Sunday, November 23, 2008

Review of Liver, by Will Self (The Sydney Morning Herald)

Will Self, Liver (Viking; $49.95; 277pp)

The C-word is much in evidence in Will Self’s latest collection of stories. Indeed, in the Plantation Club – a drinking establishment intimately modelled on Soho’s famous Colony Club – ‘“cunt” in its nounal, verbal, adjectival, adverbial and even conjunctive forms was the root word of an entire dialect, the main purpose of which was to communicate either extreme disapprobation or, more rarely, the opposite.’ However, it is to three other C-words that the book owes its real capacity for shock, and, indeed, its power to disgust. Cirrhosis; cancer; and Hepatitis C.

All, of course, diseases of the liver, an organ close to the author’s heart. For while Self has been ‘clean’ for nearly ten years, his history of alcoholism and intravenous drug use has left him only too aware of how lucky he’s been to escape this grim trio. His latest book is about those less fortunate, and Self, as one would expect, is explicit. Like those lurid images of diseased human organs printed on the front of cigarette packets, Liver spares the reader nothing.

The book comprises four short stories. The first, and best, is Foie Humain, which features the establishment mentioned above, the owner of which, Val Carmichael, is perpetrating an alcoholic gavage on his barman and lover Hilary. (A gavage is the process of force-feeding geese in order to enlarge their livers.) The second, and longest, is Leberknödel, in which Joyce, who is suffering from liver cancer, travels to Zurich in search of relief in the form of an assisted suicide, a mission handily symbolised by the tailfin of the Swissair plane, which, our hawk-eyed narrator notes, is a perfect inversion of the medical cross. The third is Prometheus, in which the eponymous Titan is recast as an advertising copywriter subject to regular visits from an eagle that feasts upon his ailing liver. And the fourth is the charming Birdy Num Num, set in a squalid London drug den and narrated by the Hep C virus, which, like the denizens, loves to party.

Needless to say, Self is concerned not only to explore the subject of the liver but also to exploit its metaphoric potential. ‘Blood and bile flowed through the veins of the liverish city; coiled conduits that merged, then branched out into the biliary tree of Soho.’ Indeed, Self’s fiction, concerned as it is to transform societal toxins into art, has certain affinities with the organ itself. But while bile is Self’s strength it is also his weakness in that it leaves him open to the charge of misanthropy. Why, one wonders, does everything in Selfland have to be so incredibly ugly? (‘When the Tosher was in town he toshed all day at his studio, which was above a sanitary-ware manufacturer in Peckham Rye …’ Why not a florist’s in Muswell Hill?) Self, we know, is a Grumpy Old Man whose Grumpiness is inextricable from his genius, but his wrong-end-of-the-telescope view of humanity often results is a lack of empathy that can leave him seeming excessively arch and his characters decidedly more flat than round.

Still, he is a wonderful stylist, alive to the vertical richness of language in all its gaudy variety. From Joycean coinages such as ‘evergloomy’ to the street tmesis of sharp-talking ad men (‘astro-fucking-nomical’) to the stomach-turning descriptions of disease, Self’s high style is vivid and vigilant, such that the adjective ‘Nabokovian’ might not be entirely misplaced. Only occasionally does he go overboard. ‘Joyce shivered in the shiny arrivals hall, then shook as they shuffled along the shushed shopping concourse.’ It seems to me that any editor working half as hard as that sentence would have killed it immediately.

Not that Self, a wordaholic lurching from one slurred strophe to the next, is due for an intervention just yet. On the contrary, he’s a joy to read, and Liver, despite some notable excesses, is a vital organ in the Selfian corpus.

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