By Will Self
Hardback; 256 pages,
Will Self’s new collection, Psycho Too, intensifies the vast trek Self has taken through the places and mindsets of the globe over the past seven years; a trek made viscerally surreal by the scattered, explosive paintings of Ralph Steadman. ‘Psychogeography’ in Self’s conception takes a plethora of potential meanings, exploring the ability of place to impinge on the individual’s mind, and the individual’s creation of a place. He explores the interplay of the state or country and the citizen, ranging between the micro of the mind to the macro of the surrounding landscape.
In the reproduced columns, Self’s mental and physical meanderings take the reader on an erratic tour of the planet: from the ‘wretched and seemingly useless’ countryside around LA, where our sardonic guide realises the folly of driving for eight hours to take a half hour walk, through the Basingstoke-esque cityscape of Santiago, to England’s rapidly eroding Holderness coast. Self’s interest in the unnoticed interspaces of the world is illustrated with darkly drawn, yet at times surprisingly tender, tableaux. He dwells, for example, on the Isle of Thanet – ‘the very coccyx of Britain.’ With dank glee, he contrasts the current noisy and run down state of the area with its past as Charles Dickens’s ‘chosen resort and retreat of jaded intellectuals and exhausted nature.’ The highlight of his visit is two men that he observes metal detecting – ‘Disaster! One metal detector detected the other, and one treasure seeker grasped for the other’s wand.’ It is these observations of the small and tiresome goings on in scrubby and forgotten places that provide a picture of bleak suburban charm.
These drab interspaces of modern life are peopled by the forgotten and outcast. One who stands out is Peter Buxton, a hermit whose strange life is pieced together over two articles. In Self’s initial analysis, he suggests Peter is architecturally responsible for ‘much of the high-rise dehumanisation of the East End,’ and breaks down as the result of an epiphany of conscience regarding the towers. This man, held responsible for the shunned modern cityscapes Self revels in exploring, understandably draws the psychogeographer. However, responses from those who knew Peter reveal his earlier life to stand in a more complex relation to urban geography. It is his failure to improve the quality of life of those living in London’s developments against the onslaught of quick and soulless development which causes Peter’s breakdown. This intricate picture of a man psychologically bound to the landscapes of modernity he creates reveals a recurring theme of Self’s travels: that humans and their created landscapes interact in cycles of dehumanisation and failure.
Stories such as Peter’s reveal the observed reality behind the surreal grotesques and the invented landscapes of Self’s novels: Lily Bloom in deathly Dulston, or Dave Rudman with his vast Knowledge of London. Reality and fantasy are intertwined in this way in Psycho Too. Self has an eye for sinister silliness not unlike that of Flann O’Brien, and his satirical fantasies are some of the most entertaining pieces in the collection. His ‘Top 5 Winter Walks’, flicking playfully in time and place, proposes a 400 mile stroll between Herat and Kabul, or a wander in the style of Samuel Pepys recommended for the 15th January 1665. The great vomit wave of 2008 spreads through the world as an indictment of our consumerism coming back to haunt us in the form of recession. Needless to say, bankers get a bad press in Self’s more acerbic columns.
However, the most impressive piece of writing in the collection is the extended essay which opens Psycho Too and records Self’s walk from the London home of his dying mentor J. G. Ballad to ‘The World’ development on the coast of the United Arab Emirates. The draw of the UAE for Self is easy to see: the unreal, high-tech dream developments in Dubai and on the coast, which reveal at their base the failure and perversity of these human projects of advancement. Self’s own optimistic project soon turns to failure as he struggles to ‘connect a Romantic myth to a geographic location,’ and the potential sublimity of this Emerald City raised from the empty wastes of the desert is pierced with its own dismal reality. The city, existing in a permanent state of ‘U/C’, is built on the suffering of desperate immigrants and the vast divide between the developers and the horrendously poor under classes.
Self’s ability to describe the dead areas of modernity is brilliantly exemplified in this essay. As inept humanity intrudes into the embattled waste land of the desert, he witnesses ‘the landscape herself shift and shrug, as she asserted the primacy of her deeply sensual topography against the adolescent fumblings of man.’ The walk to The World archipelago is one of ambition and failure as the writer resorts to driven transport, defeated as Dubai itself is by the onslaught of the desert and its heat.
The World is emblematic of this deflated dream. Like Dubai, it exists largely in the imagination: architectural models and computerised projections on promotional websites. On arriving, Self finds the project unfinished, the money dried up and the buyers disinterested. With only one island so far developed and the others intriguingly untouched (look on Google Earth – a surreal sight) Self does not even achieve his aim of walking the length of the ‘Great Britain Island’, instead being dropped off on Germany’s miniaturised shores. While this walk, an homage to Ballard, may have appeared to have failed, its discovery of the ultimate human failure in the face of relentless modernity and impossible dreams could not be more Ballardian.
While Self’s work is unlikely to attract the description ‘affirming,’ for all its occasional vitriol and world weary discussion of life’s greyer aspects, this collection is more conscious of the pleasure to be found in exploring the ignored and outcast than Self’s previous collected journalism.