Usually branded as "mainstream" by commentators from the speculative fiction community and "a bit weird" by everyone else, Will Self's bizarre fiction occupies a literary no man's land alongside the work of his keenly acknowledged influences, J.G. Ballard and William Burroughs. Like those authors, Self undeniably has something of the fantasist about him, although he generally employs spec-fic tropes for their satirical effect only—his approach to the fantastic being an entirely utilitarian one. An acidic, pugnacious satirist in the Swiftean mode, Self invests his stories with a kind of grotesque surrealism, undermining reality in order to expose these unconscious, inner landscapes.
Self's latest collection of short stories—actually four shorts and a novella—is his first since 1998's Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys. It's a form perfectly suited to his pithy prose and dry wit, and Self is one of the UK's few mainstream authors for whom the form remains a commercially viable one. Dr Mukti and Other Tales of Woe is a return of sorts to the themes and concerns addressed in his first book—the 1991 collection The Quantity Theory of Insanity—offering an icy dip into the waters of London's post-millennial discontent.
The collection is dominated by the novella "Dr Mukti," which makes up half the book. The titular protagonist is a fortysomething consultant psychiatrist at St Mungo's, a more than averagely decrepit National Health Service hospital located in Central London. A second generation British Hindu of Brahmin caste, Dr Shiva Mukti is a bitterly unhappy man, deeply frustrated by the lack of achievement that characterises his professional life and the cold, sexless marriage that dominates his private. After a chance meeting at a mental-health conference, Mukti finds himself entering into a bizarre psychological duel with the (in)famous Jewish radical psychiatrist Dr Zack Busner of nearby Heath Hospital—a familiar face to readers of previous Self fictions. Mukti and Busner wield their patients as human weapons, referring their most intractable cases to each other's care as if they were bombs in need of defusing. Increasingly paranoid and delusional, Mukti imagines he is the victim of a secret cabal of Psycho-Zionists headed by Busner himself, and his trajectory spirals towards the tale's tragic conclusion with all the inevitability of a slowly jack-knifing lorry.
An ingeniously twisted tale of insanity and obsession, "Dr Mukti" is rich in ideas and imagery; a tour de force of professional hubris and personal psychodrama. It's also extremely funny, bitterly sardonic and chock full of wit, comfortably holding its head up alongside Self's previous works.
Whilst dwarfed by the title story, appearing almost anecdotal by contrast, the other four stories in the collection nonetheless provide a sturdy thematic backbone to the main piece. "161" describes an unlikely relationship between a lonely pensioner and the teenage thug who takes refuge in his dilapidated council flat in order to escape a kicking at the hands of his dealer mates. It's a deliberately languid, sluggish piece, bloated with Self's trademark metaphors; it's also the most noticeably Ballardian story here, closely concerned as it is with the subtle erosion of identity against an anonymous urban backdrop.
"Five Swing Walk" packs considerably more punch, following the decidedly un-parental mental travels of a weekend father as he walks his kids around an inner city playground—the "five swing walk" of the title, closely stalked by the metaphorical spectre of misfortune. Characteristically misanthropic, it's a doom-laden tale of loss and regret, and is probably the bleakest piece here, which is saying something.
Meanwhile, "Conversations with Ord" concerns two disturbed and lonely middle-aged men as they wander the footpaths and parks of south London, playing mental go-chess and enacting imaginary conversations between Ord—a brutal, flamboyant and aggressively homosexual general and the greatest military commander of the 21st Century—and his toadyish biographer, Flambard. "Conversations" is the funniest piece in the book, as well as an acute examination of the latent psychology in so many volatile, fractious adult friendships—a recurring theme throughout the collection.
The final piece—"Return to the Planet of the Humans"—is a short sequel to Self's second novel Great Apes, in which artist Simon Dykes awakes one morning to find himself, and indeed, the rest of humanity, transformed into chimpanzees. Whilst the rest of the world considers this to be the 'normal' state of affairs, Dykes continues to persist in the delusion that he is still "human." After reaching a catharsis of sorts at the end of that novel, Dykes is suddenly and violently returned to "our" world, in which, of course, he is now convinced he's a chimp. "Return" is possibly the most throwaway piece here, and yet still manages to provide a funny, satisfying coda to the novel.
Self's distinctively overwrought prose and fondness for simile and metaphor remains a sticking point for some, as does his unflinching cynicism and almost casual disdain for plot and characterisation. The stories in this collection are unlikely to change anyone's mind about that. Whilst he uncharacteristically displays a small amount of empathy for certain characters, Self, for the most part, adopts his usual chilly, unsympathetic vantage point from which to observe their fortunes. Supremely detached and aloof, he picks off his targets with the clinical precision of a master sniper. Despite the laughs, there is an unremitting harshness to much of Self's work that can occasionally be trying.
Nevertheless, Dr Mukti and Other Tales of Woe remains a remarkable collection by a remarkable writer. Self aficionados are unlikely to be disappointed, whilst new readers who can ignore Self's occasionally over-smug cleverness will find in this volume a terrific introduction to his work.
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