Everythingitis

Will Self, “The Selfish Gene” by Elizabeth Day, The Observer (“The New Review” section) 5 August 2013: 9

Does he ever get writer’s block?

“No. I get what I call ‘everythingitis’… where I get obsessed with the idea that everything has to be in the book.”

Will Self, “Five Minutes With: Will Self” by Matthew Stadlen, BBC News 2 February 2013

Well the book has to be in some way a kind of synecdoche of the entire world. …You get this creeping feeling that everything has to be in it, so you’re wandering around the streets and you see a plastic comb lying in the gutter and you think, “Have I got plastic combs in the book?” … and then you hear somebody refer to President Mobuto of Zaire and you think, “Is President Mobuto in the book?” and eventually it becomes this affliction called everything-itis.

A Ceaseless Threnody

Will Self, “Falling Short: Seven Writers Reflect on Failure,” The Guardian 22 June 2013

To attempt to write seriously is always, I feel, to fail — the disjunction between my beautifully sonorous, accurate and painfully affecting mental content, and the leaden, halting sentences on the page always seems a dreadful falling short. It is this failure — a ceaseless threnody keening through the writing mind — that dominates my working life, just as an overweening sense of not having loved with enough depth or recklessness or tenderness dominates my personal one. It follows that to continue writing is to accept failure as simply a part of the experience — it’s often said that all political lives end in failure, but all writing ones begin there, endure there, and then collapse into senescent incoherence.

I prize this sense of failure — embrace it even. As a child I loved a John Glashan cartoon that showed a group of meths drinkers lying around on the floor of a squat. “Anyone can be a success,” one of them was saying, “but it takes real guts to be a failure.” Clearly I intuited what was coming. When anyone starts out to do something creative — especially if it seems a little unusual — they seek approval, often from those least inclined to give it. But a creative life cannot be sustained by approval, any more than it can be destroyed by criticism — you learn this as you go on.

. . . No, this is the paradox for me: in failure alone is there any possibility of success. I don’t think I’m alone in this — nor do I think it’s an attitude that only prevails among people whose work is obviously “creative”. On the contrary, it often occurs to me that since what successes I do manage are both experienced and felt entirely in solitude, there must be many others who are the same as me: people for whom life is a process to be experienced, not an object to be coveted. There may be, as Bob Dylan says, no success like failure, but far from failure being no success at all, in its very visceral intensity, it is perhaps the only success there is.

(Wo)men Without Qualities

Tim Parks, “The Chattering Mind,” The New York Review of Books (NYRblog), 29 June 2012.

“Who is the most memorable character in the novels of the twentieth century?”

[…] I can’t be bothered to think of a name myself. […] But now suddenly it occurs to me that by far the main protagonist of twentieth century literature must be the chattering mind, which usually means the mind that can’t make up its mind, the mind postponing action in indecision and, if we’re lucky, poetry.

There were plenty of forewarnings. Hamlet is the most notable. To take action would be to confirm his identity as his father’s son, his father’s avenger, but Hamlet thinks too precisely on the event, he’s too smart, and so fails to become anyone at all, either his father’s son or Ophelia’s husband. He suffers for that failure and spins out unhappy procrastination in fine poetry. In a comic vein, Tristram Shandy is another forerunner, too aware of his narrative performance to narrate anything coherent, let alone act. Both Hamlet and Tristram are characters who didn’t reach the height of their popularity until the twentieth century. We had become like them.

Prone to qualification, self-contradiction, interminable complication, this new kind of character finds his most sinister early manifestation in the narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. “I am a wicked man,” this nameless individual introduces himself, then reflects “but as a matter of fact, I was never able to become wicked. I never managed to become anything: neither wicked nor good, neither a scoundrel nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect.”

Again, the reason for this indeterminacy is an excess of intellectual activity; so the cause for failure is also a source of self-esteem: “An intelligent man of the nineteenth century,” Doestoevsky’s narrator tells us, with a mixture of complacency and despair, “must be and is morally obliged to be primarily a characterless being; and a man of character, an active figure — primarily a limited being.”

Seeing the pros and cons of every possible move, this modern man is paralysed, half-envying those less intelligent than himself who throw themselves instinctively into the fray: “[The man of action] is stupid, I won’t argue with you about that, but perhaps a normal man ought to be stupid.” And the voice is actually pleased with this formulation. It’s great to feel superior to those happier than oneself.

In the twentieth century this monstrously heightened consciousness meshes with the swelling background noise of modern life and we have the full-blown performing mind of modernist literature. It starts perhaps in that room where the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo. Soon Leopold Bloom is diffusing his anxiety about Molly’s betrayal in the shop signs and newspaper advertisements of Dublin. In Mrs Dalloway’s London people muddle thoughts of their private lives with airborne advertisements for toffee, striking clocks, sandwich men, omnibuses, chauffeur-driven celebrities.

Looking back, what surprises how enthusiastically the literary world welcomed this new hero. Prufrock’s mind might be trapped, inept and miserable, but it is wonderfully poetic. I’ll never forget how my high school teacher gushed. Bloom may be incapable of imposing any direction on his marriage, drifting between fantasy and frustration as his wife prepares to betray, and Stephen Dedalus may be marooned in an impossible relationship with his father and jobs that give him no satisfaction, yet Ulysses is a celebration of the inexhaustible fertility of their minds as they move through the commercial flotsam and jetsam of Dublin against the vast backdrop of world literature and myth. It’s all quite reassuring, even self-congratulatory. What wonderful minds we have, even though they don’t seem to get us anywhere, or make us happy.

Virginia Woolf sounds darker notes, warning us that the mind risks being submerged by the urgent blather of modern life, yet in the end even the crazy, shell-shocked Septimus Warren Smith gives us paragraph after paragraph of poetic prose before he throws himself to his death from a high window, something that Clarissa Dalloway will think of as an act of impulsive generosity. It’s as if the stream of consciousness had been invented to allow the pain of a mind whose chatter is out of control to be transformed into a strange new beauty, which then encompasses the one action available to the stalled self: suicide.

The way this aesthetic consolation is constructed shifts constantly through the century. Faulkner has no time for the easy lyricism of the mind adrift on the ebb and flow of urban trivia. Now the unending voice revolves obsessively around the traumas that block any positive forward movement: past wrongs, sexual violence and betrayal, incest, the disgrace of institutionalized discrimination. Still, there is grandeur in the sheer scale and awfulness of the mind’s shipwreck, individual and collective. Slowly you get the feeling that only mental suffering and impasse confer dignity and nobility. Our twentieth century author is simply not interested in a mind that does not suffer, usually in extended syntax, and not interested in dramatizing the traumatic event itself, only the blocked and suffering consciousness that broods on it afterwards.

Beckett resists and confirms the formula. He understands its perversity: pleasure taken in the performance of unhappiness: “Can there be misery loftier than mine?” he has the aptly named Hamm remark in the first moments of Endgame. Beckett exposes the spiral whereby the more the mind circles around its impasse, taking pride in its resources of observation, so the deeper the impasse becomes, the sharper the pain, the greater the need to find a shred of self-respect in the ability at least to describe one’s downfall. And so on. But understanding the trap, and the perversity of the consolation that confirms the trap, doesn’t mean you’ve found a way out of it; to have seen through literary consolation is just another source of consolation: at least I’ve understood and brilliantly dramatized the futility of my brilliant exploration of my utter impotence.

Butor, Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, Thomas Bernhard, Phillip Roth, Updike, David Foster Wallace, James Kelman, Alison Kennedy, Will Self, Sandro Veronesi, and scores upon scores of others all find new ways of exasperating and savouring this mental chatter: minds crawling through mud in the dark, minds trapped in lattices of light and shade, minds dividing into many voices, minds talking to themselves in second person, minds enthralled in sexual obsession, minds inflaming themselves with every kind of intoxicant, minds searching for oblivion, but not finding it, fearing they may not find it even in death.

[…] I suspect our destiny is to pursue our literary sickness for years to come. It is hard not to congratulate oneself on the quality of one’s unhappiness. “Every word,” Beckett told us “is an unnecessary stain on silence”…

Quotes

“Writing is about expressing something new and exploring the form in new ways. So unless you want to churn out thrillers or misery memoirs, you can’t work from a pattern book. You need to autodidact.”
Will Self, in Janet Murray’s “Can You Teach Creative Writing?” The Guardian 10 May 2011 [p. 1 of the EducationGuardian section]

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.

littleblackbook

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.