Junk Mail

Will Self
Bloomsbury Press, London, 1995

Rick McGrath

Divided Self:

In one of his interviews the Brit Bad Boy admits to a fondness for journalism, and hey presto! out comes this collection from Potter Publishers... sorry, Bloomsbury Press. And an eclectic and varied lot it is, consisting of Part I -- On Drugs, and Part II -- On Other Things, those things being mini-collections on Humour, Book Reviews, Features, Profiles and Conversations. All of which is interspersed with Self’s own line art cartoons. Yes, he sings, and he dances.

Part I -- On Drugs offers up 14 observances, starting with the title track, “Junk Mail”, which is a positive review of a new book on W.S. Burroughs, entitled Letters 1945-1959. “New Crack City” is an interesting piece on visiting a crack house in London. “Mushrooms Galore” is a review of Terrence McKenna’s book, Food of the Gods, about psychoactive drugs (Self likes the part about drugs being decriminalized -- he figures the rest of the book is shite) -- and “Let Us Intoxicate” is a clever little piece on the loss of ritual in drug-taking and drinking in western society, an oversight which has allowed the medical and phamaceutical professions to outlaw intoxication because they lose money when people self-medicate. Cool.

In “The Naked Tea” a London shrink herds a bunch of old junkies into a room to watch David Cronenberg’s film version of Burrough’s novel, Naked Lunch. Self interviews them later and discovers none of them had ever hallucinated bug typewriters. Self is not too keen on the film, either, and frets that “its creators will put people off reading the book”. He does finally admit, tho, that “But then, there’s nothing more likely to put people off reading the book than the book itself”.

And on it goes. All good reporting with a liberal dash of personality and intelligent observation, and spiced up with Self’s pretty amazing vocabulary. Yeah, OK, it gets a little druggy after awhile... but they’re all short op-ed pieces, so you can burn thru ‘em fast or skip around.

Part Deux is more interesting in its variety, but similar in execution. The Humour section is amusing in a “neat idea” way... such as “Eight Miles High”, a review of flying first class -- “the heroin of travel” . The Book Reviews are interesting for their scope, including, A Father’s Story by Jeffrey Dahmer’s father, Lionel; Death On The Instalment Plan, by Louis-Ferdinand Celine; Eclipse Fever, by Walter Abish; Goliath: Britain’s Dangerous Places, by Beatrix Campbell; Complete Prose, By Woody Allen; On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays On The Unexamined Life, by Adam Philips; and Closing Time, by Joseph Heller.

The Features are longer yarns, no doubt weekend edition specials, and allow Self to stretch out a bit more and inject more of his opinions and history into the pieces. This proclivity to insinuate himself into his stories as a bona fide character has, of course, earned him the distinction of Gonzo Journalist of Britain, following in the footsteps of gonzomeister Hunter S. Thompson in the U.S. Personally, I’d take that positioning as being damned with faint praise. He does a pretty good piece on the IRA, tho... and I love Head-Hunting For Eternity”, a cinema verite story about a group in California that freezes its members’ heads immediately after death so they can be cloned back into life by a far future generation. Yeah, sure.

The Profiles and Conversations sections allow Self to be his best, as he can display his knowledge about his subject and still pick off a little piece to base the story on. And he talks with some kickass guys: anti-psychiatrist Thomas Szasz (never did drugs, much to Self’s chagrin), modern sculptor Damien Hirst (refuses to get intellectual about his art, blows Self away), violent thriller author Tim Willocks (Self wants to ask him about the size of his penis), and Martin Amis, about whom Self has written an apologia for Esquire Magazine.

The Conversations are with J.G. Ballard and Martin Amis -- both of whem Self obviously admires. This form of journalism is obviously best suited to Self’s style, as it allows him to jump in, do the interview, have a conversation, and then really write himself into the piece. The 1994 Ballard interview is excellent, with Self bantering around about Burroughs, movies, writing, writers, etc., and JGB trying pretty hard to justify Rushing To Paradise, his pretty bad novel published at the same time. It’s chatty... almost speedy in a sense, and JGB sums the interview experience up later: “Will, of course, has all the best lines and answers his own questions before we can get a word in edgewise. Virtuoso stuff...” Cagey old Jimmy Ballard. No upstart’s gonna pull his chain. The Martin Amis piece is less interesting -- Self and Amis were longtime friends when the interview was done, and a lot of it is simply a discussion of Amis’ creative process. OK, but you gotta care.

Will Self cartoonOh yeah, the cartoons. Amateur. Not that funny. No, really not that funny.

What you get with this book is a lot of variety, a lot of little doses of Self’s wacky sense of humour, a lot of good lines, and the interview with the Recluse of Shepperton, J.G. Ballard. It’s probably worth it for that alone, as JGB leerily watches Self do his thing while helping to keep the conversation rolling. Who knows, maybe he thought Self was going to shoot up right in his living room. That would scare the fish.

Bottom line on Junk Mail? I wouldn’t ask the postman to stop bringing it... but I’m not going to buy everything I read, either. I’d call this the Divided Self.

© Rick "Ojo" McGrath 8/2000


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