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Will: A Memoir


Will: A Memoir

On several levels, novelist Will Self’s memoir, WILL, is anything but an easy read. Whether it’s his discursive style, his assumption of the reader’s familiarity with British slang and drug-related argot, or the sheer unpleasantness of his life as a heroin addict, there are many moments when you almost certainly will wish to be relieved of his company. But if you are looking for a painfully honest exploration of the nightmare of addiction, one that’s offered with a large helping of ironic humor, then you’ll find that Self, if often an unappealing companion, is rarely an uninteresting one.

WILL is divided into five non-chronological sections that offer slices of its author’s life from his first encounter with heroin --- as a 17-year-old in 1979 --- to his grim stint in rehab in 1986. In between, we follow him to places that include Nepal, where he ventures into the Himalayas with his wealthy friend, Caius, and Australia, on a motorcycle trip that has him covering the 2,500 perilous and unforgiving miles from Darwin, on the northern coast, to Canberra in the south. Among his misadventures, Self overdoses (twice), sets himself on fire --- “his jeans merrily combusting, blue-yellow tongues of flame licking towards his groin” --- survives at least one car accident, and escapes unscathed after an arrest for drug possession in Wales.

"This is a disturbing trip through a benighted world that most people will be fortunate never to experience, something for which they should be profoundly grateful."

Writing in the third person, Self is a keen, remarkably unsparing observer of his disastrous early adulthood. There are scenes that are grim, such as the few days he passes in extreme intestinal distress in the New Delhi YMCA hostel, watching a passion play rehearsal from his window. Others are grimly funny, as when the aspiring cartoonist, in his third year at Oxford, is summoned for an impromptu oral examination after he decides to decorate his final exam paper in philosophy with a drawing of Jean-Paul Sartre next to a similarly proportioned hammer and captioned ACTUAL SIZE. The only positive feature of the experience is that Self’s pain doesn’t last long.

Amid the chaos, he faithfully evokes the “immemorial quality of the drug culture he was swagged in, its ossified moth-eaten mores and tatty mythology.” There’s nothing glamorous about Self’s desperation for a fix, as in the book’s hallucinatory opening section, when he “kneels on the floor outside the barred door of another junky who isn’t even a dealer himself, only someone who scores for others so he can nick a bit of their gear,” pleading for drugs through the mail slot as he proffers a couple of pastries in payment, in lieu of the cash he lacks.

He offers frequent glimpses of his upbringing in the “warm and enfolding arms of the hated bourgeoisie” by an English father who left the family when Self was nine, and an American-born mother who uses the terms “claustro” and “aggro” as her “pet names for her disabling phobias, which can leave her paralysed for hours, unable to face either the constrictions of the outside world or the barren expanse of her own domesticity.” Self frequently quotes some of her favorite phrases, like “waste not, want not,” or “that’ll make good copy,” italicizing them for emphasis.

For all his self-absorption and the litany of his self-destructive escapades, Self grows on the reader in odd ways. In one charming episode, he describes how he ran away from home as a child, a “three-year-old bolter from the marriage of hysteria and solipsism.” In another --- at an elevation of 13,000 feet in the Himalayas --- he instantly recognizes the irony of the contrast between the mountain peaks’ “amazing grandeur” and the way he and Caius were immobilized “by a combination of altitude sickness and heroin addiction.”

There’s even a certain poignancy in Self’s blistering account of his time in 12-step rehab, a program he dismisses as a “bogus syncretism of evangelical Christianity and sub-Freudian psychotherapy.” It arises from the fact that his treatment is being financed by his despised mother, in a last desperate effort to save her son from self-destruction. And when he concludes the account with the story of the premature death of a mentally ill friend, it seems Self appreciates how close he came to sharing that fate.

WILL traverses the same dark territory as the late New York Times reporter David Carr’s THE NIGHT OF THE GUN or the harrowing novel CHERRY, by Nico Walker, while Self nods to Thomas De Quincey’s 19th-century memoir, CONFESSIONS OF AN ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER. His manic style evokes both Hunter S. Thompson and Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange, and unless you’re familiar with terms like “skint,” “dosh,” “kushty,” “gaff” and “havering,” expect to be reaching frequently for a dictionary. This is a disturbing trip through a benighted world that most people will be fortunate never to experience, something for which they should be profoundly grateful.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on January 31, 2020

Will: A Memoir
by Will Self

  • Publication Date: January 19, 2021
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802158285
  • ISBN-13: 9780802158284