Will Self and Contemporary British Society


Will Self and Contemporary British Society
By Graham Matthews
Palgrave Macmillan – £58.00

There’s no denying the fact that Will Self, like Gore Vidal, Christopher Hitchens and perhaps even Julie Burchill, is a writer of high velocity’n’vitriol in the most equal of considered measure. Whether reading about his work or the actual works themselves, Self never fails entertain and taunt, question and provoke.

At best, he never fails to least idiosyncratically inspire.

Much the same can be applied to Will Self and Contemporary British Society, which is why I should imagine Graham Matthews – who is Associate Professor in the Department of English, Culture, and Communication at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in China – initially embarked on writing the book to begin with. As one can tell almost immediately, that Matthews is probably as eclectic in his reading as Self is in his writing.

There’s an undeniable correlation betwixt the two; although admittedly, the man in question flies high and untethered amid the unknown vortex of invention, whereas the author of this book writes about that invention: ”The review is typical of Self’s work and displays his predilection for combining the quotidian with the absurd: banal subject matter with scholarly rigour; flights of imaginative fancy with commonsensical assertions; the ephemeral with the eternal. He is often presented as a bilious individual but, like many satirists, is content with his bile, and presents his excoriating criticism as preferable to the morass of hypertrophy, hypocrisy and illimitable dullness of the contemporary world” (‘Introduction’).

Absolutely spot on.

Self would, from a literal perspective at least, far sooner hyperventilate through the ”hypocrisy and illimitable dullness of the contemporary world” in every which way imaginable.

Of whom else for instance, would a critique pertain to and be ”transported in and out of quintillions of vaginas,” whereby ”sex is always already a discursive practice,” due to ”the essentialist notion that biology is destiny?”

Writing in the fourth chapter ”Fucking and fighting’: Will Self and Gender,’ Matthews traverses through the gender persuasion and much of the aforesaid, by tackling head-on, the hopeless Viagra of Victorian values in writing: There is no sex that is not already viewed through the prism of gender performativity. Instead the social appearance of gender is policed by a series of compulsory frames that are determined by the binary ethics of sexual difference. In a similar way, Self disputes normative assumptions regarding masculinity and femininity and their relationship to biological sex to argue instead that masculinity, and by extension, gender, is not predominantly determined by biology but by social norms. For Self, gender is indeterminate, not essential:

Yet whenever I’ve voiced this sense of indeterminacy which surrounds my masculinity and inheres in my very encoding – the combinations of deoxyribonucleic acids that make me one – men smirk, women laugh, and the consensus is that I could not be any more of a man if I shaved my head, pierced my foreskin, shoved a rag soaked with butyl nitrate in my face and joined a conga line of buggery.”

Thus, to determine if not describe these 172 pages (excluding Notes, Bibliography and Index) as a calibrated confluence of academia and an inflammatory roller-coaster, wouldn’t be too far off the mark.

As Dr Daniel Lea (who is the Principal Lecturer in Contemporary Literature at Oxford Brookes University) nigh substantiates: ”Graham Matthews’ study is an excellent introduction to Self’s writing, which is accessible in approach without ever sacrificing intellectual depth or complexity. There are many interesting theoretical interventions throughout which give it range and bite, and he expertly captures the violence, virtuosity, and vitriol of his subject.”

Indeed, each of the book’s six chapters penetrate right through the high-octane embrace of current-day, benign and rather dormant, literal languidity – for which one ought to be eternally grateful. For which one ought to yelp Halleluja from a menagerie of indeterminate rooftops.

That ”Self’s work should be considered as fragments of a larger, necessarily incomplete satiric project that deconstructs contemporary myths by portraying them at their most grotesque and degenerate extremes,” is what partially makes both him and this excellent book, so very, very readable. There again, when ”considered in its entirety, Self’s work reveals itself to be part of the long tradition of English literature that links the act of writing to social responsibility.”

David Marx

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