- My Idea of Fun by Will Self
Bloomsbury, 309 pp, £14.99, September 1993, ISBN 0 7475 1591 3
The photograph of the author on the jacket is warning enough. He is dressed all in black, poised as though ready to pounce; his eyes fix you through a cloud of smoke. The cigarette, which is positively belching fumes, is held at the precise angle guaranteed to cause the most severe nicotine staining of the fingers. This is not the author as good guy but the author as knowing addict – an adept of Burroughs’s Dr Benway and his Algebra of Total Need. Indeed the alternative title to this extraordinary novel could well be the eternal Burroughsian question – ‘Wouldn’t you?’
To which ‘actually, no’ is the honest reply. If you thought that it couldn’t get more disgusting than Bret Easton Ellis then you were wrong. The book opens with a banal question at a London dinner party: ‘What’s your idea of fun?’ The narrator, Ian Wharton, makes all too clear that his answer to the question ups the ante on American Psycho. Within two pages he is fucking the headless trunk of a tramp he has just decapitated – which might seem more a literary game than anything else, if Self weren’t an accomplished writer who injects real horror into these morbid occasions.
At one level My Idea of Fun is a version of the Faust story. A young boy, Ian Wharton, sells his soul to the devil. At university he goes to a psychiatrist who convinces him that this is all an illusion. But the psychiatrist turns out to be in league with the devil and the story takes place on the evening the alliance is revealed to Ian, who realises that he is doomed to reproduce evil. Traditionally the Faust story is played either in the tragic (Marlowe) or the heroic register (Goethe); Self, however, evokes the atmosphere of the popular Marlovian sub-plot, which is comic. His devil – aka Mr Broadhurst, Samuel Northcliffe or, more generically, the Fat Controller – is a hilarious creation with his enormous girth, his extraordinary clothes and, above all, his complex archaic sentences. Had he appeared in a more popular genre – a TV sitcom or a Hollywood blockbuster – you could be certain of the sequels.
The novel is divided into two parts. It starts as a first-person narrative in which Ian recounts his lonely childhood and adolescence. He grows up, fatherless, in a seaside resort where his mother runs a caravan park. Ian’s most striking feature is that he is an ‘eidetiker’: someone blessed or cursed with an appallingly concrete visual imagination – a photographic memory. His use of this skill, particularly as he reaches adolescence and discovers the possibility of travelling within his own mental images, cuts him off from a society in which he has always been marginal. But it is this skill which Mr Broadhurst encourages him to develop as he introduces him to the black arts. Mr Broadhurst, who seems to have some obscure connection with Ian’s mother, arrives at the end of the summer as Ian starts grammar school, and returns regularly at the end of each summer for the off-season. He snares Ian at the age of 13 with a miracle cure for acne that includes among its diabolical ingredients Ian’s carefully collected sperm, gathered from his first adolescent masturbations.
This Faustian pact, however, lacks much of the theatre of previous versions. Mr Broadhurst is, to use his own words, a ‘Magus of the Quotidian, a Brahmin of the Banal’. There is little of the occult involved in Ian’s learning the black arts, simply a counter-education designed to prevent any identification with the communal or social – an endless prolongation of the solitude of adolescence, an apprenticeship in psychopathy. But – and this is the heart of the book, or at any rate the place where the book wants its heart to be – Ian is a reluctant psychopath, desperate to plunge into a world which he is condemned to see simply as an endlessly manipulable image. The climax, as it were, of this first-person narration comes when Ian begins to make love to a girl who has picked him up at university. Mr Broadhurst interrupts the coupling before orgasm and enjoins Ian to refrain from any further attempts at coitus, under the threat of having his penis break off inside the unfortunate woman.
In return for Ian’s promise to refrain, the Fat Controller, as both Ian and the reader now think of him, offers what is both his and the book’s most effective routine: retroscendence, or ‘The History of the Product’. Taking the example of Ian’s underpants, the Fat Controller leads us back through the processes physical and financial which have brought them from the cottonfields of Egypt to a King’s Road boutique. Ian, who is studying marketing, that science of the manipulable, is thus given a real-life lecture on economics – on the complex systems of dependency that now link every corner of the globe in a convoluted calculus of need which the frenzied dealings of the currency exchanges try constantly to render into simple equations of demand. With this, Mr Broadhurst departs and Ian repairs to the university psychotherapist, Dr Hieronymus Gyggle, who gradually persuades him that he has been the victim of a delusion, that he really can be a normal member of the community.
The book itself, it should be said, makes clear that this is Ian’s real delusion: Ian, however, finishes his first-person narration prepared to embark on a normal adult life. After a brief intermission My Idea of Fun changes into the third person to deal with Ian’s subsequent career as a marketing man, his further treatment by Dr Gyggle and his meeting, mating and marriage with Jane, who will become not the mother of his child but the host of yet another version of the Fat Controller. The first half of the book is one of the most compelling accounts of the solitudes of adolescence; the second half has more ideas per chapter than any novel I have read since Burroughs’s Nova Express. As Ian is persuaded by Gyggle to undertake deep-sleep therapy, and as his company takes on the marketing of the new financial product Yum Yum, we are introduced to the two alternative worlds of the unconscious and money.
Psychoanalysis teaches us that, for the unconscious, metaphor never works. When I say that I hate your guts, the unconscious understands that I mean the heaving mass of tubes full of half-digested food. It is this non-metaphoric world that Ian enters when Gyggle places him in deep-sleep therapy, located, for reasons we will come back to, next to the addicts who form the core of his therapeutic business, Ian’s unconscious, however, is inhabited solely by childhood jokes. ‘What’s red and sits in the corner? A baby eating razor blades.’ Ian encounters that baby, and many other cheerful characters. But as his unconscious introduces him to one world, his professional life introduces him to another – the world of financial products and, in particular, Yum Yum, the invention of one Samuel Northcliffe, hitherto known as Broadhurst, but unmistakable as the Fat Controller. Yum Yum is remarkable not only because its values are amounts of food but also because all the instruments of Yum Yum are themselves edible.
As Ian moves further and further into the two worlds of psychiatry and marketing, he also meets and makes remarkable love to Jane Carter (‘There’s no better check against premature ejaculation than the fear that your penis might break off inside someone’). But all his fears about the Fat Controller are confirmed when the two worlds merge and we learn that Northcliffe and Gyggle are partners. They are trying to find the right name for the financial product that will replace money and become ‘a generic’ and the junkies are their ultimate testing ground. The holy grail in this hymn to monetarism is the financial equivalent of ‘Hoover’, the brand name which replaces the common noun.
It was Mailer’s unkindest cut when he called Kerouac an ‘Eisenhower kind of gypsy’. In the same spirit one might label Self a ‘Thatcherite kind of junkie’. For Burroughs, the junkie becomes the epitome of the current human condition: for Self the current is exhausted by the currency. What makes the junkie so interesting, both to Gyggle and to Self, is his direct relation to the product. But what is missing from this account is the bliss of addiction; the merging with the death drive that Freud, in his later work, analysed as the most fundamental component of our psychic life.
It is this paradoxical absence of death in the writing that makes the ending of the novel so unsatisfactory and so full of death. The simple elision of the two worlds of money and the unconscious, the partnership of Gyggle and the Fat Controller, reveals to Ian Wharton that he is in fact a psychopathic monster. The decapitation of the tramp that opened the book is merely a taster for a chapter of quite extraordinary unpleasantness as Ian awakens to his true nature, a nature which has been at work throughout his life but which he has repressed or displaced. In narrative terms, however, this is more than unsatisfactory. The Ian we have accompanied through the stages of the novel is arbitrarily declared to be a monster: we have no idea of how this has come about – it is simply an optional add-on, a piece of nihilistic chic. A juxtaposition which might work in a Burroughs cut-up makes no sense in a coherent narrative.
It is in a way tempting to see this defect in relation to the surprising absence of God from this version of the Faust myth. Faust’s last night, the setting of the book, is the moment at which he awaits both a terrible death and damnation; but just as there is no death (except of anonymous others) for the text, so there is no damnation. In the end the stakes for Ian Wharton’s soul are just too damned low.
Burrough’s great tetralogy is one precursor of this novel, but an even more obvious ancestor is Martin Amis’s Money. Both the style and the range of social observation in My Idea of Fun reveal a pupil who has laboured hard at his master’s exercises. But in one respect the pupil has already surpassed the master. Amis’s was the shocked reaction of a well brought up Keynesian to the spectacle of monetary excess: Self was born to the world of financial deregulation. With Faust cast as a marketing executive and Mephistopheles heavily into financial instruments, this book bears the imprint not so much of the beast as of the business school. Much of this is truly brilliant, showing an understanding of how money is written into our lives which leaves most financial journalists and economists looking like novices. In the end, however, because Self is so aware of how money works on belief and fantasy, he thinks that it is no more than that. The money critic, who finally pronounces on the future of Yum Yum, reduces money to a simple equivalent of taste: currency as aesthetic judgment. And yet just as the unconscious has death at its core, so money cannot be detached from the reality of the exchanges that constitute it. At the end of the book Self leaves both death and reality behind to become by turns disgusting and jejune. That disappointment should not, however, obscure the enormous talent at work in this book. It is a great beginning.