THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Book Review

A neurotic stroll through celebrity culture

By Barbara Fisher
May 18, 2011

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Will Self describes his sprawling work of fiction as “contorted, wayward and melancholic,’’ while Sherman Oaks, his friend and rival from boyhood, less generously describes his writing as “[m]icro-satire, dirty doodling in the margins of history.’’ A reader will find Self’s description undeniable, while he may ponder whether or not satire is merely ineffectual and annoying scribbling. When this same friend accuses Self of adding to the current inundation of printed trash, Self replies, “I don’t know how to do anything else,’’ a response that echoes Juvenal’s “It is difficult not to write satire.’’ From mad, marvelous, swirling bits of narrative disorder, Self fashions his scathing satiric denunciations of the eroded artistic, cultural, and moral values of a solipsistic media-driven world.

Instead of plot and character, Self presents three separate episodes, which, while not directly connected, reflect on one another. All three parts are narrated by a character named Will Self, who, like the author, is a successful writer.

In Part One, Self focuses on his boyhood friend and now famous sculptor, Sherman, an achondroplastic dwarf, “a very small man making very big things.’’ Self follows after the egomaniacal Sherman as he installs his sculptures, giant replicas of himself, around the globe. No longer able or interested in distinguishing the important from the petty or the original from the banal, the art world has embraced Sherman’s oversize work. From time to time, Self, a successful writer, signs copies of his books at bookstores or attends literary festivals. These events seem to have replaced the actual writing or reading of books.

Suicidal, Self consults a psychiatrist who pronounces him “ebullient and productive,’’ promises him a lifetime of a “roller coaster of despair and euphoria,’’ and sends him on his way. With this prognosis, he begins his tour of Los Angeles with the avowed purpose of discovering who murdered the movies.

During his long and winding walk in Part Two, Self describes himself as being alternately “played’’ by British actors David Thewlis and Peter Postlethwaite. Everyone, he discovers, is played by some minor actor. He dines with Bret Easton Ellis, watches as Brad Pitt films a scene, and rallies against Scientology. At one point he is sucked into a mob of autograph seekers as they try to tear Justin Timberlake apart. Movies are now based on toys and comic books and consist of car-crushing beasts, shape-shifting chimeras, liquid buildings, and solid air. Screenwriters are not simply out of work; they are obsolete.

In Part Three, Self is transported back to England, where he walks the eroding Holderness coastline. Here, land, homes, and people are literally slipping into the sea. Self feels he is falling into forgetfulness; Alzheimer’s looms on his limited horizon. As Self loses his memory, the Yorkshire coast washes away, and the wider world slides into ignorance and anomie.

On the desolate beach, Self finds a dying seal pup, and after debating whether to ignore it, save it, or kill it, he leaves it for the incoming tide to wash away. One abandoned baby seal struggling on the beach is worrisome, even heart-rending, while the fragility of the entire global ecology is simply too big to think about. Self cannot save the seal, the planet, or his soul.

While Self’s ultimate vision is grim, it is described in dazzling bursts of verbal pyrotechnics. Hollywood is a world, “in which the omniscient deity of narrative has been abandoned, pumped full of pixels in a back alley, leaving everyone to run amok, monumental masters of their own fate.’’ The language here is as rich as Vladimir Nabokov’s, the rage as deep as Jonathan Swift’s, the narrative as convoluted as Nathanael West’s. Accompanying the verbal high jinks is a series of small, blurry black and white photos, mostly of grimy land and seascapes. Words must do the job, but can they do enough?

Barbara Fisher, a freelance writer who lives in New York, can be reached at bfishershorttakes@gmail.com.

WALKING TO HOLLYWOOD: Memories of Before the Fall By Will Self

Grove, 432 pp., illustrated, $24