After two intricate, ingenious, and scabrous parable-stuffed novels that whirred and hummed like the jeweled works of a Patek Philippe timepiece — The Book of Dave (2006) and The Butt (2008) — the prolific perpetual bad boy of Brit lit, Will Self, delivers a volume of four simpler yet still absurdly satisfying novelettes that hark back to his very first book, Cock and Bull (1992). That duology featured anomalous genitalia as the linking conceit. In Liver: A Fictional Organ with a Surface Anatomy of Four Lobes, it’s the titular interior organ, more modest and shy, that provides the thematic thread.
That vital filtering gland, so oft abused, occupies the central place in each story, symbolically or topically, until, circa the final pages, the entire city of London comes to assume a corporeal similitude: “Blood and bile flowed through the veins of the liverish city: coiled conduits that merged, then branched out into the biliary tree of Soho. In Blore Court the two drunks tumbled through the visceral peritoneum, before being sucked into the porta hepatis.”
Encountering the wastrels, tossers and wide boys who inhabit “Foie Humaine,” the first entry in the quartet, the reader is instantly albeit uneasily at home in the familiar, mordantly transgressive contemporary urban landscape that Self has practically patented as his fictional stomping grounds. A seedy bar dubbed the Plantation plays host to a tragicomedy rife with un-reprintable insults and antisocial assaults on good taste and manners: J. P. Donleavy for an age of anomie. Self’s gimlet-eyed anatomizing of the worst of human behavior is buttressed by his elegant descriptions of the material world, all meaningless patina and brandnames. Springy bungee cords of hyperbolic metaphors secure the illicit cargo of Self’s hidden meaning to the deck of his pirate freighter of narrative, and the climax opens out into a surprise ending that recalls the conceit of Michel Faber’s first novel.
One naturally expects more of the same in the second installment-and, truth be told, installments three and four resonate with similar tone and substance. In “Prometheus,” the tortured Greek god works at a London ad agency, submitting to vulture reprisals whilst hidden in a toilet stall. “Birdy Num Num” chronicles a drug-sodden party that ends badly for everyone-narrated by the disease microbes that inhabit the guests.
But “Leberknödel,” the longest tale, is something entirely different. Joyce Beddoes, incurably dying of cancer, is flying to Zurich to commit legal suicide. Her daughter Isobel (one of the Plantation regulars, exemplifying the subtle links between tales), accompanies her. But the miraculous happens in Switzerland, upsetting everyone’s preconceived plans and expectations. In this sensitive, deeply penetrating tale of Joyce’s epiphany and late-life blossoming, Self emerges more as Thomas Mann than literate lager lout, rendering any comparisons of the author to chopped liver just plain silly.