Will Self’s memoir of drug addiction is a masterpiece of black humour

7 December 2019

9:00 AM

7 December 2019

9:00 AM

Well, it was always going to be called Will. More than once in this terrifying, terrific book, Will Self refers to ‘nominative determinism’ — the idea that a name somehow foretells a life. That he chooses Will, not Self, is indicative and ambiguous. This memoir — not an autobiography — starts in May and ends in August 1986, but also spirals back to 1979, 1982 and 1984 in the kind of chronological fracturing that has typified his later fictions.

It is a chronicle of addiction, and the ‘will’ is everything, from the insistent desire, to a futureless future, to the psychological horror of being called ‘Little Willy’ by his mother. Throughout, he normally refers to himself as Will, but this is not Caesar-style self-aggrandising. It is more like a form of dissociation, where the writer cannot reconcile himself to his past self.

It is absolutely unflinching. But it is steely-eyed in two directions. On the one hand, Self does not spare the reader the details of just how wrecked his life was by drugs, from hazardous driving to pleading with a dealer through a letter-box. But it also conjures just how much he really, really liked drugs. The seesaw between euphoria and abasement, between the agony and the ecstasy, is laid bare. Self writes in excruciating precision about matters lavatorial, swings between satyromania and impotence, shunts between the exotic and the suburban and his drug years take him from the company of immense privilege to the most impoverished in society. There have been many books about addiction — Self begins with a quote from Aleister Crowley’s Diary of a Drug Fiend, and William Burroughs’s Junky is also a kind of compass — but this is unlike other works in this genre.

For one thing, it is funny. Obsidian- black funny, but funny nevertheless. From anecdotes about reliance on period-pain medication, or an epiphanic moment when Will thinks he is actually addicted to public toilets, not drugs, to a demonic deconstruction of being in therapy, there is a glint throughout the book. If you couldn’t laugh etc etc. The descriptions of Oxford are a kind of inverse Brideshead Revisited, with more opiates than teddy bears.

But it is also a profoundly serious work. Throughout, the narrator breaks into italics: a device rather similar to what he deployed in the trilogy of Umbrella, Shark and Phone. Once you notice it, you realise that the text is littered or peppered with literary allusions, pop songs, nursery rhymes and recreated conversations. There is a kind of metronome beat throughout which captures the cycle of addiction. Self being himself this is linked with Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence. The question that the book leaves open is a very Nietzschean one: eternal recurrence is the idea that were an evil spirit to ask you to live your life again in full, no changes or second chances, would you be brave enough to do it? By the end I had no idea how Self would answer that question.

One thing that surprised me, but should not have surprised me, was the religious niggle in the book. The Book of Dave, Self’s 2006 novel, cleverly upended ideas of Scripture, but here we have a rather different, if still contradictory take. Perhaps the best part of Will is almost two-thirds of the way through, with Self in India, convinced he is about to die, overhearing the preparations for a Passion Play outside. The previous chapter ended with thoughts about ‘the Great White Spirit’, and Self in ‘the void of the fifth dimension’. Although I know that Will Self is still among the living, this fourth chapter genuinely made me wonder if it was somehow preparedly posthumous.

He describes how at that period he felt the ‘pain of a sentient skeleton that’s been assembled from mismatched bones: balls rammed into sockets and ribs forced into cages’. In the final chapter, during a spell in an addiction clinic, he nevertheless still has a degree of suppurating fury at the false religiosity of the therapists. (There is an astonishing recollection of somebody who drank petrol, and another who apparently had once urinated on his own head.) But the book is neither about repentance nor redemption. It is, as he says, about dreams, ‘narratives we assemble retrospectively, at the moment of waking, to account for the recollections of the previous day’.

This is not an easy book to read, but it is a necessary one. The way in which fleeting parts of his parents’ lives glance through Self are important, but he never imputes cause to his own behaviour. The way in which the timeline is shuffled further makes it impossible to say, ‘Well, that was why’. It is lyrically written, even at its most self-lacerating points. Above all, and most frightening of all, it displays that behind all the injecting, snorting, smoking and dropping was an ideal of friendship. That was the most tearful point for me.

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