Will Self visits the Slug & Lettuce

A mollusc, a salad leaf and an unstoppable trail of mish-mash, bish-bosh nosh.

Heading very slowly across town to the Slug & Lettuce in the Borough, I kept looking behind me to check that I was leaving a man-sized slime trail on the pavement. I was feeling pretty low on this, my 23rd Father’s Day. Not, you appreciate, that a fearless gastropod like me has any need for such marketing-led pseudo-festivals – although it did occur to me that not one of my little slime had bothered to mark the event with so much as a tweak of my antennae.

Ah well, I could rely on the Slug & Lettuce to make good the emotional deficit financially; because – so long as the staff didn’t scatter salt on me the second I oozed through the door – I had some astonishing Father’s Day offers to look forward to. The one pellet (an ironic pet name we molluscs bestow on our offspring) I’d hung on to would eat for only a pound, while I’d receive absolutely free a patriarchal pint of beer. True, I don’t actually drink alcohol any more but I was looking forward to pouring my free pint down the Slug & Lettuce urinals as a sort of libation for all those fathers whose alcoholism had deprived them of access to their own children on Father’s Day. I’m not joking.

Anyway, the smear cheered me up: the sun came out and the pellet kept scooting ahead at speeds in excess of 0.0001 miles an hour. Ah, the energy of the young! But as we reached the establishment – housed, like many others of this 80-strong chain, in a former bank – the trouble started: despite the Slug & Lettuce being, on the face of it, a pub, the dog wasn’t allowed inside. (Don’t ask me to explain why a slug has a pet dog, just run with me on this thing.) We were exiled to a grim seating area at the prow end of the old, boat-shaped building, where we could look upon a First World War memorial that featured a Tommy petrified in mid-sprint. Was he advancing or retreating – who could say?

I didn’t mind not getting to sit in the restaurant – the decor was a puke-inducing: gallimaufry of padded vinyl, beige tile, “decorative” mirroring and dark wood. Random sections of wall had been abused with sub-Bridget Riley wavy wallpaper, while a weird mushrooming column dominated the main area, with – get this! – a series of fake chandeliers dangling from its white plaster cap.

Besides, sitting on the patio I was able to Google the Slug & Lettuce and not only read up on it but also discover that I’d namechecked the chain when I reviewed All Bar One in this weird, mushrooming column a couple of years ago. I wasn’t complimentary, but described S&L, erroneously, as if it were the gateway drug for all such other narcotised faux-pubs. It wasn’t . . . but then, quite frankly, who cares?

Who cares what was on the menu, either? I mean, if you’ve reached this stage in life: a New Statesman reader still against all the odds cleaving to a progressive socialist ideal in the centennial year of this publication, do you really want to know about this mishmash, bish-bosh nosh? Suffice to say the menu was full of those process descriptions that first came into vogue in the late 1980s – some dishes were “lightly coated”, others “lightly dusted”; others still were “served on a bed” (something I assumed only happens to the Duchess of Cambridge with a turkey baster), and also “finished with coconut cream”. The pellet had a burger, I had a Caesar salad with “shredded” chicken. Ach! all this shredding – the Yiddish word for nonkosher food is “trayf”, which means torn or shredded; I wondered if the S&L powers-that-be were trying to tell me something.

The waiter – who was eastern European, of course – had three things to tell me: when I went in to ask for the bill he informed me that because there wasn’t “table service” outside I should’ve given her my credit card to begin with so he could open a tab. The idea of it! A tab at the Slug & Lettuce! The second thing he told me was that the pellet wouldn’t eat for a quid because he hadn’t ordered off the kids menu, and the third was that I wouldn’t be receiving my free Father’s Day pint because I hadn’t had a burger.

“So, that’s Father’s Day at the Slug & Lettuce!” I said to the waiter and he grimaced sympathetically. “Still,” I continued, “I expect they’re fucking you over too.” He grimaced differently, but conceded: “Since the recession, things have got . . . worse.” I said, “I’m sorry about that . . . I can afford to be philosophic, after all since I’m a slug – and hence a hermaphrodite – I’m always fucking myself over anyway.”

A slug. Photograph: WikiCommons

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear