Arriving on the scene in the 1990s, Will Self carried on the tradition of the British novel we know from J. G. Ballard and Anthony Burgess: edgy, satirical conceptual fictions. (For a taste of his early inventions, see Great Apes, published in 1997, in which a man awakes from a drug binge to a society of chimpanzees.) Self’s hometown celebrity has had a similarly rude tinge. A prominent columnist and television personality, he’s notorious for an incident in 1997, when, while covering the national election for The Observer, he was caught using heroin on then prime minister John Major’s state jet. Of his subsequent sacking, Self remarked, “I’m a hack who gets hired because I do drugs.” Other gigs did follow, even after he got sober—for a second time and so far successfully—in 1998.
Since then, his fiction has achieved ever greater range and sweep, not to mention a pair of Booker Prize nominations. His most recent trilogy of novels—Umbrella (2012), Shark (2014), Phone (2017)—tackled the formation of the modern world through war, technology, pharmacology, and psychotherapy, in a neo-modernist stream-of-consciousness, replete with fractured time frames and unrelenting, italics-and-ellipsis-studded, book-length paragraphs. He also remains a prolific journalist with an ever-expanding brief.
Self’s new book, Will, is a memoir of his first phase of drug addiction, from 1979 to 1986. It’s hardly a conventional book: the narration, in third person, resembles that of his recent novels, but chattier and broken by frequent reader-friendly paragraph and section breaks. Still, any memoir of addiction will pass through certain Stations of the Cross, and the book’s five parts show the young Will (as he’s called on the page) at recognizable stages between initiation and recovery.
While covering the national election for The Observer, Self was caught using heroin on then prime minister John Major’s state jet.
We first meet Will in South London in May of 1986, a little worse for wear after a lost weekend spent shooting up heroin and cocaine, a layer of Max Factor foundation hiding the scabs and pimples caused by his drug habit. He has a degree from Oxford, a job as a telemarketer for IBM, a side gig drawing cartoons for a newspaper (“a dumb-fucking occupation for a grown man—especially one who can’t draw properly”), an apartment in Kensington lent to him by an upper-class dope fiend whom he calls “Caius,” and a Volkswagen he’s picked up for a few hundred dollars. What he doesn’t have is gear, or the tenner he would need to buy a bag. He tries bartering with a couple of pastries, but his dealer turns him away. Another connection is dry. Resigned, he decides to skip work and retreat to his bed: “There he’ll writhe in agony, longing for a silken skin to enfold his squamous one—then he’ll come, his involuntary orgasm being only one of the grotesqueries exposed by the long fetch of opiate withdrawal.” But as he crosses the Thames on Chelsea Bridge, his brakes lock and he crashes his car: rock bottom. End of part one.
Self’s “daymare” is by this point, after seven years as a user and four as a full-blown addict, just another episode in “the same eternally shitty present.” The sweetness of a fix is ever diminishing, and drugs might “memorialise chance and fleeting occurrences, fixing them forever in fantastical varnish,” but they also leave him aching, shaky, paralyzed. He’s had two overdoses, and was only roused from the second one thanks to a friend punching him in the face. He knows “the blatant fucking injustice of surviving an overdose. Why? Because as you pushed the plunger in you’d been simultaneously aware of these three things: you’d taken too much, you were going to die, but it was all right because you felt no pain....”
The middle parts of Will mix drug writing with more straightforwardly autobiographical material. Will’s parents, objects of their son’s pity verging on contempt, divorced when he was nine, his mother making the announcement on the boy’s birthday. Teenage Will, glimpsed in 1979 as Margaret Thatcher makes her ascent, is a bookworm hooked on Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, and science fiction. He also has a shelf full of Burroughs, De Quincey, Leary, Hunter Thompson, and lesser poets of derangement—an interest his mother encourages, thinking it a harmless intellectual vice. But the high-achieving high-schooler, already accepted to Oxford, is also a speed-and-acid freak. His life is heady with new liberties, the sloughing off of childhood humiliations, punk rock, political anger, sexual experimentation, and the first taste of smack.
The years before the crash, the phase of full-blown addiction, are spent in Oxford, where Will and a houseful of friends are busted and Will takes the fall, and abroad, as Will tries to get clean in Australia (mostly he does) and India (mostly he doesn’t). These chapters are thick with comic adventures and, in a few cases, full-blown characters not named Will. One of these is Caius, Will’s Oxford classmate, who’ll be recognizable to any reader of the Patrick Melrose novels as their author, Edward St. Aubyn. (The invented name is a clear reference to the Roman emperor Caligula.) Caius is the decadent and aristocratic foil to Will’s good middle-class boy gone to seed. (And Will is the unruly true-life foil to St. Aubyn’s drug-soaked but formally tidy roman à clef Bad News.) After Caius divulges, during a coke binge a few days before his own wedding, his experiences of child abuse at the hands of his father, Will thinks: “It was always Caius who got everything, whether they be material things, the beautiful, brainy Ann—and even these extreme experiences, which, self-annihilatory or not, would undoubtedly make good copy....”
Good copy: Will isn’t short on it. Unless your interest is therapeutic, the past sins of recovered addicts make for better reading than the salvation. So it’s been with stories of converts since The Golden Ass of Apuleius, and so it is with Will.
The final pages of the memoir find our hero in rehab, too cynical for group sessions with the other “fucking wankers.” Yet, when told by the doctor, the latest in seven years of “quacks” who’ve tried to help him, that he’s free to leave, the memory of his dead friend Hugh brings tears to his eyes, and he chooses to stay. We know the story doesn’t end there. Self writes that, by his late teens, drugs had “taken the place of science fiction in his life, offering him direct experience of alternative worlds, rather than the effort required to imagine them.” The displacement was temporary. The writer won out.
Christian Lorentzen is a writer who lives in Brooklyn