Self, Will(iam) 1961-
SELF, Will(iam) 1961-
PERSONAL: Born 1961, in London, England; son of Peter (a college professor) and Elaine (a publisher; maiden name, Rosenbloom) Self; married Kate Chancellor, June 13, 1990 (marriage ended); married Deborah Orr (an editor); children: Alexis, Madeleine. Education: Attended Oxford University, 1979-92, received M.A. (with honors).
ADDRESSES: Agent—Ed Victor, 6 Bayley St., Bedford Sq., London WC1B 3HB, England.
CAREER: Worked as a clerk and a laborer. Full-time writer.
AWARDS, HONORS: John Llewellyn Rhys Prize shortlist, 1991; Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, 1992, for The Quantity Theory of Insanity; voted one of twenty best young British writers in Granta, 1993; Booker Prize, 2002, for An Imitation.
The Quantity Theory of Insanity (short stories), Bloomsbury (London, England), 1991, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 1995.
Cock and Bull (two novellas), Atlantic Monthly Press (London, England), 1992.
My Idea of Fun: A Cautionary Tale (novel), Bloomsbury (London, England), 1993, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 1994.
Grey Area and Other Stories, Bloomsbury (London, England), 1994.
Junk Mail, Bloomsbury (London, England), 1995.
The Sweet Smell of Psychosis, illustrations by Martin Rowson, Bloomsbury (London, England), 1996, Grove Press (New York, NY), 1999.
A Story for Europe, Bloomsbury (London, England), 1996.
Great Apes, Grove Press (New York, NY), 1997.
Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys, Grove Press (New York, NY), 1999.
How the Dead Live, Grove Press (New York, NY), 2000.
Perfidious Man, Viking (London, England), 2000.
(With Stephen Levinson) Antony Gormley: Some of the Facts, Tate Gallery (London, England), 2001.
Dorian: An Imitation, Grove Press (New York, NY), 2003.
Also author of The Rock of Crack As Big As the Ritz, 1995. Contributor of cartoons to periodicals, including New Statesman and City Limits, and of articles and reviews to periodicals, including Esquire, Harper's, and Independent.
SIDELIGHTS: The works of Will Self are distinguished by their black humor and uncompromising themes. Self is the author of short stories, such as those collected in The Quantity Theory of Insanity and The Grey Area and Other Stories, as well as longer works of fiction, among them the two novellas that comprise Cock and Bull and the novel Dorian: An Imitation. In Vanity Fair Zoë Heller observed that "the tone of Quantity Theory—both energetic and strangely lugubrious—was often profoundly discomfiting. And it was not difficult to guess that Self's thematic preoccupations—madness, altered states, the sinister authority of the psychiatric establishment—refracted a painful biography."
Madness is a topic that repeatedly appears within the stories included in Self's first collection, The Quantity Theory of Insanity. In "Ward 9," for example, an art therapist suffers a nervous breakdown and enters a mental asylum. The title story is based upon the proposition "that sanity is a finite quantity in any given social group," according to Nick Hornby in the Times Literary Supplement. Hornby pointed out that Self's stories are "full of dreary but threatening institutions," and added: "Though you wouldn't want to live in the Self universe . . . in the end, you are grateful that he has gone through the agonies necessary for its creation."
The novellas in Cock and Bull both concern an inexplicable metamorphosis which transforms the respective main characters into the opposite sex. In Bull one-time rugby player John Bull awakens one morning to discover that he has a vagina located behind his knee. "John Bull's behavior grows more and more feminine as he starts coping with premenstrual tension, water weight gain and hormonal ups and downs," Michiko Kakutani elaborated in the New York Times. Seeking help from his physician, Bull visits Dr. Alan Margoulies, but the doctor becomes obsessed with Bull's condition and attempts to seduce him. "Margoulies' infatuation with Bull—or, rather, his new plaything—is a witty satire on the kind of man who is obsessed with women's sex organs and ignores the rest of them," commented Rhoda Koenig in New York. Koenig also noted that "the doctor gets his comeuppance, and Bull, who also acquires feminine qualities of vulnerability, finds satisfaction in a unique homosexual relationship."
Like Bull, the protagonist of Cock also undergoes a sexual transformation. This time, Carol, a homemaker, grows a penis and develops increasingly masculine traits. She begins to dominate her alcoholic husband and eventually, according to Julie Wheelwright in theNew Statesman, "enacts a rape as revenge for her husband's sexual ineptitude." Kakutani pointed out the perceived "blatant sexism" of the novella, writing that, "In Cock, we learn that the woman who stands up for herself relinquishes her femininity and literally turns into a man, in Carol's case a particularly foul-minded man filled with homicidal rage." However, Wheelright maintained that the altered sex organs of Bull and Carol "appear as satirical metaphors of liberation." Self explained in Vanity Fair that he wrote Cock and Bull to voice his "anger at the way gender-based sexuality is so predetermined, the way we fit into our sex roles as surely as if we had cut them off the back of a cereal packet and pasted them onto ourselves."
In 1993 Self issued his first full-length novel, My Idea of Fun: A Cautionary Tale. The story is about Ian Wharton, who chooses people at random to kill and mutilate in grotesque ways. Except for his past mentor, Samuel Northcliffe, no one suspects Ian of committing such heinous crimes. The themes in My Idea of Fun include madness and sexual confusion. Will Blythe commented in Esquire that this "impressively deranged" book "belongs to a whole new genre devoted to the psycho killer and the severed limb." Blythe concluded, "Self's extraordinary novel is an allegory of diseased consciousness, a parable for a decade when what trickled down was not money but scorn for those without it." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly called Self a "master of the grotesque" whose book uses "vivid, jarringly unsavory imagery, richly erudite diction and a persuasive, engaging narrative voice."
In Self's Great Apes London artist Simon Dykes wakes up to a world inhabited by chimpanzees. Although he notices that he too seems to be turning into a chimpanzee, his denial lands him in a mental institution. Dykes' therapist is Dr. Zack Busner, a maverick researcher who takes his most intriguing cases onto talk shows. Barbara Hoffert in Library Journal noted that while Self "can be very funny," the novel as a whole is not persuasive, partly due to the author's extensive use of profanity and focus on sex. Although Gary Krist admitted in the New York Times Book Review that Great Apes is not "a book that will delight everyone," he deemed it Self's "most satisfying book so far." In Booklist a critic compared Self's satire to the work of Franz Kafka and Jonathan Swift, adding that this novel "hypnotizes with its comic romps, existential posturings, and Shakespearean intrigues." A Kirkus Reviews contributor described Great Apes as "vividly imagined, extraordinarily credible, provocative and entertaining in equal measure."
The Sweet Smell of Psychosis satirizes London's media establishment. Richard Hermes is a new arrival in that milieu, and he is quickly drawn into the cocaine-driven, oversexed heart of it all. It does not take long for Hermes to go "from media hack to media whore," as Veronica Scrol put it in Booklist. Although he is in love with a woman named Ursula Bently, he winds up sleeping with a hateful but powerful man named Bell, a newspaper columnist and talk-show host on radio and television. Critiquing the book for the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Brian Budzynski commented that "Self's body of work is perhaps best termed as idiosyncratic; its rendering of the unusual and perverted as familiar and attractive is wonderful. In this sense, The Sweet Smell of Psychosis is nothing short of incredible."
Self drew comparisons with the satirist Jonathan Swift upon publication of his novel How the Dead Live. Both authors share a "misanthropic side" and make use of "outlandish scenarios," noted Bonnie Smothers in Booklist. A Publishers Weekly writer commented of the book: "Running on a vatic rage that is almost Swiftian in the totality of its object—the damned human condition—it sweeps across the charnel-fields of contemporary existence."As the title suggests, Self concerns himself here with death. The main character, Lily Bloom, is shown in various states of death and dying throughout the tale. Self uses Lily's marginal position to offer unique perspective on a culture that is centered on desire. As Bonnie Smothers remarked in Booklist, "The satire is biting, even cruel, but like most well-conceived satire, it offers rich food for thought."
In Dorian: An Imitation Self updates the classic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, by nineteenth-century Irish writer Oscar Wilde, bringing the story of London's decadent underworld into the late years of the twentieth century. In Self's version, Dorian is a young man whose naked body is featured on an art installation titled "Cathode Narcissus." As the years pass by, Dorian's image on the screens degrades, while he somehow seems to escape the HIV-AIDS epidemic, despite his risky sexual habits and intravenous drug use. Dorian's story is entwined with that of Princess Diana, from the time of her marriage until her death in an automobile accident in Paris. Helen Elliott, a reviewer for the Weekend Australian, found Dorian to be "a hurtling, fascinating and dangerously amusing novel"; the critic added that "there's an infuriating epilogue that makes you wonder at everything you've just read." Reflecting on the surprising twist at the book's end, Neil Bartlett remarked in a review for the Guardian: "Self's reincarnation of Dorian has taken the fag ends of both an English century and an English myth and given them new, troubling and hugely entertaining life."
Grey Area and Other Stories is a collection of nine short stories that depict the lives of people whose environments are so dull and meaningless that they escape into complex inner worlds. Self demonstrates that the distinctions between sanity and insanity are not always perfectly clear. A Booklist contributor called Self a "caustic yet competent critic of society," noting that in these stories, the "commonplace becomes awkward and surreal, allowing revelations and fresh insight to surface." In New Statesman and Society Mary Scott commented, "Self's talent, like that of the best crime writers, is to drop . . . the clues that would enable us to reach his conclusions for ourselves—if we had his gift."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Novelists, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 207: British Novelists since 1960, Third Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Advocate, March 4, 2003, David Bahr, review of Dorian: An Imitation, p. 74.
Atlantic, March, 2003, review of Dorian, p. 111.
Booklist, December 1, 1995; August 19, 1997; April 1, 1999, Bonnie Smothers, review of Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys, p. 1387; August, 1999, Veronica Scrol, review of The Sweet Smell of Psychosis, p. 2029; August, 2000, Bonnie Smothers, review of How the Dead Live, p. 2113; December 1, 2002, Frank Caso, review of Dorian, p. 648.
Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Australia), December 21, 2002, Craig Boland, review of Dorian, p. 72.
Economist, July 15, 2000, review of How the Dead Live, p. 13.
Esquire, April, 1994, p. 164.
Gentleman's Quarterly, June, 1999, Thomas Mallon, "Self-made World," p. 134.
Granta 43, spring, 1993, p. 259.
Guardian, September 21, 2002, Neil Bartlett, review of Dorian, p. 26; July 5, 2003, Will Self, "It's a Wild, Wilde World," p. 31.
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 1997.
Library Journal, October 1, 1997, p. 126; May 1, 1999, Joshua Cohen, review of Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys, p. 115; November 15, 2002, David W. Henderson, review of Dorian, p. 103.
London Review of Books, October 7, 1993, p. 20; June 19, 1997, p. 21.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 17, 1994, p. 4.
New Statesman, October 30, 1992, p. 35; November 25, 1994, p. 41; June 13, 1997, p. 44; May 1, 1998, p. 55; December 18, 2000, review of Perfidious Man, p. 54.
New York, May 17, 1993, p. 87; September 1, 1997, p. 49.
New Yorker, April 11, 1994, p. 89.
New York Times, May 31, 1993; June 3, 1994, p. C24; September 12, 1997, p. C31; January 5, 2003, Sophie Harrison, review of Dorian, p. 6.
New York Times Book Review, April 24, 1994, p. 27; February 26, 1995, p. 11; May 26, 1996, p. 9; September 21, 1997, p. 7; December 7, 1997, p. 62; September 21, 1997, Gary Krist, review of Great Apes, p. 7; June 20, 1999, Jonathan Lethem, review of Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys, p. 9; September 19, 1999, Laura Miller, review of The Sweet Smell of Psychosis, p. 11; October 8, 2000, review of How the Dead Live, p. 8; January 5, 2003, Sophie Harrison, review of Dorian, p. 6.
Observer (London, England), November 20, 1994, p. 19; January 12, 1997, p. 16; May 11, 1997, p. 16; September 29, 2002, Jonathan Heawood, review of Dorian, p. 15.
Publishers Weekly, February 7, 1994, p. 6; July 14, 1997, review of Great Apes, p. 63; September 8, 1997, Anna Henchman, "Will Self: An Enfant Terrible Comes of Age," p. 52; March 1, 1999, review of Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys, p. 58; July 19, 1999, review of The Sweet Smell of Psychosis, p. 182; July 31, 2000, review of Howthe Dead Live, p. 69; September 29, 2002, Robert McCrum, interview with Self, p. 15; January 6, 2003, review of Dorian, p. 38.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, spring, 1998, Paul Maliszewski, review of Great Apes, p. 238; fall, 1999, Paul Maliszewski, review of Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys, p. 177; spring, 2000, Brian Budzynski, review of The Sweet Smell of Psychosis, p. 191.
Seattle Times, February 9, 2003, John Freeman, review of Dorian, p. L8.
Times Literary Supplement, December 20, 1991, p. 25; October 9, 1992, p. 22; November 18, 1994, p. 20; January 5, 1996, p. 32; December 20, 1996, p. 24; May 9, 1997, p. 19.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), May 29, 1994, p. 5; March 5, 1995, p. 6; April 7, 1996, p. 6.
Vanity Fair, June, 1993, pp. 125-127, 148-151.
Washington Post Book World, April 3, 1994, p. 3; April 28, 1996, p. 3.
Weekend Australian, January 11, 2003, Helen Elliott, review of Dorian, p. B9.*