Shrink and all-round media pundit Dr Zack Busner, the not especi- ally interesting but somehow ever-recurring character in Will Self's fiction, turns up yet again in the title story of this collection. Sufficiently long-drawn-out to count as a novella, it charts the course of a strange "duel" between Busner and a younger, less eminent psychiatrist, Shiva Mukti. He introduces himself to Mukti at a conference - "I'm your neighbour up at Heath Hospital . . . Zack Busner" - and Mukti, who has seen him on TV umpteen times, just says, "I know."
Busner starts sending tiresome and difficult patients to Mukti, ostensibly for a second opinion, and Mukti retaliates in kind. This solemn needle-match is quite funny, except that Mukti goes too far by selecting for referral a man of unpredictable violence who breaks Busner's jaw and cracks several of his ribs.
Fearing the comeback, Mukti arms himself with "a hypodermic syringe loaded with enough chlorpromazine to stop a berserker on phencyclidine" - Self once more displaying a remarkable knowledge of pharmacology. Mukti is paranoid, clearly, or is he? He thinks that Busner, as a Jew, "must have access, if not to illuminati who ensured his advancement, at any rate to a number of sympathetic friends in very high places".
Busner, recuperating at home in Hampstead, envies Mukti for the family life that he assumes an Indian like him must have, but doesn't seem all that vindictive. However, when the story goes back to Mukti's point of view, Busner transforms into the sinister, cabalistic mastermind that Mukti imagines him to be. The idea, I suppose, is that in a story everything is imaginary anyway and there is no reality.
During the climactic and rather grim showdown, Mukti asks Busner why he started this business and, on being reminded of the minor snub at the conference, asks incredulously: "That was what all this was about?" Busner responds, "Isn't that enough?" It's a good punchline, if not original - the same line was delivered by Dennis Hopper in Wim Wenders's film The American Friend.
Of the other stories, "161" trades Self's usual London setting for Liverpool; it was commissioned as part of a city arts project. A young criminal, on the run from some other young criminals, takes refuge in an elderly widower's flat and forms a curious alliance with the old man. At one point he hears police sirens, "like the drills of feeble dentists, squealing and revving as they struggled to drill the immoral caries out of the decaying city". You wonder if Self is sending up his early reputation as a follower of Martin Amis.
In "The Five-Swing Walk", an account of a divorced dad's gloomy outing with his children, urban squalor is all. "Then past the gasometer, down the short street walled with poky terraced houses, and finally along the parade of shitty little shops . . ." Rubbish piles up against walls: "the squashed spine of an old vacuum cleaner was preyed on by the strut of an umbrella, which in turn was ensnared by a shred of gabardine, upon which suckered last night's discarded condom . . ." Ho hum. And the shock ending seems a bit arbitrary. But the children are portrayed with anthropological exactness.
More of the same in "Conversations with Ord": "this thick brick viaduct, these ancient pubs, these silent showrooms full of cacophonous motorcycles, these leprous squeegee merchants". A group of bohemian south Londoners decides to hold a balloon debate - a real one, aboard a hot-air balloon tethered near Vauxhall Bridge as a tourist attraction. The point may be to do with the narrator's mid-life crisis and the classic symptom he admits to, the casting-off of friends.
"Return to the Planet of the Humans" is a brief account of a mental patient who thinks he's a chimp. Like the novel Great Apes, it was presumably inspired by Self's participation in a heavyweight debate on television about whether apes should be given human rights in law - a very Busnerian bit of rent-a-face punditry. But no doubt he keeps Busner in his repertoire precisely to show that, though he may be an establishment hack, he is also an antinomian artist who appreciates the irony of his position. As if we couldn't tell.