A journey that's Self involved
By Will Self
Bloomsbury, 355 pp., $25
In a New York Times profile a number of years back, British author Will Self revealed a peculiar habit he has made a part of his foreign travels: Upon arrival, he walks from the airport to his hotel rather than make use of any mechanized transportation. I often pictured Self, his backpack around his shoulders, while reading his 12th and latest work of fiction, "The Butt." I suspect it had something to do with the shared logic of Self's airport trudges and his fiction. Both have a desire to follow an unusual thought to its furthest conclusion.
Like Self's best novel, "Great Apes," "The Butt" begins with a strange proposition - what if smoking was a crime? - and proceeds from there. Tom Brodzinski is on vacation in a tourist's paradise (part Tahiti, part Australia) with his unpleasant family: hectoring wife, self-absorbed children. Standing outside his overpriced hotel suite, Tom resolves, for perhaps the final time, to quit smoking, and flicks the butt of his cigarette off the balcony. Unfortunately for Tom, the cigarette lands on the head of an elderly British man married to a local, who is taken to the hospital as a precautionary measure. In this nicotine-unfriendly country, a cigarette is regarded as a deadly weapon, and Tom is charged with attempted murder.
A jail term is not in the cards for Tom, now alone after his family has gone home. Instead, he is required to make amends with Reginald Lincoln, the Brit, and deliver $10,000 and some guns and crockery to the Tayswengo tribe, who live far from the resort town of Vance in the violent outback. A local lawyer and the American consul each guide Tom, but their regular outbursts about Tom's frightening lack of interest in his own conundrum is always followed by ringing silence. The holes in Tom's knowledge, once established, are rarely filled. Heading toward the heart of darkness with a fellow Anglo, Tom seeks to escape the unfolding disaster.
Self's metaphorical journey spins off from its moorings and asks to be studied on its own merits. "The Butt" is full of fine writing, but the journey intended to be its centerpiece is downright soggy. Tom is an American only a Brit could dream up: brainless, sex-besotted, incapable of sustained rational thought or planning, and at the mercy of others. This doesn't make Tom very enjoyable company.
The differing pieces of "The Butt" - allegory, imaginary travelogue, satire, critique of the nanny state - continually jostle up against each other, each clamoring for center stage. Self never entirely settles what story he wants to tell, or even what "The Butt" is about. Nonetheless, Self is convinced that somehow, somewhere, clueless Tom is the cause of all the world's ills.
Saul Austerlitz is a frequent contributor to the Globe.