Will Self in Conversation: A Review

I shuffle in to the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank, with the body language familiar only to my fellow audience members: the shuffle of someone going to see a literary talk. Pure, unadulterated keenness to the point where your knees knock together, a painful awareness of how even-more-geeky this makes you look, and, of course, an inexplicable desire to instantly make friends with everyone around you because THEY LIKE THIS AUTHOR TOO.

Except, I didn’t make many friends that night because I got sat next to the two biggest nutters in the room. There’s always a few at these talks. In all honesty, I’m one of them, but these two were right – and I mean _right_ – out of the loony bin (ironically, the part-time setting of the novel we’re here to hear about). Muttering, sniggering, commenting more than Will Self him-self, they were jackpot neighbours.

However, I still experienced the exhilarating thrill of a large concentration of people with the same interests as you. What’s more, there’s just something about Will Self that makes the congregation of people here specifically to see him even more fascinating: he’s an absolute enigma. Brutal but brilliant, with a humour drier than 12 year old Hermione Granger’s hair, and a mind as sharp as his satire. He even looks how he narrates: a kind of lanky languor (he is 6’5”), dishevelled by and disdainful of the state of the world he finds himself in, yet with a secret relish for its grotesquerie. And so, so astute.

At one point during the evening, he will read an extract from _Umbrella_. There are few writers who fulfil your perfectionist expectations of the sound of them reading their own work, but Will Self is one of them. He reads his work like – of this I am certain – no-one else could, with a delicious relish for the grotesque scenes of early 20th century London through which he guides us.

He is widely known as rather arrogant and – self-confessedly – up himself, yet appears, in person, rather nice. “You’re a literature student?”, he asks me, seemingly genuinely interested and maintaining eye contact, whilst scribbling his signature (and dating and locating it) in my book. I resolve to turn my iCan’tuseityetPhone off during the talk and not live-tweet because a) it’s sad and b) I’m finally among my fellow geeks, many of whom can use iPhones even less than I can. And then Will Self announces he will be doing his readings from his iPhone, because the book works well digitally.

His latest book, nominated, and indeed shortlisted, for the Man Booker prize, is an enormously ambitious feat that grabs the reader by the collar and hauls them through post-WWI London, a mental hospital, several different years and the modern day via 400 pages of stream of consciousness, plunging them right back into the heart of Modernism.

And it bears the blurb: “perhaps her [mental] illness is only modernity itself?”

It appears this is an article in which gush-prevention is crucial, clear judgement is nigh-on impossible, and I am even more reluctant than usual to use the word ‘modern’.


Much like his contemporary (and constant rival for space on my bookshelf) Martin Amis, Self possesses an unnerving capacity to just, well, nail it. And tonight is no exception.

His most staggeringly astute contribution to the night is a modestly and earnestly suggested argument that his modernist style of writing, stream of consciousness and the use of the continuous present, are, in fact, far more realistic than any “traditional realist” novels. His large hands gesture matter-of-factly as he quietly assures us that _life doesn’t happen_ in a novelistic way. “That morning, John woke up. “CHAPTER 7” was written on the ceiling”, he jokes, as if the fact that we don’t really split our lives into chapters is the most obvious thing in the world. Which, in a way, it is; but it takes a mind as infinitely shrewd as Self’s to remind the avid reader of the truth in that.

He gets ardently political at the mention of, well, politics, tearing to shreds an enormous number of opinions in the space of a few seconds, finishing, somewhat savagely, by preaching the urgency of modernism back when it first came out, like a punk talking to a hip-hop fan. One can’t help but marvel at the strength of his belief that modernism is still urgent now – “the same _fucking_ people are still in power” – and almost agree entirely. ‘My God, we need this! We _need_ modernism, we need Will Self to not use paragraphs – we’re going to CHANGE THE WORLD!’, you think.

Because, at the end of the day, a lot of the press and the fascination surrounding _Umbrella_ and these Modernism talks Self has curated at Southbank over the coming weeks are that Will Self has just brought out a book without chapters, without paragraphs, and without pointers. There is a lot of probing about why he has chosen to help the reader so little. Life isn’t like one of those novels where everything is helpfully pointed out for you, is his explanation. There are no “ramps”, as he puts it, so why should he put them in his novels? He jokingly alludes to social situations – he hates them, and, if life doesn’t help him out there, why would it in a book?

He ties in his realism arguments to add, rather humbly, that modernism works, in a sense, because you simply can’t narrate your life. “The pressure of the quotidian is too great, there’s too much stuff _going on_”, he explains.

Spot bloody _ON_. I sit back in my chair, wondering whether I can take anymore of this nailing it business. And then…

“When you’re 15 and you buy a new hat, you’re allowed to look in a shop window and go ‘mm-hmmm’ [only sound can truly do this justice]. But if you do it when you’re 30, you have a narcissistic personality disorder!”

And the audience laughs nervously, all remembering that time last week when they did that. Or when they romantically thought of a past boyfriend as a “first love”. Or when they woke up and imagined “Chapter 7” written on the ceiling.

“And you’re all laughing nervously, because you know I’m right.”

My God, he’s good.


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