WHEN WILL SELF PUBLISHED his first short story collection, 1991’s The Quantity Theory of Insanity, British critics heralded the book as if it signaled the abolishment of hangovers or rain. Readers now might wonder at the high praise, but at the time Self’s odd mix of Ballardian themes and hyper-vivid sentences, all puffed along by gags and goofy tropes, registered like an electric shock. (The US press, in contrast, seems to have been immune — in 1995 The New York Times criticized the excessive dourness of the collection, and included the almost Selfian sentence: “To be alive and British, it seems, is as unattractive and dull as being dead.”) The British critics, however rapturous at first, didn’t extend their adulation to his follow up efforts, such as 1997’s Great Apes. “[A]fter 300 pages of 'Chimpunity'; 'Grease humans', 'Anton Mosichimp' and so on, faith in the sustained satiric purpose of the fantasy may give way to the view that the main difference between the chimp world and the human consists in an abundance of puns,” wrote Sam Leith in a review of Great Apes. He was still a fine prose writer, they agreed, but Self’s cheaper tricks were wearing thin.
The attention Self received from his early success set him up for a highly publicized nosedive. Though it pains me to bring up the same old trivia, in 1997 Self was caught taking heroin on the private jet of John Major (then Prime Minister), marking his switch from literary wunderkind to tabloid touchstone. He was fired from his job at The Observer, even though it had been playing on his gonzo image for months (“Will Self Back On Drugs Again” ran one front page). Self quit drugs for good in 1998 and embarked on a second career as a television personality. I first saw his face when he appeared on Shooting Stars, a surreal comedy panel show that used to be on the BBC. As a teenager I liked him because his persona was borderline depressive, a black hole in the middle of the carnival. I also remember marveling at his name, which sounded too good to be real — I was certain it was a comic pseudonym, like Mr. Bean.
To this day, Self is recognizable as a “personality” first and foremost in Britain. Even my mum, a reliable litmus test for celebrity, knows his name, though she assumed he was a stand-up comedian. When I told her I was reviewing one of his books she said “Oh, he’s written a book has he?” Up until recently Self’s readership has remained relatively small. A burp on BBC One is worth 1000 pages of finely wrought prose.
Perhaps because of this imbalance of exposure, Self has chiefly kept to the written word in recent years, edging away from mainstream celebrity. Always a prolific journalist (he has two columns in the New Statesman, reviews books for The Guardian, writes numerous features for other magazines and periodicals, and is even in talks to become BBC Radio 4’s “writer in residence”), his fictional output has been equally numerous. Early novels like Cock and Bull, Great Apes and How the Dead Live were modern day satires (Jonathan Swift was an acknowledged influence) filled with a jovial loathing of human physicality. For a while it seemed as if Self wanted to provoke our disgust as well as our cringing...