I was curious about Will Self as an author since I've seen numerous copies of his books around, and I found the premise of most of his novels to be both strange and promising. I originally began reading Great Apes last year but found myself not in the mood for it at all, so I sadly had to put it aside. I finally got around to start reading his anthologies first, and Grey Area, I suppose, was a good place to start as any. Comprised of nine tales, this collection was an incredibly odd mix of the bizarrely mundane, the seemingly sinister, and the unintentionally comedic. Self' prose is quite an extraordinary feat of imagination and discipline; a breadth of ramblings that are far too technical and dry to be ever deemed as any kind of literary eloquence.
Frankly, I'm not even sure I wholly enjoyed the experience of reading this book. I think there were times I was too baffled by the style and command of his language and descriptions to ever just connect with a story of his long enough to immerse myself in it, but when I had sustained a connection with a few, I am certainly enthralled and pleased with what I have read. Out of the nine stories, I only liked three and the rest are still pretty clever and interesting in themselves but held no kind of allure for me once I finished reading. There was something almost inaccessible to Self's stories that frustrate me a little. As well-polished and unique his stylistic approach to his stories have been, and one that I can appreciate in an objective way, any kind of emotional investment on my part seemed to be severely lacking.
I suppose this was mostly because he writes as if he was typing a technical document and not weaving a tale of fiction. On some level, it works as a satire and deconstruction for themes that do mesh well with that; but on another level with the other stories, the effect only serves to alienate readers. That being said, I'm willing to give him another chance and finish reading Great Apes someday---just not this year.
Stories included in this collection which are A Short History of the English Novel, Incubus (or the Impossibility of Self-Determination as to Desire), Scale, Grey Area, Inclusion and The End of the Relationship all possess intriguing concepts and thematic resonance. However, Self delivered them more as formal dissertations concerning the manner and behavior of men and women as oppose to actual stories of depth and invigorating characterization, and therein lies why I just wasn't that especially concerned about the people who populate his fiction for these specific stories. Reading these 'stories' do not make me enter an imaginative landscape about people who have believable struggles and conflict; reading this story makes me feel like I'm doing research on a field work where characters act more like test subjects to be observed by me as oppose to sympathize with. That's how gravely impersonal Self's way of storytelling is, and these six pieces are so bone-dry and lacking in any kind of earnest and humane warmth that I felt absolutely nothing at all after reading them.
But it wasn't all that bad. The three stories I was completely blown away by were Between the Conceits, The Indian Mutiny and Chest. In them, Self applied the same kind of style and they actually worked in the best way imaginable. The first story was told in the perspective of a man who acts as a self-sufficient 'god' (or supervisor) who controls a specific demographic of people in the world, while six of his compatriots do the same. It's very much akin to stories of old about gods and goddesses presiding over mankind and how they go about it, although the narrator and the other six come off more as artificial intelligence who fulfill job functions to keep the status quo at bay, as oppose to playing the roles of supernatural immortals of ancient legends. In this story, Self's penchant for technicalities and numbers is advantageous in trying to capture just how these beings operate and the influence of their powers globally.
The second story, The Indian Mutiny, was told in the perspective of a man who feels guilty for the suicide of his former high school teacher. It's an account revealing and condemning the capacity of teenage boys for cruelty and malice, and how their simple acts of rebellious transgressions destroyed a man's life. Finally, the last tale I thoroughly enjoyed was something rather hilarious as it was poignant.
Chest was a black comedy about a smog-infected town where its residents are caught in a perpetual state of having a bad common cold. Self's vivid and repulsive descriptions of violent coughing fits and spitting or swallowing one's own phlegm, as well as the painful process of defective bodily functions made me squirm while reading. I normally suffer from inconvenient bouts of allergic rhinitis so the physical challenges that this story's characters were going through were familiar territory for me. Reading them indulging on drugs such as oxygen tanks and asthma inhalers not for any kind of recreational pleasure but for basic relief was pretty funny. There was plenty of gallows' humor about Chest too. That amazing metaphorical scene concerning men in medical masks shooting down cancer-infected turkeys and then a doctor removing the tumors so they can eat the murdered turkeys later for dinner was both astounding and gross.
I'm not sure I can recommend Grey Are to everyone, but I do plan on reading more Will Self books in the future. I wasn't completely discouraged after all because those three stories I expounded on were pretty badass. But his prose is certainly an acquired taste. You can check it out for yourselves and judge if the flavor was made for you to enjoy.