Out of Puff

Sam Thompson

  • The Butt by Will Self
    Bloomsbury, 355 pp, £14.99, April 2008, ISBN 978 0 7475 9175 7

A civilised man travels into the wilderness, and is bewildered. You might call this the Heart of Darkness narrative paradigm. Mr Kurtz is fearsomely civilised, ‘an emissary of pity, and science, and progress’ – he is even equipped with ‘moral ideas of some sort’ – but this only deepens his bewilderment. As Marlow sees it, ‘the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion … his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad.’ This idea of the wilderness as a sinister place likely to release the darkness lurking in the civilised heart is still a thoroughly disconcerting one. There’s no way to dismiss the wilderness. It demands that you imagine yourself in relation to something which by definition you know nothing about.

Prospero, that Kurtz-like universal genius, never knows anything about the island he rules or its aboriginals. He makes rather a fool of himself over his ‘dainty’ slave Ariel, telling him ‘I shall miss thee’ when he is manumitted at the end of the play; the weird entity vanishes with no reciprocal acknowledgment. Prospero might reflect that he’s never had the faintest idea what Ariel thinks about anything, or even if he thinks, as a philosophical Milanese duke would understand the term (earlier in The Tempest, Ariel reports that at the sight of the bedraggled castaways ‘your affections/Would become tender’, spookily adding: ‘Mine would, sir, were I human’). As for Caliban, the best Prospero can do is to propose that his slave may represent something about himself: ‘This thing of darkness I/Acknowledge mine.’ Is he assuming the white man’s burden or admitting that Caliban’s brutality may have something to do with imprisonment, torture and forced labour? One might even wonder whether, back home, Prospero will experience the uneasy notion that he’s never actually been to a desert island at all: that the redemptive colonial fantasy has been played out in his own civilised brain.

Just as bewildering is finding civilisation where you weren’t expecting it. Gulliver is variously abused and humiliated, but the most traumatic experience comes in the land of the Houyhnhnms, where he is psychically demolished by contact with the most outlandish of all possible societies – a truly civilised one. Living among the virtuous and rational horses wears away his idea of himself as superior to the shit-flinging Yahoos. Gulliver returns to England, but: ‘When I thought of my family, my friends, my countrymen, or the human race in general, I considered them as they really were, Yahoos.’ Trotting, whinnying and talking to horses, unable to bear the touch of his wife and children, he is permanently marooned among the savages.

Tom Brodzinski, the protagonist or victim of Will Self’s satirical nightmare The Butt, meets a comparable fate. On holiday on an imaginary post-colonial island continent, Tom decides to give up smoking, and, distracted by the sense that for once he is ‘Doing the Right Thing’, flicks his final fag-end from the balcony of his hotel. The smouldering butt lands on another guest’s head, and Tom is swallowed by a maelstrom: the country’s draconian anti-smoking legislation regards a cigarette as ‘a projectile weapon with a toxic payload’, and the civil law turns out to incorporate a set of native customary laws which hold that every gesture ipso facto indicates an intent. He must travel thousands of miles into the continent’s tribal lands to make restitution for attempted murder. His wife and children whisk away on the flight home, and, queasily, he stays behind to get to grips with the racial complexities and cultural opacities of the invented land. It is a version of Australia laced with suggestions of post-invasion Iraq, where the ‘Anglo’ descendants of the former colonial power coexist with innumerable aboriginal ethnicities and tribal groupings: Tayswengo, Tugganarong, Inssessetti, Entreati, Gandaro, Ibbolit. These unfamiliar words press in on Tom like the ‘soupy’ heat. On the tourist circuit it was easy to ignore the proximity of the wild, but now ‘even here, on the coast, Tom sensed this alien landscape to his rear, an apprehension of a door ajar in reality itself, through which might be glanced seething horrors.’

He is ushered towards them by Jethro Swai-Phillips, a lawyer who, with his shirtless copper torso, afro and wraparound sunglasses, brings an

astonishingly physical sense of psychic intrusion. Tom felt the hairs rise on his neck – and even his arms. He began to sweat. It was as if the … man had walked in through one of his eyes, and was now crouching down in the bony cave of Tom’s skull. It was altogether uncanny, and Tom couldn’t recall ever having had such a vivid first impression of anyone before.

Swai-Phillips’s impact is a synecdoche not only of the continent’s encroachment on Tom, but of the novel’s determination to swamp the reader with an oversaturated, violating vividness in which even a fork is ‘lurid with egg yolk’. In effect, the unknown continent is the Will Self prose style embodied as a landmass. Recherché vocabulary, baroque metaphor and bold cartoonist’s strokes combine with no-nonsense efficiency of narration, as befits a literary road movie. The Butt’s quasi-Aussie argot doesn’t generate the same level of linguistic fun as the post-apocalyptic ‘Mokni’ dialect of Self’s last novel, The Book of Dave, but, after reading it, you find yourself thinking in the punchy voice of the continent. Every statement ends in a question mark, the preferred modifier is ‘bloody’, the aboriginals are the ‘bing-bongs’, and the interior is always known as ‘over there’, with a jerk of the thumb over the shoulder.

For a travelling companion Tom has Prentice, a fellow convict whom he suspects of sexually abusing native children. This craven, braying, cricket-loving Englishman makes him desperate to cry out: ‘I’m not like him! I’m only travelling with him because I have to.’ As he ‘wrestles’ his rented SUV into the landscape, the shell of the First World splits. The interior means kilometres-long queues for petrol, interminable checkpoints, roadside IEDs and insurgent attacks. They pass through the ‘Tontine Townships’, settlements ravaged by a homicidal form of collective insurance policy that pays out to the last surviving holder. Less fortunate convicts than Tom and Prentice labour in an infernal, mile-wide open-cast bauxite mine like ‘a massive chomp out of the world’, but even in the depths of the Tontines, tourists can stay in a ‘perfect little Hilton’. Tom keeps asking the locals to explain what they mean by ‘rabia’ or ‘tontine’, or what’s in the mysterious, head-sized package he’s been given to carry, but they change the subject. For the reader this means straightforward suspense, but for Tom it means that every move is an acquiescence, until he is face to face with the ‘hysteria that had courted him, politely opening door after door as he ventured further into his ordained nightmare’.

Those Anglos who claim to understand the country sound highly unconvincing: ‘In time, right, the insurgents will tire of their activities and gratefully abandon them for careers in industry, the arts or teaching, right.’ Gloria, a charity worker, hectors Tom: ‘You don’t know how these people live at all, do you, yeah? … these people have never been subjugated, right? They live now as they always have, beautifully and harmoniously. Respect their harmony – and they’ll respect you.’ But then they arrive at the settlement she has been talking about:

In the midden the Entreati tenanted, shit, trash and broken glass were scattered everywhere. The pot-bellied children’s eyes were filled with pus from untreated trachoma, while fully a third of the adults were completely blind. All of them, except for the active young men, had streptococcal infections. Tom also saw the spavined legs of rickets sufferers, and heard the popping wheeze of tuberculosis.

Thanks to the medical vocabulary, this comes across as a scene of degradation, but Tom, cowed, isn’t going to speak up for his perception that it’s a hellhole. Gloria seems to believe it’s the imposition of a Westernised, medicalised ‘patriarchal mindset’ that causes a recoil from ‘the disease, the malnutrition, the trash … the dogs’, whereas Prentice thinks the ‘bloody bing-bongs’ are ‘hand in paw with the bloody monkeys’. Tom ends up ‘marooned in his own passivity’. Mostly he wants a cigarette.

Tempestuous feelings about ‘La Divina Nicotina’ run throughout. We’re invited to see tobacco and its prohibition as the index of a culture’s moral condition, but smoking is also a substantive topic in itself: indeed, sharing Tom’s craving-frazzled subjectivity, we may suspect it’s the only topic. As he is sucked into the vortex, it dawns on him that ‘his own alternations between belligerence and passivity in the face of this whole grotesque situation could be entirely accounted for by the effects of nicotine withdrawal.’ Further down the road to the horror, he suddenly sinks into torpor: ‘the world was balled up in his palsied hand, yet he hadn’t the strength to chuck it in the trashcan … It was, he decided, nicotine withdrawal – but grown gargantuan; nicotine withdrawal experienced as a full-blown mental illness.’ Perhaps his ride to the heart of darkness is simply an allegory of what happens after you throw away the butt of your final cigarette. But along with this solipsistic possibility goes savage indignation at the moral narcissism of a culture that finds it reasonable to see smoking, of all things, as not just unhealthy but monstrous. Tom mistakes the decision to quit for evidence of ‘moral fibre’, but even his ‘indolent ethical eye’ can discern that the obtrusive anti-smoking laws ‘have been imposed on the country’s polyglot and heavy-puffing population, in place of any more commanding civic morality’. You can get 90 days in the bauxite pit for smoking in an aeroplane toilet. Could it be that the cause of smoking bans is the same as the cause of terrorist insurgencies?

The blurb calls the novel an ‘insidiously allegorical account of the Western liberal conscience in the aftermath of 9/11’, but The Butt’s mashed-together world avoids clicking fully into allegory. The cause and effect of the road trip competes with dream logic and the continent is not so much Australia or Iraq, or Australia as Iraq, as a Dalí dreamscape of uncanny doublings, apparitions from Tom’s guilty unconscious and shapes of incomprehensible menace. The psoriasis-ridden Prentice is an unprepossessing sight:

his scant hair plastered on his brow, his scrawny neck pale and flaky, his thin torso kinked. To Tom, he appeared more than ever to be at once weak – and dangerous. He found himself repeating his companion’s name over and over in his mind: Prentice, Prentice, Prentice … Until consonants were ground down, and Tom was thinking: penis, penis, penis.

What does it mean if, as your attention drifts, your associate morphs into a phallus? A rifle’s magazine curves up ‘like a penis machined on a lathe’, a cigar has a ‘vegetative glans’, rains come like a ‘strained-for ejaculation’. How embarrassing to confront a landscape which, being composed largely of phallic symbols, seems to publish on a geological scale your inability to encounter anything beyond your own genitals. An American expat tells Tom that ‘the desert folks believe the land is always becoming – never, ah, finished. That every time a traveller visits a region it, ah, springs into being for him, taking on the characteristics of his own mind.’ This sounds like romanticised mumbo-jumbo, but it starts to seem appallingly true that all Tom can find in the wilderness is a phantasmagoria for which he himself is responsible. The desert’s oneiric properties are boosted by globalisation. At the roadside we find a garage forecourt which ‘could have been somewhere on the outskirts of Tom’s own home town – the building was that international, that dull. The oval sign bearing the corporation’s logo was an a priori category: this was how creatures like Tom viewed the world.’ The ‘characteristics of his own mind’ are blazoned across the continent in the form of petrol stations.

Like Gulliver compelled to identify with the Yahoos, Tom achieves the terminal mortification of glimpsing himself from the outside. Perhaps this is why, though he is evidently American, his responses so often seem English; perhaps embarrassment is not so much a typically English state of mind as a typically post-imperial one. As Self’s scapegoat for the West, Tom is nothing if not ill at ease. He congratulates himself on being a ‘much better man’ for stopping smoking, however, and doesn’t reflect too much on the morality of taking out a tontine policy on Prentice’s life.

The Kurtz to Tom’s wishy-washy Marlow is Erich von Sasser, a ‘neuro-anthropologist’ who is prepared to put his cultural precepts into practice by wielding a scalpel. He has diagnosed the malaise of the West: narrative. ‘How does it all end?’ he asks. ‘Isn’t that the question that torments the Anglo – bothers him like a fly in his eye? The Third Act problem, the thrilling climax … then the drowsy resolution. Yes, yes, the Anglos’ lust for this is blatantly bloody sexual.’ As the messianic lord of the Tayswengo tribe, his motto is ‘Don’t let our people fall victim to the narrative fallacy of the Anglos!’ He has a point. Tom’s entanglement in the ‘narrative fallacy’ explains both his neoliberal vacillation and his neocolonial crassness, as well as the reason ‘the conundrum of his wife’s intentions’ is no more soluble to him than the intentions of the desert tribespeople. If you insist on seeing everything as narrative, aren’t you refusing to acknowledge the reality of anything outside yourself? Von Sasser, however, claims to have procedures that can save his followers from ‘sitting in the dark and smelly multiplex of their minds, gagging to know how their lives would turn out, while completely neglecting to bloody live them!’ In this final section it becomes clear that The Butt is a companion piece to The Book of Dave. In the earlier novel a far-future fundamentalist religion burgeons from a misogynistic treatise written by a mentally unstable London cabbie; here, it emerges that the culture of the ‘traditional peoples’ has similarly surprising origins, and Tom at last grasps that he is ‘only doing what he had always done: passively conforming to an invented belief system’. At the end of the journey, the wilderness remains perfectly unknown.

As worked over in The Butt, the Heart of Darkness narrative is a story about the failure, and toxicity, of stories, but even a tale of bewilderment can feed the Anglo addiction to resolution. This aesthetic outcome might seem too comfortable a kind of despair: if we’re so sunk in delusions of closure, and so incapable of perceiving anything but our own flawed image, what’s the use in worrying, or trying to comment? The novel is subtitled ‘An Exit Strategy’, and we’re left to wonder what sort of exit is possible when the entry strategy was based on sheer fantasy. How to make a change? You think giving up smoking should do the trick, but The Butt suggests that what you need is brain surgery.