Two novels and two story collections into his heavily-hyped career as the Dark Prince of post-Martin Amis British Lit, Will Self remains an enigmatic talent. At his best (My Idea of Fun), his fiendish perversity and sheer verbal dexterity border on a kind of vertiginous greatness; at his worst, he seems like a literary one-trick pony, a writer whose plots can be reduced to punch lines. (In his twin novellas Cock & Bull, a woman sprouts a penis, and a man grows a vagina.) Reading this new collection of stories, however, you sense anew that what makes Self's work so welcome is less his Kafkaesque darkness than the wild-eyed humor that undergirds it.
The nine stories in Grey Matter are full of Self-ish situations: in one, a group of average Londoners discover that they secretly control the actions of everyone in the city; in another, a single dying relationship unleashes a kind of romantic anarchy and everyone breaks up with each other. As you skim along, you're consistently prodded awake by the strange, Nabokovian gleam in Self's eye. "The words pooted from her kissable lips," he writes about a young secretary in one story, "inappropriate little farts of desire." At another point a character rages, apropos of very little: "I'll give you notes from underwater! I'll give you a bloody lobster quadrille! This is the fin of your fucking siècle!" If he can hone his flame to a tighter burn, Will Self may yet actually become a significant fin de fucking siècle genius himself. -- Salon
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Once again bringing piercing wit and narrative virtuosity to the short-story form, Self (The Quantity Theory of Insanity) lays into contemporary England. The title story in this sophisticated collection depicts the drab, unchanging world of a corporate office worker and yet seduces readers with precisely described details and perceived nuances of her static daily routine. "InclusionR'' exposes a cover-up of a disaster in the covert pharmaceutical testing of a new anti-depressant drug used ritualistically by bee-worshipping rain-forest tribesmen. And "Chest,'' perhaps the best of the lot, skewers British manners and social stratification, as a carcinogenic fog blankets England, forcing country squires to rely on radar and scuba gear to hunt their pheasant while coughing, wheezing victims swap painkillers and respiratory remedies across class boundaries. Self inlays subtle connections among all nine stories and repeatedly delves into themes of egotism, neurosis, charlatanism and conformity, and he does it all in crisp, economical prose enriched with the evocative diction of a confirmed logophile. (Mar.)
Even in this age of self-referentiality, Self's latest collection of short stories stands out from the crowd: the book's epigraph is the epitaph of one of its characters. Self has made his name writing comic, far-fetched, imaginative works (e.g., Cock & Bull, LJ 3/1/93) that portray a world almost, but not quite, our own. In the title story, a woman waiting for her period discovers that time has stopped; however, her daily routine is so bland and repetitive that it takes her a while to notice. Eventually, the media pick up the story and pundits are called upon to explain the situation: "it can be difficult to ascertain when nothing begins to happen." "InclusionR," the most complicated of the stories, is the content of a file on a disastrous clinical trial of a new antidepressant. Contained therein are the public relations report, the journal of the doctor conducting the trial, as well as the journal of a patient who learns of his participation in the testing only through the drug's peculiar effects. Self's stories are comic nightmares, evoking what is most disturbing about the present (environmental destruction, depression, and dislocation) and combining it with a twisted, ironic sense of humor. Recommended for collections of contemporary fiction.-Adam Mazmanian, "Library Journal"
Janet St. John
Like Britain's other "darling," Martin Amis, Will Self goes for shock value, failing occasionally because of underdeveloped subject matter, but mostly succeeding through poignant satire. His gift can be his curse, but where Self turns mundane reality into the absurd, the commonplace becomes awkward and surreal, allowing revelations and fresh insight to surface. This is indeed a skill, and Self uses it deftly, particularly in the story "A Short History of the English Novel," where he relocates a Hollywood situation (every waiter being an aspiring actor) to London through a discussion of the history and future of the English novel. Here, every waiter is a writer and, surprisingly, full of brilliant new ideas and language--proving the stodgy, elitist main character wrong again and again. Self is a caustic yet competent critic of society. He represents the raw, urban offspring, the descendants of English novelists like Dickens and Austen, so skilled at social critique and subtle humor. With a novel, twin novellas, a story collection, and literary awards galore, Will Self is already established and prolific enough to keep us on our toes laughing, somewhat hesitantly, at ourselves for years to come.