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Self by Will Self review: a deliberately repulsive portrait of the author's junkie years

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Will is the autobiography of Will Self (pictured in 1992)
Will is the autobiography of Will Self (pictured in 1992) Credit: Retna

There is a moment in his new book, Will, in which the teenage Will Self contemplates his acne-covered face in the bathroom mirror. “He smooths his hair back – sneers his lip,” he writes. “Will feels the world’s scrutiny as an excruciating hive all over his skin. How can it be repelled?” One of the answers to that question is this particular book, which is deliberately and decisively repulsive.

Will is the story of Self’s descent into heroin addiction and, as you might have gathered, it is told in the third person. It begins in 1986, with Will in his early twenties, hurtling toward rock bottom. The previous night, once the heroin had run out, he had started shooting up coke with increasing urgency, and is now in a state of panicked withdrawal. On an austere London morning he is reduced to wheedling at a dealer’s letterbox, begging on his knees for a pity-hit, offering up as vain barter the two apple Danishes he has bought from Greggs with his last 57 pence.

Having presented himself on the brink of total collapse, Self then rewinds to 1979, to the months before he goes up to Oxford, when he first snorts smack in the passenger seat of his friend’s mum’s Triumph Dolomite. The book then proceeds through Will’s debauched university years, which end in a drug bust and academic failure.

In the fourth part Will goes international, travelling to Australia where he manages to get (relatively) clean and motorcycles across the outback, before travelling to India to meet his friend Caius (the writer Edward St Aubyn) who wants Will to help him kick his habit. Instead they both end up taking fantastic amounts of pure heroin in Kashmir, before Will, fearing he is going to kill himself, goes cold turkey in a New Delhi YMCA. The final section returns to 1986, three months after the events that opened the book, with Will reluctantly ensconced in rehab, compulsively masturbating and deriding his carers and fellow patients.

For the most part writing about the actual experience of getting high is like writing about orgasms – that is, mightily bad. Some drugs lend themselves to description better than others, of course. Acid, for example, is at least narrative, what with Gonzo pterodactyls waddling around Las Vegas hotels and such like. But heroin is a dead end, a self-annihilating rush. Which means that writing about it, from William S Burroughs’s Junky to Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, mostly describes the before and after, the craving and the comedown. Will is no exception, a kind of extended smack hangover in which Will suffers “the ill-fitting of his bones, the sandpapering of his skin, the liquefaction of his bowels”.

Liquid s--- is among the many delights on the menu, along with copious amounts of vomit, not a little sperm, and yellowheads that are “the tip of a massive iceberg of pus”. There are track marks and sores, sweat and filth. All of which is part and parcel of the season in hell that is heroin addiction – it is no fun being stuck in the “quicksmack”.

But this pales in comparison with the ugliness of Will himself. He is a monster of vanity, betraying not a hint of kindness toward friend or family. No one is spared, not even the family dog, Brownie. The teenage Will professes to loathe the dog for its pliancy and abuses it. “Will’s kicked Brownie in the past – kicked and also punched her in the muzzle, hard enough that her yellowing canines drew blood from his knuckles,” he writes. At this stage we still have the promise of another 200 pages in his company.

Will despises his American mother’s pre-fab snobbery, taken tout court from Nancy Mitford, aware that this very snobbishness is itself irredeemably bourgeois, and therefore itself to be looked down on. He is ashamed of his father’s weakness, his intellectual shortcomings, and, ultimately, his failure to punish the young Will’s transgressions. His friends – the Petes, Mikes and Pauls – are bland background noise, merely an audience for Will’s ego. The girlfriends have it worse. It is understood that those in his circle who can hold their own, such as Caius, only do so because they are even more appalling than Will.

One reading of this book is that there is no distance between Will and his creator, and that Self is simply blind to his own narcissism. Perhaps. From his television appearances, full of pretension and provocation, it might not seem much of a stretch. But then how does one account for the self-loathing that suffuses the book?

One way of beginning to answer that question is by thinking of this not as a memoir, but as another piece of fiction. For fiction it undoubtedly is: Self is writing about events 30 years distant in which he was gulping, snorting and shooting up anything he could get his hands on. Are we really supposed to believe he can remember where he was, let alone details of conversations? That he can remember now what he was remembering then? How can one claim total recall after such thorough deranging of the senses?

And what about the style? Self writes with the same propulsive prose that he has deployed in his masterful recent trilogy, Umbrella (2012), Shark (2014) and Phone (2017), replete with riffs, puns, recursive loops and characteristic ellipses and italics. Perhaps Will is just another Selfian character, subject to absolute authorial control, the fragmented derangement of his youth woven into an intricate and coherent whole by the mature author.

An example, in which Will is cutting himself with a razor: “Wilkinson’s sword, withdrawn from its plastic scabbard then held tight between thumb and forefinger. One, two, three, four…gills through which his sharkish skin breathed… blood.” The moment of adolescent self-harm is transformed into a – brilliant – metaphor, but at the same time Self establishes distance between himself and Will’s pain.

In doing this – stylising his own suffering – something is foreclosed. For what lurks beneath the surface of these pages is an enemy that terrifies both Will and his creator: cliché. For Will is a kind of cliché and his author knows it. Tattoos, punk and drugs are Will’s predictable tools for breaking out of the “privet prison” of bourgeois suburbia, but he simply springs himself into a new cage. Loathing his parents as much as he needs them, Will graduates from hurting himself to feel something, to doping himself to stop himself feeling anything at all.

It is a well-worn path. And Self the author cannot seem to forgive Will the addict for the cliché he used to be. He is still sneering into the mirror, finding new ways to repel the world. What is tragic about this book is that he succeeds.

Will is published by Viking at £14.99. To order your copy for £12.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop