The metaphysics begin with the dust-jacket: a big black “Will”. Underneath, an almost invisibly white “Self”. They are divided by a photograph of the author looking as if he’s been snapped by Edvard Munch just come back from the bridge of screams.
Self finds enlightenment, he tells us, in Turgenev’s question: “What’s the difference between a white void and a black void?” That must go down a bomb at the Narcotics Anonymous meetings that I hope Will still attends. Perhaps it does, though. Gossip has it that three well-known writers have graduated from that group.
Is Will a self-made man, a Nietzschean triumph of the will? Is there such a thing as “free will” – the free Will? In the body of the book we find that Will inclines to the Stoics’ belief “that free will is merely the feeling we have when our desires coincide with what has been determined for us”. Do addicts will the next dose, or are they driven, unwillingly, by their “habit”?
What is addiction? Will implicitly subscribes to the view that it’s attempted suicide. “What’s your poison?” drinkers ask each other. A central image in this book is three-year-old Will, by himself, at a bus stop. Running away from what, to what? We are all, to paraphrase Cocteau (one of Will’s very, very favourite authors), on a non-stopping double-decker to death.
Death, then, is the drug-willed escape? The bare bodkin to the heart, as Hamlet says, the slashing Wilkinson blade to the vein (after many puncturing needles) for Will. But, as Hamlet also says, the Almighty has fixed his canon against self-slaughter. Is the substance-abusing Will, shaking his fist at God, slaughtering Self?
Years ago Will Self reviewed a drunkalogue of mine – a short book about alcoholism – making the point, quite politely, that I wasn’t really clever enough to be an interesting addict. Recovery humiliates. One of the things I’ve discovered is that I’m indeed not as clever as, in my cups, I thought. I find consolation for my fallen pride in the dying words of another William, “Bill W” (William Wilson) founder of AA: “Keep it simple”. Everything the AA/NA programme offers can be expressed in short words.
Will Self is no friend to short words. He surrounds his meanings with verbal barbed wire. For instance: “He thinks of suburbia in its entirety as a dithyramb of the dull: strophe and antistrophe of semis dancing along London’s northern heights.” Put that on Google Maps.
Style is the man himself. Bluntly what Will Self’s style says is: I’m a man who knows words you have to look up, dumbo. But once you cross the thesauratic (it’s catching) gulf there’s a well-worth-struggling-for drugalogue awaiting.
It divides into five unsequential sections. The first (May 1986, aged 24) finds Will nearing the destination of his voyage to the end of night. It’s dawn, he has 57 pence in his pocket, and he cannot live without a hit. It ends with a big hit – a car crash, metaphorical as well as actual. As his Veedub (VW) spins through the air his life flashes in front of his eyes. Then comes his first teenage Baudelairian drug experience; next Oxford; a miserable fucking third, his first brush with the law; and the drop-out drug-sodden trek to India. Finally, August 1986, rehab and dubious recovery.
Will’s background emerges from the haze. His father was “a belated Edwardian” whose platitudinous instruction to his son is “moderation in all things”. He walked out on his wife with an Italian woman when Will was a child. His mother Will calls an “Israelite” – by which he means “Jewish American” – and wandering like the chosen people in the English desert. Her instruction is “waste not want not”. Don’t even waste experience: “it will make good copy”.
Running through the memoir is nagging wonderment. At Oxford Will was, to his own satisfaction, cleverer than the dons. But when he argued in his finals that reality is not Ding an Sich – the thing in itself – but arbitrary structuration and offered cartoons to bolster his point, Oxford declined to change its exam rules for him.
The other more resentful wonderment in this memoir à clef centres on “Caius” (a hardly disguised Edward St Aubyn: call him Patrick Melrose if you must have a pseudonym). Caius is a fellow Oxonian and fellow junkie. Bounty falls from aristo Caius’s well-lined pockets: a car, for example, which, with Will at the wheel, goes up in coke. But he won’t invite Will to his dinner parties because – no other word – Will is common. Drugs offer no escape from what the English class system makes you.
In the final episode, at the “Lodge” (easily identified, but not named, like much else in this memoir), Will stumbles on the first of the 12 steps to recovery: the one that requires admitting publicly that you are powerless over drink/drugs. You can’t will yourself clean and sober. Will rebels. He masturbates a dozen times a day. “Self abuse” is an assertion of independent selfhood. Finally, he surrenders to enter the anonymous ranks of the eternally “recovering”.
Drugalogues are not, Self tells us, a literary genre – but there are major works in the form. The book’s epigraph is from Aleister Crowley. The text genuflects to “Brother Bill” (WS Burroughs). I’ll put Will on my shelf next to them. Alongside my Scrabble dictionary.
John Sutherland is emeritus Lord Northcliffe professor of modern English literature at University College London
Viking, 400pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 27 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The English Question