(Two days at university done, now for more blog posting…)
‘Stretching up the hill ahead of me, I begin to see all of my future relationships, bearing me on and up like some escalator of the fleshly. Each step is a man, a man who will penetrate me with his penis and his language, a man who will make a little private place with me, secure for a month, or a week, or a couple more years.’
I picked Grey Area up last week from a second-hand bookshop, and started reading it on my home. I continued reading it when I got home. I was still reading it the next morning. At three in the morning I went to bed.
There’s a copy of Self’s Book of Dave sitting on my bookshelf that I picked up at a local market and tried to read but couldn’t get into it. It’s a reasonably sized novel and – I think – at the time, I had many many other things going on and felt that I couldn’t really commit. It’s been all about short stories and poetry recently, and Grey Area is a collection of short stories. Perfect.
And my-oh-my is it a wonderful collection! When I finished it yesterday on the train I had more than the standard sense of achievement, or satisfaction, that I have when I finish reading a book. Usually there’s that feeling of comfort-cum-sadness, of knowing that it is all complete and in your hands and in your head. You have read it all, and the characters have done what they needed to have done to make the strings join up in a cats-cradle-esque nest of narrative/s. With Grey Area, there was an element of this comfort/sadness but it ended quickly. I found myself shuffling through the pages I had just read as if maybe I had missed something. That wasn’t to say that it didn’t feel whole – because it did – but it felt like all the stories had far more in common with each other than I had previously thought. There were snapshots in all of the stories; of rolling fog, of a difficult conversation, a man abusing drugs in the distance, motorways, and all of these images seem to slip into one another – to overlap – and suddenly the collection is more like a pile of disorganised papers on a desk. They sit on top of one another, splaying out in multiple directions, and yet are still in contact, it is like navigating a giant grey Venn-diagram – there’s this sense of a whole but in order to feel that wholeness you have to read through everything again – like you did the first time – and enjoy the stories as if they were all happening at the same time, in the same country.
So I flicked back through the pages. Then I flicked forwards. Then I flicked back, and felt amazed. Amazed is the word. Suddenly I felt that anything I’d end up writing would only pale in comparison to these stories. In a way Self’s writing felt very Carver, in that the stories end when they end and we have to sit back and enjoy that. The characters move independently of what we’d like, they make decisions we wouldn’t make, and ultimately it really feels like they are there – living, like us – and we are just watching them through little windows.
‘I yearned to be in that tippy, creaky boat of a bed, full of crumbs and sex and fag ash. I wanted to be framed by the basketry of angular shadows the naked bulb threw on the walls, and contained by the soft basketry of his limbs. At least we felt something for each other. He got inside me – he really did. All my other relationships were as superficial as a salutation – this evening proved it. It was only with him that I became a real person.’
Will Self has a great sense of wit. I remember seeing him on television as a kid and thinking him a monster of a man. On Shooting Stars he sat like a massive domesticated spider; limbs cascading over the side of seats – chair turned at angles to comfort his extensive lower legs. He’d be quiet to some extent – respectfully I used to think – and when a gap would appear he’d let a concise line slip that would just hit the nail on the head. His words were always potent and well placed – and this comes across in his prose as much as in person. Self’s characters all engage in these witticisms – from creating domestic courts in their bathrooms as a form of neighbourhood justice, to musing on the irritable comments of others during chess (‘He’s not a bad player, although I find his habit of neighing whenever he moves his knights intensely irritating’). These humorous moments lighten the mood of the text, showing us glimpses of comforting humanity behind the often oppressive and intense environments of his stories.
What I find most wonderful about Self’s writing is that the construction of these comic witticisms are echoed in the more philosophical/psychological scenes in his stories. A great example is the opening line of the first story we come to; ‘There are only eight people in London and fortunately I am one of them.‘ This first sentence is so bold, sure and simple – to the point, even – that’s not to say that the entirety of the text is like this (it would be almost unapproachable, if so) but he has this way of throwing in power-lines along with sure/definite descriptions. I find another example in a sex scene in a later story; ‘his hands were under her, holding her by the apex of her buttocks, and he ate into her, worried at the very core of her, as if she were some giant watermelon that he must devour to assuage an unquenchable thirst.‘ That brilliant ‘worried at the very core of her‘ seemed just perfect in a way I couldn’t easily describe – there is that brutish sense of engorgement; of the melding of the selves and the loss of the self, and of support, and of the physicality of sex – it just seemed to cover so many factors in so few words. One more; ‘Eventually, by dint of computer-aided visualisations, the police are able to re-enact the whole incident. The cars set off at intervals; the police hover overhead in helicopters; officers in patrol cars and on foot question any passers-by. But, the horror of horrors, while the reconstruction is actually taking place, the killer strikes again […]‘ What we find here is a very concise nod to Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation – that of our current cultures concern over image, of the consistent reproduction of third order reality (hyperreality).
A fantastic book.
Here’s a link to a lovely interview-y thing I found on Youtube: