In many ways, Will Self occupies the same territory as William Hogarth – not just in the obsession with a grotesque, exaggerated London milieu, but in his coruscating atomisation of self indulgence within a grossly unequal society. His journalism has been one of the most serious and sustained attempts to expose the facile, childish (above all, childish) nature of contemporary British society, and his recent fascination with “psychogeography”, a loose system of topographical analysis linked to the French Situationists of the 1960s (and in this country exemplified most brilliantly by the great Iain Sinclair) has pushed his writing towards odd borders and peculiar landscapes; rather than satirising the culture at large, he seems to have been digging deeper into more eternal verities. His fiction, on the other hand, has been mostly ephemeral; bold ideas that, while being very funny and well-executed, contribute little to the debate he has initiated in his journalism.
When he gave the 2010 WG Sebald Lecture, accompanying this with an article in the Guardian that pointed to the increasing influence the German writer has had over his work, I started to think that if he could combine the brilliance of his journalism with the intense peculiarity of his imagination, and then marry this to Sebald’s example, he could produce something really extraordinary. Sebald’s mixture of fact, fiction, historical analysis, careful juxtaposition of text and image, and elegiac style, would be a brilliant counterpoint to Self’s exuberant, baroque prose, the grotesqueries of his imagination, and the weirdness of his obsessions. “Walking to Hollywood” is the result, a deeply strange blend of pseudo-memoir and fiction, and it is about two-thirds of a masterpiece. A triptych of linked parts, each one explores the effects of a different psychological illness that Self claims to have suffered from, or is currently experiencing, and the way this has filtered into his obsessions. As in Sebald, small black and white photographs break up the text.
In the first part, “Very Little”, Self recalls his friendship with Sherman Oaks, a dwarf who has forged a career as a successful artist through constructing vast, Antony Gormley-style scaled-up models of himself that he has positioned across the landscape. Suicidal, tormented by OCD and guilt, Self travels to Canada and the USA and undertakes a series of curative walks from airports to city centres, ostensibly to appear at literary festivals and book readings.
The second and least successful part is “Walking to Hollywood”, a deranged noir pastiche, where Self undertakes a long walking tour from LAX to Hollywood in order to find out “who killed the movies”. In this bizarre fantasy land where everyone is played by a famous actor, even Self is not himself; he’s either Pete Postlethwaite or David Thewlis, depending on how charitable he’s feeling; Bret Easton Ellis is played by a young Orson Welles; studio executives are played by Robert de Niro, and so on. Enervated by a violent loathing for Mike Myers and his recently-released “The Love Guru”, Will/Pete/David stumbles through a plastic wonderland where at any point he might transform into the Incredible Hulk and destroy the freeway, or indulge in a hilarious fight scene with Daniel Craig’s stunt double, where he lists with clinical precision the exact nature of the bone-crunching wounds sustained screen fights would produce in real life. Schizophrenia is the medical diagnosis underpinning this section, Self’s regular psychiatrist characters Drs Zack Busner and Shiva Mukti granted an appearance here to provoke him further. It all goes on far too long, and such sustained fantasy cannot help but become dull in the end.
“Spurn Head”, the final section, is his masterpiece. Suffering from early-onset alzheimer’s, which has made his everyday life ghostly and spectral, Self has shackled himself to a series of mnemonic devices, lists and litanies which are repeated throughout the section like prayers. Undertaking a final, elegiac walking tour around the Holderness Coast, which is sheering off into the sea at a rate of several feet a year, Self conceives the walk as a “unique walk of erasure”. By keeping six feet from the shore at all times, he will be walking a path that within a few years will cease to exist – “a forty mile metaphor for my own embattled persona […] Perhaps it was also sympathetic magic: the walk devised as a ritualized erection of groynes, which might impede the longshore drift of my psyche.” A landscape as spectral as his psyche, littered with abandoned military structures, with houses given up by their owners before they fall into the sea, in economic decay, a liminal space between worlds where Death and the ancient form of one of Jonathan Swift’s Struldbruggs haunt the coastal paths … this is Will Self writing at the peak of his powers, channelling the twin influences of JG Ballard and WG Sebald, constructing something immensely moving, and in his prose demonstrating the strange beauty of exactness and precision.
If “Spurn Head” had formed the core of the book, or had been published on its own entire, Self would have produced something that made his peers look witless and dull. It is a great piece of writing, but the book as a whole feels lopsided for the dominance of the central section, which, like his earlier fiction, just feels like a throwaway conceit extended beyond its purpose. Still, no one else writes like this, and if it’s not quite the great work that he is definitely capable of, it points with great interest in the right direction.