October 5, 2008

It’s the Autopsy of the Alkies


Fiction You'll need a strong stomach for Self's stories Liver: A fictional organ with a surface anatomy of four lobes By Will Self Penguin Pounds 18.99

As the literary equivalent of Francis Bacon, Will Self continually challenges readers with biological overload. In Liver he has found an appropriate method of anatomy, via four pieces connected by the body's largest internal organ. Stepping into Self's world is like opening one of the Wellcome Institute's cabinets of medical curiosities. We start with the portraiture of pickled specimens in "Foie Humain": the inhabitants of a Soho dive called the Plantation Club. The real-life Colony Room on Dean Street is hitting 60 and heading for closure, a watered-down version of its past persona now mainly famous for outliving its competitors, and self-conscious enough to host a trendy website, so it's appropriate that Self should restore some of its lustre with this stagger up its filthy Soho stairs. The characters who populate his drinking den are so closely drawn over their originals that I imagine the only reason they won't sue is that they're either dead or unwell. The Bacon comparison is openly invited; drinkers are described as having "their fleshy convolutions trapped in the gelatinous atmosphere like whelks in aspic".

The story captures this necrotic miniature universe exactly, autopsying the alkies as they submit to the gavage which leads to engorged livers, gin-blossomed features and a blurry reduction of thought that no longer differentiates between male and female, sin and redemption, or even life and death. It covers the demise of the club's Frankenstein-like owner Ian Board, after which the place could never be the same again - but it had collapsed long before, with the loss of the original patrons, so that we watch the decline of something already dead. As Board's nose pales in death and the reluctant mourners are forced into natural light by the funeral, we gaze upon the denizens "who, even in the brilliance of a summer's day, have the dazed-grey look of ghetto-dwellers about to be relieved of their remaining teeth by Nazis with pliers". To coat these ghastly apparitions with a patina of nostalgia that actually makes their company desirable is a feat which deserves some kind of recognition, although the ending is harder to swallow than Ian's gin. A typescript of the story should perhaps be wedged on the shelf behind the Colony Room's bar, to yellow beside the shoddy accretions of the decades.

The remaining material is tangentially linked. There's a trip to Switzerland for a terminal liver-cancer patient seeking absolution, and a media-life-is-hell tale that doesn't ring true, featuring a copywriter in a Promethean trap. The last story, "Birdy Num Num", roars back to full strength as a gathering of users and abusers in a crepuscular London basement is conflated and contrasted with the antiseptic world inside an old Peter Sellers film, The Party.

What counts most throughout is Self's enthralling, muscular and sometimes even joyous use of language. His writing propels one of the greatest arguments for freedom of speech that I can think of; you may not like his subject matter but his obsidian brilliance is incontrovertible, shocking and humane.

(c) 2008 Independent on Sunday, The. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.