On My Idea of Fun

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In 2007, I wrote four entries for The Little Black Book of Books (Cassell Illustrated) edited by Lucy Daniel.

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Here is my original entry for Will Self‘s My Idea of Fun: A Cautionary Tale which I then cut down to size to fit the format of the book (p. 698):

Book: My Idea of Fun: A Cautionary Tale
Date: 1993
Author: Will Self (1961- )
Nationality: British
Impact: The enfant terrible of British letters lives up to the hype.

My Idea of Fun (1993) was greeted with the kind of vein-popping indignation Will Self had probably anticipated when he chose the title. One reviewer famously described it (on the strength of a couple of American Psycho-style scenes) as the “most loathsome” book he had ever read — a verdict the enfant terrible of British letters must have relished. Self’s debut novel was so much more, however, than just another succès de scandale.

Under the tutelage of a gargantuan Svengali called The Fat Controller, Ian Wharton comes to see himself as a “towering superman” whose gratuitous outrages are beyond good and evil. The protagonist’s “divided personality” (marketing executive / serial killer) enables Self to play upon different levels of reality (à la Lewis Carroll) and tap into the rich doppelgänger tradition (which he would revisit almost a decade later in Dorian). Is The Fat Controller simply Ian’s “personified id”? By undermining all ontological certainty, the author gets to grips with the very nature of fiction.

The plot revolves around a Nietzschean struggle between Apollonian and Dionysian forces. Ian is an eidetiker who can “replicate” anything he sees “with near-photoreal accuracy” — a gift which also turns out to be a curse. The Faustian bargain he strikes with the Mephistophelean Fat Controller (“the Dionysian other”) stipulates that penetrating a woman would result in the immediate loss of his penis. Fearing that he may be “suffering from an excess of imagination” — a charge often levelled at Self himself — he attempts to leave behind the world of magic (but also of incest, masturbation and autism) in order to become “generic”. The whole novel is an analeptic account of how this plan fails. The pleasure principle seems about to prevail, in fine, but Ian’s desire to destroy his suburban idyll can also be seen as the impotent rage of the alter deus unable to bridge the gap between fun and the retrospective “idea of fun” which is only a “tired allusion” to the real thing. Replication (read: realism) cannot grasp the essence of things.

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