Will Self, Walking to Hollywood

The first image

In a book of fiction (well, experimental writing that combines journalism with bits of the novel, the memoir, and the travel account) the first image is always an unexpected guest. Here the first chapter opens with a description of a “dew pond” (not sure what that is, but never mind):

“A single cramped ash was reflected in the gunmetal disc of water, a disc that was ringed with pocked earth and cupped in a fold of cropped turf.”

Seven pages later comes the first image in the book, which is unmistakably that “dew pond.” So it’s reasonable to assume that a reasonably interested reader will turn back seven pages to compare the description: and it fits. A next question might then be: why is the image on page 10, given that in the intervening pages the narrator has been remembering other times and places? The book opens with Self’s friend, an artist supposedly called Sherman Oaks (modeled, I think, on a combination of Anthony Gormley and Corban Walker), ranting at the edge of the “dew pond.” In the next few pages, before the first image appears, Self recalls other meetings with Oaks. The line on the bottom of page 9, just before the image, is:

“Then, in the late 1980s, there began the inexorable rise of Sherman Oaks, the artist.”

Turning the page, we’re brought back to the “dew pond” and the book’s opening: but the prose seems not to notice, because it continues with memories of Oaks.

The second and third images

I do not propose this as a criticism: I mean that this is the kind of calibration that has to accompany any reading that is attentive to images. The detail with which the author describes the image and its placement in the text are the rules of a game of word and image that a reader might expect to continue through the book. But the next two images, the book’s second and third, work entirely differently. They are on p. 24 (that is, a long way into the narrative), and they are snapshots of sheep and of a street stall offering handbags. Neither one connects securely to the prose in which they float. I can connect them — I can guess — but clearly these images are being used differently, with less care, as generic markers of places Self has been.

Following images, and a conclusion

And so it continues. The photos in this book are almost all indifferent, uninteresting, uncomposed, and that’s fine: it’s clearly intentional. But it becomes clear that Self’s interest in linking his images to his text is uneven, intermittent, uncommitted, disengaged. Sometimes the images are referred to in the text, but even then the references in the text rarely make me look at the image for more than a millisecond (as I did with the opening photograph). Self explains his Barbour jacket at length, making it an emblem of his OCD and his travel anxieties (p. 34): but when we see it, it’s just been thrown into a corner of a toilet stall, and none of the details he describes are visible. That photograph (p. 37) is actually a good exemplar of his idea of images: the photo also features his bare knee, because, as the text informs us, he’s sitting on the toilet. That’s actually an interesting thing to be showing readers, but again nothing is made of it.

I think the book is non-visual, because it just isn’t engaged, one way or the other, with its images. I can only imagine snapshots are mnemonics for Self, but why does he think readers don’t need to be informed about how he thinks about images? Is an image such an intractable thing that its uses can’t be addressed? Or such a non-verbal thing that it doesn’t need to be integrated into a narrative? Or such a self-explanatory thing that it doesn’t need explanation? Or such an uninteresting thing that it can’t be dissected?

And why doesn’t it matter that the low-grade loneliness of the images contrasts incomprehensibly with the effervescent and fiercely social autobiography?

The writing itself

A note about the writing, aside from the question of images. I couldn’t finish this book. Self’s style, to me, is a kind of incessant struggle for quirky cleverness. Every sentence is tweaked and twisted so it uses English in at least a slightly striking way. For what kind of reader is this entertaining? I suppose for someone who needs a continuous series of minuscule jolts of interest to remain engaged. A reader for whom high art styles sound old-fashioned, and for whom ordinary spoken English (as in Franzen, Eggers, and many, many others) or minimal English (anyone from Beckett to Lydia Davis) just isn’t enough? A reader whose idea of writing is that it delivers something clever at every turn?

For me, Self’s style is partly a hypertrophy of the English newspaper habit that requires every headline, even on serious events, to be some clever pun. That custom, which happily isn’t common in the States, has always driven me batty. What does it accomplish? It isn’t a satire of world events: it’s just an unending registering of the journalist’s snide wit, which sprays itself over everything from gossip reporting to war. On p. 44 Self proposes a succinct self-criticism (as a “micro-critic”): it’s an affecting moment. As a writer, images aside, he has interesting qualities, but the volume of wit is turned up too high for me.

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