Shark was a bit more of the same, but lacking a cogent story at its heart. But this, Phone, just has nothing to hold it together or hold the reader’s interest. It doesn’t have witty cultural references, it doesn’t have any obvious political statement to make. It doesn’t even have the novelty of an idiosyncratic narration since it has already been done twice before. Phone is a step too far, still riding on Umbrella’s coat tails. We know Will Self has done highly original stuff – but is he like the Zack Busner of this text – a faded shadow of a once great man? *0000
  2. Liver by Will Self is not a novel but 4 novellas linked by their relation to that vital bodily organ of purification, the liver, as well as by the severely alcoholic and dissolute members of a London private club called Plantation Club. Foie Humain introduces us to the Plantation, the owner of which is engaging in "the ritualized humiliation and-this is by no means too strong a term- dehumanizing of the Plantation's resident barman, Hilary Edmonds;" by means of force feeding him alcohol, much like the gavage done to geese to produce liver for food gras. Turns out there is both more and less to the tale than that. This was a horrible story about horrible people, made fascinating by Self's creatively lurid prose, and general ironic and cynical tone, as well as a depiction of a subculture most of us will, thankfully, never directly encounter. Leberknodel tells the tale of Joyce, a rather cold, unsympathetic, retired hospital administrator with terminal liver cancer, who journeys to Zurich to euthanize herself. But when the moment comes to drink the death water she changes her mind. And soon discovers that her body is spontaneously healing itself. But this miracle does little to thaw the cold little heart of this bureaucrat. There is a complete change of tone in this story, less sardonic and more clinical. It fits the story, but never quite entertains, and due to my lack of positive feeling for Joyce or any of the other characters, beyond a short lived sympathy for the hot mess that was Isobel, this novella's link to the Plantation,Joyce's dumpster fire of a daughter, I didn't enjoy this longest novella in the book. And the ending, when it comes, makes a strong and unequivocal statement about Joyce's character, but rather invalidates the point of the whole story. Prometheus, on the other hand, is a surreal and savage appropriation of the Prometheus Myth, grotesque and satirical, manic and highly entertaining. And finally we have Birdy num-num, the final installment in this hepatic tetralogy, a slice of life from an afternoon in a drug dealers apartment, told with black humored glee by a virus which infects most of the characters. The writing is consistently spectacular, regardless of tone, and big ups for originality. Whether anything important is being said will be determined in the mind of the beholder. But I am very glad I read this book. 4 stars
  3. Readers of Will Self’s previous (Booker shortlisted) novel Umbrella will find Shark more than a little familiar. We revisit psychiatrist Zack Busner, running an experimental Concept House, offering psychiatric patients a communal living arrangement without wards, locks and restraints. The style is similar to Umbrella, with long slabs of text, eschewing conventional paragraphing, punctuation or linear style. It’s like stream of consciousness on acid. In fact, very specifically, it *is* stream of consciousness on acid. One of the particularly impressive feats of this style of narration is that it never draws breath. Whilst there are full stops, there’s no point where you can see a change of scene or a natural pause. Yet the reader does zip from scene to scene, time to time in the middle of sentences, in the middle of words. And it's all chock full of references. There are references within the references. Even when you know what is going on, it is hard to see how it is done. It is smooth and seamless, perhaps like the sharkskin fabric of which all the suits in the novel seem to be made. However, whereas Umbrella had a very focused narrative beneath all the fog and choppy timelines, Shark does not. If anything, it seems to be a loose collection of short stories, each centring around one person who is, in some way, associated with Concept House on a particular day in 1970. The stories themselves might be from before 1970 (some wartime stories); during or after that date. Dates are seldom given; they must be inferred from events taking place in the wider world. Taken together, they might be supposed to create some sort of “state of the nation” narrative of the second half of the 20th century. Of course, they are not presented in discrete stories – they cut back and forth, buried in swathes of pretty abstract meandering. By meandering, I mean the kind of stuff you occasionally hear from a mad alcoholic, often in sentences with subjects and verbs, sometimes with obscure vocabulary, but seldom actually making any sense. If you haven’t read Umbrella, Shark may well intrigue, fascinate, impress, surprise, delight. It is fizzy, it is slippy, it is very, very distinctive. It may repel, it may frustrate, it may infuriate. It’s a long, hard book. But if you know Umbrella, there is a fair chance that, despite its clear merits, Shark may disappoint and, even worse, bore you. ***00
  4. Umbrella isn't going to be to everyone's taste. It is written in a meandering, stream of consciousness fashion where a sentence will start out telling one story in 1970 and end up telling a different story in the 1920s. It drifts in and out of present times without using conventional signposts such as tense. The punctuation is eccentric, use of paragraph breaks every dozen or so pages is haphazard at best and apart from that, you have a continuous block of text. Most people are not going to like Umbrella because, on the surface, it seems difficult. But if you can set aside your preconceptions, just read on through even if it feels a little hard to follow and it will all come together. At the heart of the text, Will Self has created a chugging rhythm that just keeps on going. If you stop, the rhythm stops - so just press on. And from that rhythm you get this kind of prose poetry emerging. Enough pretentiousness. On with the plot. Umbrella tells various stories. One is the history of the treatment of mental illness in the UK from the Edwardian times to the present day - from early days of the asylum as a sanctuary, through to containment, drugs, lobectomies, cognitive treatment and care in the community. Another story is the discovery of L-Dopa as a treatment for Parkinson's Disease - the miraculous cure that is accompanied by bizarre side effects and, after a year or so, a complete relapse. We follow Dr Zack Busner (from Self's earlier novel Great Apes) as he pioneers this L-Dopa treatment. And thirdly we have the life story of Audrey Death, an elderly Parkinsonian patient, and her brothers. It is a very rich, interwoven and moving story. At times, it is richly comic and this is a wonderful counterpoint to the extremely harrowing stories that are being told. There is a good use of idiom and dialect (especially phonetically rendered cockney dialect) that creates a personal feel to what could otherwise have been rather a universal story. What lifts Umbrella from the very good to the excellent is the heavy use of reference. However, this is likely to bewilder readers who are not of exactly Self's vintage, who have not been brought up in the UK, and do not know London. For example, would younger readers or overseas readers get the reference to The Grocer? But if you do get the references, they are an absolute joy and shine like jewels in a box of gold chains. There are references to Ulysses throughout. The half title page has a quote from Ulysses explaining the significance of Umbrellas. And my top tip: brush up on song titles from the 1960s! The references don't feel laboured. Each one feels as though it was put there from a sense of fun, a playfulness with language. Will Self's obvious pleasure in writing the novel comes through and rubs off on the reader. Umbrella flies by, as though blown in the wind, but leaves a strong impression. *****
  5. This is Self's fourth and most recent collection of shorter fiction, actually a novella and five other tales. Sadly, the law of diminishing returns seems to be kicking in. Many of Self's familiar obsessions appear. The titular novella sees the return of Dr. Zach Busner, the smug psychiatrist of the earlier "The Quantity Theory of Insanity", in a fitfully amusing tale of duelling head shrinkers who send each other increasingly bizarre patients. Chimps, the stars of his novel "Great Apes", also make a comeback in "Return to the Planet of the Humans". In fact, these two stories illustrate what's wrong with this collection. It feels like a facsimile of his earlier work, there's precious little that's new here. "161" might have a teenage thug hiding out in a pensioner's flat in a high rise council estate on Merseyside rather than be set in Self's usual surreal and grotesque London, but it could just as easily be in the capital. There is one exception. Self's public persona means it's often easy to forget that he's a family man, and "The Five Swing Walk" a tale of a divorced father's day with his children, is an oddly touching lament about the breakdown of family life even if, inevitably, the playgrounds of west London are strewn with dog turds and worse menaces. As well as this story, the author's ability to paint satirical and absurd portraits of the Big Smoke and its denizens remains undimmed and is what saves the collection along with the splendidly OTT language that tumbles onto the page. He's still the closest thing we have to Jonathan Swift working today and hopefully this is just an aberration by a man who's generally a master of the shorter form.
  6. Will Self strode into the packed auditorium in Charlotte Square, the heart of the Edinburgh Book Festival, looking as he does on TV - louche,lanky and laconic, unphased by the crowd waiting in hushed anticipation. Unlike many sessions at the Book Festival he took the stage on his own - Will Self is not a man who is likely to feel stage fright. After a warm up worthy of a stand-up comedian, he warned us that those of a nervous disposition would do well to escape now, mentioning an incident at a previous reading where a man in the audience irately objected to the plethora of four-letter words, claiming they offended all females in the room. The females begged to disagree, Self added dryly. Self read from his recent quartet of novellas Liver. The four stories in this collection are all related to this much abused organ which filters waste product from the blood. There is much allegory in his book, with parallels drawn between the poisonous people, processes and practices in the world and those bodily toxins processed endlessly by the liver. His world is black and caustic, barbed with sharp, sardonic humour. The first excerpt was from Foie Humane, a story is set in a nightmarish, camp world of slurred insults and profanities: a fictional club called The Plantation Club. This club is based strongly on The Colony Room, favoured slumping ground of artists including the late Francis Bacon and other creative sorts with a need for constant liquid sustenance. Self's reading introduced the audience to a cast of grotesques and a cartoonishly hideous human version of gavage, the method by which French farmers force feed geese to fatten their livers for foie gras. In the story, the pub's venal landlord Val is determined to cause the bartender's liver to turn fatty with alcohol for unknown reasons. Self is a mesmerising performer, his laid-back drawl perfectly switching from character to character. This talent was most obvious when he read from another story in the collection, Leberknodel. In this tale, a woman named Joyce who has worked for decades as an administrator in the NHS is dying of liver cancer. The cancer has invaded other organs and she has taken the decision to go to a clinic in Zurich to end her life. She is accompanied by her daughter. The extract was chillingly powerful with unexpected glimpses of humour. While Joyce is taking the anti sickness medicine that is given to prevent her vomiting up the barbiturate used to poison her, she dwells sourly on the failings she sees in her weeping daughter, such as the fact that her hair is far too long for her age. Self's portrayal of the clinical but professional Swiss doctor who administers the medicines was hilarious, his Swiss-German accent and mannerisms wonderfully authentic. Self has captured perfectly the tiny moments that stick in the mind at times of traumatic life events - the sticky feel on her lips and fingers of the chocolate Joyce is given to mask the bitter taste of the medicine, the mundane thoughts that trickle through her mind, the petty carping that can't be left behind even at monumentally important times in life. Although Self didn't reveal the ending, the story in the book is not as bleak as one would expect. The stories that Self did not read from in the collection are Birdy Num Num, a tale of hard drug addiction and the threat of potentially deadly viruses such as HIV, and Prometheus. In the questions afterwards, an audience member asked Self why he concentrated on the grotesque rather than innocent beauty. Self answered with his usual eloquence and humour. He said words to the effect that he found the implausibly sweet worlds of some others as offensive as they found his more gritty, authentic one. Self is a magnetic performer who makes his work sparkle when he reads from it. He is one of those writers blessed with a sky high IQ that is sometimes greater than his motivation to use it to its full potential. He can hold his own in any debate, his assured eloquence, effortless articulacy and lightning-fast wit equally able to tackle political topics in his non fiction articles and draw bizarre and fascinating fictional scenarios. His stories may well deal with the uglier side of life but there is always humour and humanity there as well as that dazzling intelligence .
  7. After reading around sixty pages I must admit I very nearly put this book down, but something told me to persevere and I am so glad I did! Just when nothing really seemed coherent and as I struggled with the phonetic dialect (Mokni), things suddenly seemed to click into place and make sense, the Mokni became easy to follow even for a Northern lass like meself. Perhaps a better knowledge (no pun intended) of London than mine (which is essentially that of an occasional visitor on business / tourist) might help, but I did not feel particularly lost when dealing with the descriptions of the Capital. The chapters flit between the ages and slowly but surely the plot unravels, revealing the tale of poor, bitter and extremely twisted Dave who rapidly descends into overwhelming depression and, the future world that is gripped by a religion (and it’s fundamental believers) that is based on Dave's skewed beliefs – as written in ‘The Book of Dave’. Once I had warmed to Self’s writing style I really enjoyed the word play and satire. In fact I feel there is so much that is clever and enjoyable about the book that I cannot wait until someone else reads it and posts here! Whether you love it or not (there are some very mixed reviews on Amazon for example) I feel this book will make for really good discussion. I would highly recommend it and I would encourage anyone who may struggle with it, to persevere, I feel it really is worth it.
  8. I've opted to put this in 21st century: the paperback came out in 2001, but the hardback in 2000 (which was techically still the 20th century...) Will Self's How The Dead Live is in essence a monologue, or more precisely a ferocious, relentless rant against just about everything. Its author is Lily Bloom, a modern version of Joyce's Molly Bloom, who recounts the last years of her life, and then the first years of her death, continuing to observe things from within an urn of ashes. And if you've seen a funeral urn you'll realise that the description hits the nail on the head. And, generally speaking, the language of How The Dead Live is brilliant (relentlessly so...) Here's the recreation of the bombing of the gay men's pub in Old Compton Street: The sound-based creativity of Self's/Lily's style is summed up in the way "trousers" suggests "carousers" and "peanuts" suggests "penises". His gift for word-association is summed up in the transition from "handles" to "straights" (with the implicit reference to straight, i.e. handle-less, glasses) to "queers"... You either love this Martin Amis-style effusiveness, or you hate it, I reckon. But if you're looking for a plot, you'll have to look very hard. The language is constantly astonishing, but, on the other hand, four hundred pages of relenteless rant is not the most satisfying read... Verdict Doing what a well-crafted novel traditionally does: */***** Language: *****/***** Average: ***/*****
  9. I bought this book because of its weird title, and the rest of the book did not disappoint! I'd not read any of Mr Self's other books, but had seen him on TV so sort of knew what to expect. The format of this short book is quiet unusual, being 6 short stories, all loosely interconnected somehow. A coupe of them were just too off the wall even for me! My favourite one was 'The North London Book of the Dead', where a man discovers that when you die you just go to a different part of London. Brilliant! Another good story was 'Ward 9' set in a psychiatric ward, where the distinction between patients and staff becomes increasingly blurred. I'd definitely recommend this book, despite a couple of the stories making y ou question your own sanity! Certainly something a bit different.
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