Will Self - Liver And Other Stories
This article is from 2009.
'If you are offended by a certain four letter word beginning in 'c' and ending in 't',' Will Self addresses his salt-and-pepper Edinburgh Book Festival audience, 'I suggest you leave now. If you are of a nervous or emotional disposition, I suggest you go home and feed your cat.'
He issues this warning before introducing the first story from Liver, his latest collection, which was published last autumn and reissued in paperback in June. Before he’s finished reading, several of his audience have left the tent.
In this story, titled 'Foie Humain' ('Human Liver'), we are dropped into the seedy Soho surrounds of the Plantation Club feeling much like the eighteen-year-old Self on first entering the Colony Room, the infamous drinking den on which his fictional Club is modelled. Despite his ‘far from sheltered’ adolescence, Self was apparently shocked by the Colony Room’s patrons: not only by their 'high camp' but by their expletives. In 'Foie Humain', then, the Plantation Club is a place where 'cunt’ in its nounal, verbal, adjectival, adverbial and even conjunctive forms was the root word of an entire dialect'.
Will Self’s Liver, subtitled ‘A Fictional Organ with a Surface Anatomy of Four Lobes’, consists of four of short stories bound by their subjects’ ailing eponymous organs. These disparate subjects include the Plantation Club alcoholics; a middle-class liver cancer patient; a Greek Cypriot ‘adman’, Prometheus, who has his liver gobbled up by a vulture; and some junkies waiting for their fix (as seen by a hepatitis C virus).
Self likes metaphors. He likes playing with them and testing their limits. In ‘Foie Humain’, the alcoholism-inducing attention bestowed on new Plantation Club members is ‘akin to the force-feeding – or gavage – whereby a poultry farmer in the Dordogne transforms the liver of a duck or goose into foie gras’. This conceit lies in waiting until the plot’s final and unexpected twist.
But the effect isn’t always so neat. Much of Liver’s prose is clogged with gratuitous imagery. Self’s mini-character sketches are incisive (the ‘British Home Stores bolsters of wives’ is a good one) but moments of brilliance are too often lost in the sinewy tangles of sentences that seem to go on for ever.
The short-form is perhaps the literary mode best suited to a mind like this. Demimonde Soho, sterile Swiss hotel and Chelsea Bridge penthouse provide the backdrops for detailed slices of life primed for satire. Images of London – corporeal and bilious, viewed from above (‘the tapeworm of the Thames, the fatty deposits of Broadgate’) – recycle themselves like the regenerating organ of the book’s title. These are the best bits in Liver: snapshots of diseased systems and damaged relationships. If only one didn’t have to sift through so much undigested bile to reach them.