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Will Self

The half-Jewish English writer’s new drug memoir, ‘Will,’ dives from Hampstead Garden Suburb into an underworld

Mardean Isaac
September 25, 2020
Illustration: The Surreal McCoy
Illustration: The Surreal McCoy

Will Self’s new memoir recounts a youth spent smoking, snorting, injecting; itching, puking, shivering. Looking for drugs, using them, running out and looking for more. Doing work on drugs—and to buy drugs—and failing to work having taken drugs. Meeting and discarding people through drugs. Having sex on drugs, not being able to because of drugs. Taking drugs in order to think while on them, including about drugs. Perceiving reality and your own life exclusively under their influence, and in the wake of it.

Self was born in 1961 to an English father (Peter Self, professor of political science) and a Jewish American mother (Elaine Rosenbloom, who worked in publishing) who separated when he was 9. He was raised in a suburban-style house between the Hampstead Garden Suburb and East Finchley, in north London. Following a turbulent childhood, during which he began using marijuana and amphetamines in early adolescence, he went to Oxford, where he consolidated his heroin addiction. An itinerant period of drug abuse followed.

Then Self did what he always wanted to and became a professional writer, while continuing to use drugs and alcohol. He published his first collection of stories, The Quantity Theory of Insanity, in 1991, since when he has become a distinct figure within British culture, as both surrealist and comfortably domicile representative of its peculiarities.

Self’s overt commitment to the pursuit of self-derangement and the unchecked development of his independent sensibility mark him as one of the most unusual British writers of his time. His fiction, consisting mostly of satirical novels of the grotesque, is the product of deep-seated literary influences and intellectual orientations. The central reason that a broad perception of Self—who is known for writing books usually shunned as deliberately difficult, verbose, and unreadable—exists in Britain, is his public persona, mainly expressed on television panel shows. Through his great height (6’5”), confrontational visage, and a sepulchral voice that sounds like it has traveled a long way to reach us, he exudes a blend of gloom and antic joviality.

His new memoir, titled Will, told in the third person, represents an unprecedented foray into Self’s experience, even as it refers to some of the public aspects of his life as a writer. The book is arranged dischronologically in five sections, each of which immerse the reader in the April or May of a particular year: The earliest begins in 1979, just before he leaves Hampstead for Oxford, and the latest passage deals with his first institutional attempt to get clean in 1986.

Unlike his fiction, which locates horror in the seemingly sober, rational, continuous world by scaling the dimensions of that world into grotesque fantasy, Will confronts life as it is lived. Self performs that confrontation, however, by portraying the skirting of every commitment except to inebriation.

Self’s family life was recounted in Self Abuse, his brother (and sole full sibling; his mother had a son from her first marriage) Jonathan Self’s autobiography. That book engaged directly with the great harm his parents inflicted on Jonathan and its legacy in Jonathan’s own abusive behavior, tapping into a more familiar purpose and tone for the memoir of childhood abuse and its adult legacies, including the stated desire to improve as a person and feel and transmit love.

But Will Self has gone in the other direction. In Will, there’s no sense-making, emotional narrative, or arc of reclamation; no uplift, self-saving, or saving of anyone else. Will is life as sheer consciousness.

In Hampstead, altitude informs attitude. An elevated area further raised by a rare pairing of money and culture, its remote and imperious mansions suggest exquisite connections to other worlds. Hampstead has developed in many stages—Jews have been prominent catalysts of its local richness—and this has added to the area’s particularity rather than diluting it. The Hampstead Garden Suburb—where Self lived at the “unfashionable end”—is a century-old planned project that left the writer with an “acute ambivalence about suburban development.” According to Self, his father, who was chairman of a major policy planning association, probably knew Raymond Unwin, who designed it. If Hampstead provides its own concentric circle of reality within London, so too did the Suburb within Hampstead.

In this already strange environment, the Self family has ample opportunity to turn its own strangeness inward. “Suburbia is all [Will] can see” from his bedroom: “tousled hedges, shaggy trees and back-combed lawn.” Behind the artifice of Number 43, “his parents’ pushing and pulling has compressed the stale atmosphere in the gloomy little rooms, with their palpable air of neglect.”

Will’s mother is dominant (“he doesn’t need to tell her what he’s doing this evening, or where he’ll be staying tonight—she already knows”) but fragile and strange. She introduces Will to private and social alienation. The family is surrounded by Jews—but they are “colourless English Jews” like the Smith-Simonses “two doors down, with their absurd and recently acquired hyphen—imagining they can somehow pole-vault their way into the upper-middle classes with this little typographic stick.” His mother is also prone to class self-consciousness. The precise status of liminal areas on the periphery of Hampstead, which is both an administrative area with various technical boundaries and a sociocultural area with an essential identity, becomes a parallel to Will’s own status oscillations. In context, though, his mother’s relentless vulgarity stands out: “Your father’s a fucking shit … she’d casually remark.”

Will’s mother dotes on her son even as she abuses him and encourages his burgeoning drug habits. She intertwines herself with him controllingly: “There’ll be no escape from the Mother planet—Will realizes this intuitively: even if he does blast off for new worlds, he’ll touch down only to find her footprints already in the dust.” She grows weed plants “on the kitchen windowsill,” which Will prunes too avidly for their own health, “only out of a desire to connect with her adolescent son.”

To Will, his mother’s “Jewishness seems quite different to that of the English Jews who live around them,” and this extends to religion. She exhibits no positive or substantial transmission of Judaism, only nominal local gestures: “When the others had been getting bar mitzvahed, he’d played Jewish as well, so attended shul a few times. The kippah he’d had to borrow would be gently wafted skywards by the thermals issuing from the under-floor heating system: a little circlet of black crepe-paper returning—unlike Will—to Yhwh.”

But she does encourage Will and his brother to join her in laughing at “the stodgy English absurdity of all their father and his family did and said.” His father, a “flickering presence” in the home and in his life, brings coldly playful rhetorical styles into the home. When Will walks in on him shitting, “lacking any sense of physical shame or embarrassment, the old man would simply look up … and smile.”

Despite fucking him up for life, both parents (as both brothers have publicly attested) preferred Will, and were excited by his prodigious intellect. In this book, Will and his mother would sit “wordlessly bonded in absorption of words, their only exchanges infantile ones.”

Downward mobility has its disadvantages: Buzzing around on speed (and regretting his decision to ingest some before seeking to buy more) Will gets a gun pulled on him at his dealer’s door. Neither the repressed politeness expected of him by his class nor the disorder of his home help him when scoring, even if they do pathetically inform his methods of pleading with dealers and other addicts.

In Hampstead, aged 17, Will snorts his first hit of heroin—the “pale-beige powder” like “mud finely networked with cracks.” He understands that through a “piffling act of will” he has now “transformed himself into a godlike figure” with an “Olympian” perspective. Then he apologizes to his friend for having taken too much and pukes out the car window.

The main revelation from the Oxford sections is Caius, a barely disguised version of novelist Edward St Aubyn, probably the most significant personage in the book and one of a handful of recognizable individuals in the book. (Self and Aubyn did meet at Oxford and were friends but have for several years refused to discuss one another, or explain why that is, in public.) They slump through self-indulgent haute cuisine lunches while heavily addicted to heroin. Caius invites Will and a friend to a Shakespeare production at the Globe in London; they go in a black cab which waits for them, meter running, before bringing them back to Oxford. Will has an almost lustful attraction to Caius (“Caius, for all the thinness of his blue-veined skin, would never die”) and a hopeless distance from his styles and securities.

After Oxford, “Will had no plan whatsoever beyond staying put: lingering here on the threshold of the straight world, with one eye roving the outer darkness.” It worked. Constantly off his head, Will subsists off welfare checks and money from his girlfriend, fleetingly enduring “cramped eternities of clock-watching” at various corporate stints. Unscrewing the single light bulb left in a London house lent to him by Caius, “gloved by a tea towel,” Self brings it upstairs from the kitchen to the bedroom at night.

This is not a life premised on faith in emotion or belief in interpersonal relationships; there is no baseline of human solidarity that might provide fulfilment. In London as a heroin addict, “there are only rainy Tuesday afternoons, and debts, and persistent skin infections.” When withdrawal hits, the external reality of “bills, fines and creditors … unreturned phone calls and ripped-up letters” imposes on a private world so strange it at one point finds Will placing a Polaroid of his father (“his father’s plump, ruddy face now coated in rime”) in the freezer before eventually burning it along with the flesh of his own hand. Will’s sexual instincts are fraught with a kind of self-consuming frenetic quality; Self’s description of the “grinding of her pubic bone against his” gives the right impression. He laughs at his own limp penis in the bathroom of an empty flat.

Will Self’s sense of the shitness of England has always been implicitly linked to his not being fully English, even if his Jewish aspect never transcended his English aspect.

Will’s “curdled comedy” is an exercise in the antisocial. Rejected after pleading through his dealer’s mailbox, he reflects on his Oxford-educated superiority to the “fucking thief and parasite” blocking his high: “It means I’m like your social worker: you’ve GOT to let me in.” Looking at the drugs brought by his friend Pete, whose father owns gambling machines, he jokes that the “genuine purple hearts” on an injectable preparation of methadone meant it “had come, in a roundabout way, via Pete’s fruit-machining father.” He contemplates how much responsibility his brother should take for his own rape as a child. He envies the repeated rape of his friend Caius by his own father: He got “everything … even these extreme experiences, which, self-annihilatory or not, would undoubtedly make good copy.” (This term is his mother’s legacy; her “stock response to almost any of his fuck-ups or misadventures was: that’ll make good copy.”) Regarding the “transcendent state of mind” an overdosed friend was in upon dying, Will asks: “Why did he put them all through the utter misery of his funeral?”

The headspace of this book is anti-beauty, and its gutspace is pro-nausea. Will experiences “dead roads and lost opportunities” under a “grey sky lowering above the grey streets.” London provides many objects for Self’s fixation on vileness: “peeling paint and tarmac lumpy with fungus, London’s skin and Will’s own having entirely engrafted, such that they share the same wanting.

There is terminal distance, in Will, from the possibility of participating in meaning. He sees voids where others see presence—character, ethics, adulthood, coherence, continuity or progress—and drugs replace the meaning that exists for other humans in those voids.

There is no buy-in to any frame of reference for that distance. One rejected frame is psychology: Will has no specified depression or search for trauma; no neurosis, despite his parents’ fondness for the term: “I’m feeling neuro,” his mother would say, “having invented her own collective noun to encapsulate the vast swarm of her obsessions and compulsions.”

Self does have a subversive interest in psychoanalysis; institutionalization provides surreal context for artificial worlds, psychotic epistemologies and abuses of power and captivity. He was inspired early in life by the liminal space between madness and inspiration, into which drugs act as a kind of flashlight. A teenage misdiagnosis of schizophrenia fused with the seduction of the junky subculture. If there is a conceptual current passing through Will, it is William Burroughs’ vision of drugs as a system of control.

Self does not seek to normatively redress the disgrace and humiliation that comes with addiction. Instead of pain and trauma as meaning-generating, dynamic forces that first lead to addiction and then revelation and improvement, Will’s relentless drive toward dislocation and derangement becomes the engine of life itself, the shaper of personal reality. The hunt for new experiences, and drugs, is connected to the sense that “secondary qualities of things exist not in the phenomena themselves, but only in the mind which perceives them.”

Drugs, in that sense, are not only the subject of Will but the tense in which it is written. Heroin provides a “state of gilded gradation” through which to perceive time-space; amphetamine “[divides] moments by instants.” Will “believes” that drugs “memorialise chance and fleeting occurrences, fixing them forever in fantastical varnish.” Every description here is a kind of abstraction of moments from their immediate consequences into a contemplation of their particularity. There are two critical points when Self moves from third to first person, when referencing his mother (“far from restraining Will, her internalised voice usually eggs me on”) and when bringing his nostril to the rolled up pound note (“he bends to my fate”) to take his first hit of heroin.

Self-destruction is Will’s condition, not his goal. While his overdoses are novel and extreme and therefore thrilling, he doesn’t want to die—just to get as close as possible to death before life reins him back in.

Will’s England consists of a decrepit aristocracy, a cultureless middle class, and a drug-connected underclass defined more by its place within systems of control than its socioeconomic heritage. Self’s sense of the shitness of England has always been implicitly linked to his not being fully English, even if his Jewish aspect never transcended his English aspect.

In response to the 2006 Israel-Gaza conflict, Self “resigned” his Jewish identity through an Evening Standard article. But in 2017, he wrote that his Jewishness persists as “another distancing factor from a nation that, lest we forget, has a national church helmed by its head of state.”

In an agile 2010 exchange with half-Jewish novelist Adam Thirlwell (which begins by Thirlwell making it clear neither speaker chose the title “A Beginner’s Guide to Jews on the Edge”), Self discusses Jewishness with some texture. When Thirlwell tells Self that Cynthia Ozick wrote a letter harshly criticizing Thirlwell for his piece “On Writing Half-Jewishly,” Self perks up: “How good is that?” “I don’t want to be a gentile for all sorts of very obvious reasons,” Self continues on halfness. “It’s not cool, basically. And as a writer in English society, it doesn’t give me any torsion. As a satirical writer, it’s very useful for me to stand outside the great white Christian majority. It would be invidious of me to claim a Jewishness I don’t necessarily feel; so I’m so happy being half.”

In Will, Jewishness ultimately exists in the form of negation: of time and family, those primary Jewish literary values, and in the negative image of Englishness. But Self’s treatment of Englishness, while full of rejection and absence, is not complete. His class-conscious ventriloquizing of English speech brings Englishness into him with one hand and lets him handle it with the other. You can feel this trapped distance, for example, when he rehearses the variations of his father’s futile “gentle reproof” of Will’s habit: “I do think you might … It could be an idea for you to … If you could just be a little more … moderate.” Will’s opposition to all the ways people form bonds and negotiate relationships expresses itself in constant performative caricature and self-social rambling.

In 1997, Self admitted to taking heroin in the bathroom of a plane while on assignment interviewing prime ministerial candidate John Major. He was fired from The Observer as a result, describing the decision as hypocritical since the paper had been recently marketing him as “some kind of latter-day Hunter Thompson.” Self has been clean since 1998. In a combative 2001 exchange, tabloid columnist Richard Littlejohn called Self’s views “typical of the self-regarding, self-appointed metropolitan elite” and asked him if he was still on heroin. That cheap shot is typical of one register of disdain that Self attracts, but it doesn’t cover the whole spectrum. The presence of Self on the English cultural landscape is seemingly always accompanied by skepticism and negativity.

A widely circulated and celebrated review of this memoir in the London Times notes (critically) that Self “spends more time describing fecal matter than other humans.” The memoir’s built-in response is: What’s the distinction? When criticized by a counselor in rehab for merely going through the motions of recovery, Will responds: “Isn’t life all about going through the motions—the getting up and the lying down, the wanking and the shitting?”

Mardean Isaac is a writer and editor based in London. Educated at Cambridge and Oxford, he has written for publications including the Financial Times, Lapham’s Quarterly and New Lines magazine.