The Sweet Smell of Psychosisby Will Self, Martin Rowson (Illustrator)
A brief and brilliant satire of magazine hacks and fashionistas, The Sweet Smell of Psychosis shows Will Self - a writer acclaimed as "a masterly prose-maker" by London's Sunday Times - at the top of his form. It looks as if it's going to be quite a Christmas for Richard Hermes, powdered with cocaine and whining with the white noise of urban derangement. Not so
A brief and brilliant satire of magazine hacks and fashionistas, The Sweet Smell of Psychosis shows Will Self - a writer acclaimed as "a masterly prose-maker" by London's Sunday Times - at the top of his form. It looks as if it's going to be quite a Christmas for Richard Hermes, powdered with cocaine and whining with the white noise of urban derangement. Not so much enfolded as trapped in the bosom of the most venal media clique in London, Richard is losing it on all fronts: he's losing his heart to Ursula Bentley, a nubile and vacuous magazine columnist; he's in danger of losing his job at the pretentious listings magazine Rendezvous; he's losing his mind courtesy of Colombia's chief illegal export; and, worst of all, he's losing his soul ... to Bell. Bell is a newspaper columnist, radio host, television personality - but more than that, he is the kingpin guiding the ship of media scandal through the lower depths. From his headquarters in the Sealink Club he pulls the strings that control the disseminators of drek and gatherers of glib. And he has had Ursula Bentley and just about everyone else, female and male. As Richard pursues the Jicki perfume wafting from Ursula, he is in fact being drawn into a much more sinister web. Murky, paranoid, and hilarious, The Sweet Smell of Psychosis is Will Self at his best.
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Two men stood by a window in one of the private rooms of the Sealink Club, and watched a third who was hovering around on the corner of D'Arbiay Street. The man they were watching was plump, in his late thirties and wearing a mid-price trench coat. His thin, brown hair wasn't making it all the way over his pate. The two watchers could see this distinctly, because they were four flights up and looking more or less straight down.
`I don't think he's going to do it,' said Richard Hermes. `I think he's going to go home to wiley.'
`I'm not so sure,' replied his companion, Todd Reiser, taking a pull on the joint they were sharing. `He almost definitely wants to it's just a question of getting his bottle together.'
The man on the corner moved to the edge of the kerb, as if about to cross the road and head off, but then turned once more to look at the building behind him. It was a nondescript place, made timeless by grime, the portico studded with bellpushes. Even though Richard couldn't make them out at this range, he knew that above the bellpushes were Sellotaped bits of paper or card with `MODEL' written on them. There was also a freestanding sign to one side of the doorway, like the ones that rotate in the slipstream by roadside petrol stations, displaying first the legend `PETROL' and then the legend `DERV'. But this sign simply stated `MODEL', and when it revolved reiterated it.
The trench-coated potential punter was havering once more, rocking from heels to toes on the very edge of the pavement. `Five quid says he'll do it,' Todd said,pulling a crumpled note from the side pocket of his jacket.
`All right, you're on.' Richard didn't want the man on the corner to go up and fuck one of the brasses. Richard wanted him to walk down to Tottenham Court Road and take the Central Line back to Parsons Green, or Turnham Green, or whichever Green it was he lived at, and stroll back from the station to wifey, with his conscience clear and his cock unscented with spermicidal lubricant. Richard wanted this quite passionately.
Suddenly, as if the man were actually responding to the thoughts of the two voyeurs, he turned on the spot, glanced quickly up and down the street, and bolted into the building. Richard and Todd continued to watch as his now distinctive profile appeared first at the window of the first-floor landing, then at the window of the second, then the third.
`Must be viewing the merchandise on the up escalator,' Todd sneered.
`Or perhaps he knows where he's going,' Richard replied.
Then they couldn't see him any more. Richard sighed, trying to picture what was going on in there. The uneven floor of the brass's room, thinly, dunly carpeted. The bed what could that possibly be like? A vessel built for a thousand short transports, none of them delightful. A roll-on, roll-off kind of bed, collapsed and pummelled. Richard imagined the odour of the place, compounded of the cheapest of perfumes, cigarette smoke, legions of cocks, more legions of condoms. Over it all the almost faecal odour of baby oil. And what of the brass herself?. Some grimacing ugly, Richard decided, coldly presenting her dry gash to the balding man as he took off his trench coat, folded it, placed it on a three-legged chair.
`Where's that fiver then?' Todd interrupted his thoughts, stamped on them with his leather-sole tongue. Then he passed Richard the joint, which was by now little more than a stub. Richard faffed around trying to avoid burning himself while he forced his hand into the tight pocket of his jeans.
But the trench-coated man had reappeared. He came out of the front door of the knocking shop at a brisk trot.
`Look at him!' Todd expostulated. `He's got the wind up him now.'
Richard ceased looking for the fiver. `You've lost,' he said.
`You've lost,' Richard said again. `I mean to say, no one could have fucked anybody in the time he was up there.'
`Huh. S'pose. Well, here you are then.' Todd pulled a different, rolled-up fiver from his pocket and handed it to Richard, who noticed with minor revulsion an encrustation of dried snot and blood at one end. `Home to wifey it is I hope he doesn't have any regrets.' He departed, slamming the door behind him.
However, as Richard continued to watch, the man didn't head for home. Far from it. He crossed the road diagonally and disappeared below the horizon of the windowsill. He was Richard realised with a jolt coming into the Sealink. Richard was surprised, if not exactly astounded. Chances were, if the man was a member of the Sealink, that he had something to do with the media, and was vulnerable if recognised. Perhaps he didn't care? Perhaps there was no wifey, back at the Green, taking the casserole off the hob, leaving it to settle, leaving it to cool.
Richard sighed. He was a young man, slim, of medium height, with curly, blond hair. His features had something strained and delicate about them; blue veins showed at eyelid and ear curl. His expression was usually purposive, quizzical, lacking as yet urban guile. There was no wifey at home for Richard. No girlfriend either. Not so much, he grimly meditated, as a dry-gashed brass.
The words felt ugly enough in his mind to produce a bitter sensation on his tongue. Richard wasn't really that crude a young man. He half-hawked, swallowed his own bile, hunched his shoulders, shivered, and then followed in Todd Reiser's wake, out of the door, down the orange-carpeted, winding stairs, and into the bar.
It was late on in the cocktail period and the atmosphere in the Sealink Club bar was, to say the least, rocky. Over the past couple of hours a lot of rebarbative, ulcerated and embittered people had been working hard at bedding their resentments down in sensory-deprivation tanks full of alcohol. In this no-alternative therapy, they were ably assisted by Julius, the club's chief barman. He pirouetted up and down behind the big, mirrored buckler of the bar, waltzing bottles of whisky, gin and vodka from shelf to glass. He did the cancan with the shaker, the lambada with the ice cubes, the Charleston with the bottled beers. He was a snappy mover. His bright orange hair was sculpted into a Cubist divot, his earrings were jade studs, his shirt, apron and bow tie were immaculate, gleaming. His deportment was so irrefutably classy that as is often the case the members of this exclusive club looked shabby by association.
Richard took this all in from the small lobby area outside the bar, before entering. To do so he had to near-clamber over the raised sill of the door. It was these sills, together with the functionalist decor of the establishment naked bulbs behind wire basketry, bright orange floorcoverings, steel furniture bolted to those floors and the persistent humming judder which perfused the place, that had gifted it its name. For the club was sited in a building directly above the main terminus of the Post Office's miniature underground railway, and the committee had elected to make a thematic virtue out of an urban necessity. But more importantly, to be in the Sealink was to be at sea in more senses than one.
Then the human hubbub assailed Richard. Advertising people, television people, media-associated subsidiary professionals, jingle music composers, voiceover actors, public relations people, design consultants, gallery girls, commercial artists and a fair littering of moneyed or titled deadbeats. These were the denizens of the Sealink. They all seemed to smoke, they all seemed to drink, they all held themselves in exaggerated postures, heads jerking around, on the lookout for better social prospects lying behind the heads or the bodies of their interlocutors.
So pervasive in the bar of the Sealink was this tendency to scan all parts of the room, other than the faces of your immediate neighbours, that it resulted in a kind of collective perturbation, like an agitated, atomised Mexican wave. Richard absorbed this wriggle of regard, felt it wash over him. He too began to scan, check out who was there, who he knew, who was interesting, who had something to offer.
Richard didn't have to suffer this motor pattern for long, though, because over in his usual corner was Bell, and with him was the divine, the untouchable, the universally desirable Ursula Bentley. Richard's pulse quickened the semi-bald John was forgotten in that instant. Todd Reiser was with them as well, as were a number of other clique members. Bell's limpid black eyes met Richard's from some thirty feet away, Bell's Martini glass forming a tiny, vitreous horizon. Bell raised one finger and tapped it against the dead centre of his forehead. This was a kind of trademarked gesture of Bell's one of them, at any rate. It meant `You may ring my bell ...', or, more to the point, `I will deign to speak to you'. Richard hurried over.
There is, of course, one significant group of club members that has been omitted from the list above. A group that Richard, insignificantly, belonged to. These were the hacks, for, if the Sealink Club had one prime raison d'être, it was the provision of a dark, humid environment in which fungal tittle-tattle could swell overnight. This was the damp cellar of the city.
There was a ratio of hacks to non-hacks in the bar at this time of about one to one. And these weren't principled journalists, or hardened reporters, oh no. No one eased his leaning position at the bar in order to relieve the pressure on the shrapnel wound he'd caught covering the Balkan crisis. Nor did anyone huddle in a corner earnestly discussing her view of the Neo-Keynesian implications of the Treasury's management of the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement. Not a bit of it.
The hacks who frequented the Sealink, yakking in the bar, gobbling in the restaurant, goggling in the television room, wobbling in the table-football room, and snorting in the toilets, occupied a quite different position in the cultural food chain. They were transmitters of trivia, broadcasters of banality, and disseminators of drek. They wrote articles about articles, made television programmes about television programmes, and commented on what others had said. They trafficked in the glibbest, slightest, most ephemeral cultural reflexivity, enacting a dialogue between society and its conscience that had all the resonance of a foil individual pie dish smitten with a paperclip.
Along with so many others around the bar, gathered in their crap colloquia, Richard laboured by day in this open-cast word mine, hauling out great truckles of frothy verbiage. Nominally responsible for a front-of-house, arts/cultural, gossip-cum-preview section in a mass-circulation listings magazine, Richard also filed featureless features for some of the men's glossy style magazines, extolling the virtues of trouser presses, aromatherapy and ski-boarding.
He was uncertain about this role in life it was so new to him. A year previously he had been on the news desk of a homely, old newspaper, in a homely, old, northern city. He had had a girlfriend tending towards parturition, and a small flat that would have required partition.
Then a couple of features he had written on spec for London magazines found a home, and the praise had gone to his feet, which strode to the managing editor's desk, to his mouth, which mouthed his resignation, and to his cock, which shrank from the homely, muslin confines of his girlfriend's vagina. Richard headed south geographically.
In London he landed the job, and rented a flatlet in Hornsey. A grim little box, made all the grimmer by its pretension to being a real dwelling place. Everything about it was diminutive the bed, the chairs, the cooker. Even the lintels of the doors were at least six inches lower than they really ought to be, which meant that whenever Richard came home late, or drunk, or both (which was more often than not the case), he found himself headbutting the architrave as he moved from roomlet to roomlet.
While his living space was still more diminished down south, his social horizons were confused. He was amazed at how well he got on in town; he had expected the going to be sticky, fraught with snobbery and bitchery. But his fellow hacks fell on him as if he were some entirely novel creature, a positive Ariel charming their isle of tedium. The fact that he had worked in the North, that he had been to a minor public school, that he spoke unaffectedly of home and parents these were regarded as quirky and compelling characteristics, landing him invitations to party, after party, after party, where Bulgarian wines were poured down the neck from the neck, in the bottlenecks by the makeshift bars.
After these gigs openings, or launches, or press beanos Richard would carry on in the train of the revellers. They would process to the West End clubs, and those in their number who had membership would shoehorn them in, to Soho House, or Fred's, or the Groucho, or, of course, the Sealink that premier preening place, that atelier of arrogance.
Richard was impressed by the Sealink. He saw movie stars there, pop musicians and, most importantly, the stars of his own profession the superhacks. High-maintenance gifts sashayed across the orange floorcoverings, and Richard goggled at them, lusted after them. He'd had no sex of any kind in the past year, save for two frenzied couplings with his immediate boss at the magazine, a successful anorexic in her forties who turned out to be a glove fetishist. He had balked at a third coupling, when she'd asked him to don oven gloves before scratching her pork. Needless to say this hadn't as he had feared affected their working relationship. She ignored him as effectively as she had done before.
But the girls in the Sealink! AAAAOOOOOOH! How he lusted after them! Their glossy hair and cigarette skin! Their whining voices and wasted eyes! Their air of thoroughgoing contempt expensively studied disregard. They glided about the place, and Richard followed the cruxes of their bodies, his eyes flickering, precisely registering each tilt and cant they made, while he visualised the subtle accommodations of their clothing, their hair, their skin ...
Foremost among these glibmaidens, calling from the trivial rocks, was Ursula Bentley. Ursula wrote a diary for a glossy monthly detailing her amorous adventures. It was the most embarrassingly awful column Richard had ever read, but he made enormous allowances for her, allowances the size of Third World debts. He wanted her. She was not simply beautiful, but beautiful in a way that was so vastly improbable like a diamond found in a gutter behind a Chinese takeaway that to Richard, silly fool, she redeemed him, her, all of the sordidity and sopor, the tragic bathos that he felt sloshing about the Sealink.
That was how Bell snagged him in, made Richard part of his little group.
Richard took his allotted seat and signed for one of the waiters, knowing full well that given his lowly status he might wait some tens of minutes for a drink. Bell was as usual silent. He was sitting in the bosom of his clique like a big-bodied spider in the middle of its web; invisible filaments wreathed him, garbed him, filaments of gossip and speculation, of opinion and dissent. And Bell sat there, listening to it all, registering it all, masticating it all for future regurgitation.
For if the Sealink Club had a kingpin, a grand panjandrum, a veritable Vautrin guiding the ship of scandal from the lower depths, then it was Bell. Bell was a hack, true enough, but he was also much more than that. His daily syndicated column ran in both the Standard and the Mail, reaching some ten million ideologically hobbled readers. His weekly television programme a chat show called Campanology was broadcast at peak viewing time on Friday night, live to some fifteen million viewers. His dead-zone phone-in show on Talk Radio may have gone out between two and four a.m. on a Sunday morning (although recorded six hours previously), but it none the less managed to buzz in the ears of some four hundred thousand lost souls.
Given the Venn intersections implied by this saturation coverage, one of Bell's most sycophantic acolytes had established through certain arcane statistical computations that there must, logically, be at least two hundred thousand people in Britain who did nothing else but listen to Bell's voice, watch Bell's rice, or read his words, for every waking hour of their lives. The same sycophant had once earned a week of his mentor's approval by seriously floating the idea that Bell should act now to broadcast to the subconscious and thus colonise the dreamscape.
Bell was a heavily-built man in his late thirties. He was thick both straight through and transversely. This would have made him curiously blocky and four-square, had it not been for the fact that his façade was so flat, so two-dimensional, as to cheat the eye. Hardly anyone ever looked at Bell and thought in terms of his mass, his solidity; rather, it was the front that bewitched the eye. Given his reputation, no one could have expected it when seeing him in the flesh, but Bell was good-looking, neat, nicely clean in appearance. His torso was one rectangle, his arms two thinner ones. His legs were congruent with his arms. He wore plain, well-cut suits that emphasised these planes.
This was just as well. More perspicacious, trained observers who managed to stay athwart Bell in, as it were, a potential boarding position for long enough could gain some sense of his true heft. Beneath the finely woven wool was a body of awesome strength. A minotaur body, half-bull, half-man, thick of bone and intractable of muscle. Bell even held himself as the Minotaur might have done: bent forward from the waist, legs braced against the deck of the Sealink, arms pushed out and forward, so as to occupy the most propitious pyramid of space, so as to make good any lack of gravitas with a perfect centre of gravity.
Then there was the head. Once more, all the angles were well exploited by the man. Hardly anyone really knew that Bell was more or less neckless, that a lithic tier of fat 'n' muscle made a pagoda of his upper storey. Hardly anyone not even those who had slept with Bell, who had had those jutting jaws clamped on their remote (or proximate) sensors had noticed the prognathous, not to say primitive, cast of that face. Rather, encountering it from the public, the front-of-house angle, they often found him ... surprisingly pretty.
Glossy black hair hung in loose bangs around a high, white forehead. The eyes were black but warmly so. The flawless complexion was pointed up by a small, bell-shaped birthmark on the edge of his jaw.
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Will Self's story is alluring and genius. Loved it.