It’s not belief; It’s very much jerry-rigged structures of things you can depend upon just to get you to the next ravine. WILL SELF
For 17 years, England’s most daring novelist has lived in a white terraced house at the end of a quiet block in South London, across the street from a housing estate. The flight path to Heathrow steadily dribbles planes down the horizon. It’s a Friday afternoon in August, the air creamy and beer-scented. Summer school has just let out, sending a crowd of uniformed children and their head-scarfed mothers ambling down nearby blocks. Will Self, the one-time enfant terrible of London letters, the scourge of decency, is not home, his wife explains, after five long minutes standing outside their door. He’s out for a walk.
Twenty years ago, this would be a kind of punch line. Self was greeted upon the publication of his first short story collection, the absurdly dark The Quantity Theory of Insanity, in 1991, as a return to the scabrous, grubby street style of the previous century. His novels, nonfiction, and story collections, which began to appear at the rate of about one or two a year, were angry and biliously funny. As the rest of the world fell in love with squeakily hygienic London fare like Notting Hill (1999), Self showed them the city’s suppurating underbelly. He was not shy about his drug use (he’s admitted to snorting heroin on then-Prime Minister John Major’s plane) or his disregard for a great number of his contemporaries (such as Alan Hollinghurst, whom he once called “the beard-y guy”). If most British writers struggled in the shadow of England’s great generation of 1980s novelists, Self oriented himself by the dark planets of Ballard and Burroughs.
Ten minutes later, Self returns, tall as a college basketball forward, wearing a slight sweat and a summer cough. In the past 15 years, he has gotten clean—for good—and it shows, most dramatically in the work. Since 2001’s How the Dead Live, his novel about a woman’s encounter with the afterlife, Self’s work has found the desperate, creepy places where illness and exile collide with city dwellers’ need to orient and be recognized within the miasma of contemporary London. A series of books on walking have led to his most ambitious project yet, a trilogy of novels exploring mental health and the city. Umbrella, a Joycean novel partially set in a mental hospital, was published in the U.S. in 2013 and shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize.
I spoke to Self, now 53, shortly before the British publication of Shark (out this month in the U.S. from Grove Press), Umbrella‘s prequel of sorts, in which Dr. Zack Busner is running a group home for the mentally damaged. The book narrates in circles, weaving together the stories of Busner’s patients, one of whom is suffering from WWII-related post-traumatic stress disorder; other narrative voices include a junkie, a conscientious objector, and a veteran of the mission to bomb Hiroshima. Self wrote most of this novel on the top floor of the house where we sit, the view through the window visible for the first time in 17 years—his wife, the journalist Deborah Orr, recently had a cleaner wash away the muck. “I didn’t even know some of this stuff was here,” Self laughs, peering out the window before we begin.
JOHN FREEMAN: Shark is one of many books you’ve set in London. Has your view of the city changed in the past 25 years?
WILL SELF: Well, I think the fundamental apprehension is that the city’s an organism of some form, rather than being governed from above, you know? The city is a vast survival strategy for a very, very large animal with extremely high population densities.
FREEMAN: Were your parents deeply rooted in the city?
SELF: Not in the way that I am. My father was born in the Paragon in Blackheath, but they actually moved to Brighton when my dad was quite young. And he went away to prep school, being an upper-middle-class Englishman, when he was 7, and then to Lancing College at 11. So his childhood was a combination of a lot of golf around Brighton and boarding school.
FREEMAN: Which appears in Shark.
SELF: Yeah, it’s the same school. It was founded by my great-great grandfather. So my father and uncle went there. And my father wanted me to go there, but I wasn’t having any of that. He was the chairman of the Town and Country Planning Association and likely knew Raymond Unwin, who planned the Hampstead Garden Suburb, as well as knowing Frederic Osborn and the leading lights of urban planning in the interwar and postwar periods. So, yeah, I grew up with somebody who was constantly trying to apprehend the bigger urban picture, that’s what my father did. But I think he would have found my organic feel of it all rather fanciful. He believed in planning. He believed it was possible to plan cities.
FREEMAN: So what did your father think of people like Robert Moses?
SELF: That’s an interesting point. I never discussed Moses with him. I read Moses’ biography a few years ago. Moses is a very interesting figure. But, you know, I think that biography gets it very well—there was a strong streak of municipal socialism in Moses. He came out of that Settlement House movement, he believed in the idea that there were basic utilities in the city that weren’t fungible, and they shouldn’t be traded. There were universal assets. And it all went pear shaped. A lot of fucking good stuff in New York, Moses did.
FREEMAN: Yes, lots of parks, in addition to the roadways.
SELF: Yeah. And he tried to house people. But you look back now from the vantage of 2014, and that period, which is the same in England and really from 1890 to 1970, seems like an anomaly. If you think of the kind of mind-set you would need in order to feel that way about urban planning and development, it’s totally opposed to how everything tells us to think nowadays.
FREEMAN: Well, it seems like in some ways Umbrella, Shark, and maybe even the next book you’re planning are charting the arc of that period.
SELF: Yes, the sort of municipal socialist interlude.
FREEMAN: You’ve written about insanity for 25 years now. Why do you think it’s possessed you?
SELF: Well, partly due to my early experience of ending up as an outpatient on mental wards at 20, and reading thinkers like Laing and Foucault and Thomas Szasz, who wrote about mental illness at around the same time. So sort of being around crazy people, being a bit crazy, and reading this kind of stuff when I was very unhappy. I didn’t know whether I was crazy reading this stuff that was saying, well, that craziness was a kind of critique.
FREEMAN: Did you buy it at the time?
SELF: Yeah, very much, 100 percent. And then, particularly those aspects of the anti-psychiatrist arguments—more on the macro level than the individual level—that psychiatrists are enforcing a kind of mental cordon sanitaire on society. And, of course, the anti-psychiatrists were responding to a long-term mental hospital population of 150,000 in Britain at its peak in the mid-’50s. You hear about single mothers who ended up in long-term mental facilities if they were socially disadvantaged, essentially for lack of social conformity. I still think that our attitude toward psychiatric treatment is essentially religious, and in a secular world, a godless world, these people are very powerful. The thing that recently reconfirmed some of these attitudes for me is a program I did for Radio 4 on Prozac and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. My view on these drugs had been: they’re over-prescribed, they’re often prescribed to people who should be unhappy, they’ve either got existential reasons for being unhappy that are valid, or they have external things like unemployment or poverty or illness, which means they should be unhappy. But when I looked into it in depth, I found out that the really shocking thing is that these drugs didn’t even work.
FREEMAN: Shark is, in some ways, the beginning of this industry, even for characters who are not in the group mental home.
SELF: Right, well, Michael does have post-traumatic stress, clearly. And, of course, Claude does, full-fucking-blown. I mean, he’s out there scampering around on moonbeams. He’s just off his chum. I think that mental health is a continuum, and pathological categories tend to blind us to that fact. It’s much too convenient to say this person’s psychotic or this person’s hypermanic. You can look at the proliferation and the way in which DSM [the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] is used in psychiatry as a kind of brutal heuristic for understanding what, at best, is incoherent and, at worst, is kind of unknowable.
FREEMAN: How did your experience with the psychiatric industry begin?
SELF: When I was 20, I started getting into serious trouble with smack and I ended up going to see a friend’s father, who was the consultant at Royal Free Hospital, the one by South End Green. It’s called Heath hospital in my books, but it’s obviously the Royal Free. I would go to see him, just as an outpatient, every week. And it must have only been for a period of two or three months. And then he pawned me off on a colleague, and then she said you ought to get somebody private.
FREEMAN: Was he giving you medication?
SELF: No, I don’t think I ended up on anti-depressant medication till I was a bit older, in my mid-twenties, when I started taking Tricyclic. And then I had another doctor who put me on very heavy anti-psychotic drugs.
FREEMAN: Like Thorazine or something?
SELF: Yeah. Thorazine and Stelazine and another one.
FREEMAN: That’s what they give schizophrenics.
SELF: Right, well, he thought I was schizophrenic, and I was so stoned on that stuff. I kept overdosing on it; it was quite easy to overdose on it. Also one of the pills I was taking had some weird restrictions around it, like you couldn’t drink Chianti or eat cheese. Of course, the minute you took this shit, all you wanted to do was drink Chianti and eat cheese. I used to find myself goofed out in the street on these drugs. And I had such a bad problem with addiction at the time that I didn’t mind. I was dealing cocaine and shooting up a lot of cocaine. And that’s not a good space to be in.
FREEMAN: Did it help your addiction at all?
SELF: The reason I liked it was that it was a chemical straightjacket; it just coshed me. I couldn’t actually physically get out of the house to score. So I thought this would be okay. Nonsense, of course. But that was all in the year before I went into rehab, when I was just really shutting down. It was nasty. Then again, in the late ’90s, when I ended up in a bad state again—when I was in the Charter Clinic—they put me on a lot of medication. They put me on SSRIs. The doctor apologized to me for that, actually.
FREEMAN: That’s extremely rare.
SELF: Yeah, well, they’re wise to apologize. I saw him at some conference, and he came up and kind of apologized, because he put me on SSRIs and I had a bad reaction and tried to kill myself.
FREEMAN: It’s strange that the drugs they give you for depression can lead to suicidal depression.
SELF: It’s because they’re useless. They don’t work. In my view, [pharmaceutical company] Eli Lilly is involved in one of the single biggest cons in the history of medicine. I think it is a criminal con, and the whole interlocking between psychiatry and big pharma is a hideous thing. I had this suicide attempt, and I went back to the doctor and said, “This is what’s happened to me.” And he said, “Oh, well, I’m going to give you another drug … and then another drug.” And I went to the pharmacist and handed over these scripts, and she handed me a sack of pills. And I thought, “I’m not fucking taking this shit. I’m just not.” And then I got clean. I used to keep the sack, actually, for a while. I had the sack of pills she gave me in this room for about ten years. And then I thought, “I’m getting this shit out of here.”
FREEMAN: Do you find that you can retrieve your memory of those states of mental existence from where you are now, being clean?
SELF: No, I don’t think I can quite as well as I would like. There is something at once chaotic, centrifugal, and centripetal in those mental states, that you’re kind of flying out of yourself and sticking to things and you’re so focused on yourself, you’re so unable to empathize with anyone else. So no, I can’t quite get there.
FREEMAN: A lot of your activities seem to be mind-altering. I wonder if walking changes your thought patterns at all?
SELF: I’ve always walked, but during that time, walking was instrumental mostly to score drugs or there’d be flurries of attempts to be in the outdoors. And then I started walking seriously in the late ’90s, and it just felt like something I had to do. I’m not that obsessive, but I need a big-ish walk every couple of weeks.
FREEMAN: It must be like a trance experience.
SELF: It’s a trance. That’s exactly what it is. People ask, “Is it a meditation, or do you get ideas?” No, you learn that you can’t expect anything from a walk. It could be as boring as fuck. You could be really depressed. You feel really futile. Here I am, a middle-aged man, on my own, walking through a suburb. Why? What the fuck’s gone wrong? So you can’t expect anything from it. And that itself is, of course, the meditative state.
FREEMAN: It also seems like a revolt against the way that our current society’s structured in terms of the commodification of time.
SELF: And place. Place is a commodity. Place is decoupled from location because of the layered systems of the web, and high-speed air travel means that place isn’t really connected to location or environment anymore. It’s a fungible and tradable artifact. That’s why when people talk about place, they go, “Oh, I’ve done Prague.”
FREEMAN: Do you think that these novels, Umbrella and Shark, are in some ways counterpoints to your walking books?
SELF: They’ve always got a walk in them. In the case of Shark, it’s Peter’s long walk from Lincolnshire down to London, walking by night. He knows he’s always in a strange kind of internal exile in the culture and the walk symbolizes it. In Umbrella, the core walk is the one that Audrey takes with her father, when they go into town. It’s actually quite a short walk—half a mile. In The Book of Dave, the sort of fucked-up, nervous, broke-down cabbie walks all the way out of London to his girlfriend’s house, and it’s a liberation for him. That liberation from driving and the city. So, yeah, I think that the fiction is trying to provide, both structurally and thematically, a kind of world in which orientation matters; you have to orient yourself within the word-stream, you have to work a bit to understand whose psyche you’re encountering. Nothing is given.
FREEMAN: The London of Shark is a bit rough. Was London like that when you were living here in the ’80s?
SELF: Worse. Because I was a young man then so, of course, I did get into fights. The last time I actually was in a fight, in the sense of throwing punches myself, was probably when I was at college, not since 1980. But I remember being attacked quite a few times in the ’80s.
FREEMAN: Being mugged?
SELF: Yeah. But it’s partly where I was and what I was up to. But also spontaneously I remember being attacked. So it was quite like that, yeah. Don’t you remember that? It’s that thing of being a young man.
FREEMAN: There’s also a certain age at which you almost become exempt from it.
SELF: It’s sort of around your late thirties or early forties you get that weird thing where you can walk through a whole area of really testosterone-fueled young men and they don’t even see you.
FREEMAN: Yes, you’re invisible.
SELF: You’re invisible to them … and that hopefully persists till you’re in your mid-sixties, and then they start mugging you again.
FREEMAN: Something you said just a second ago makes me think of the circular structure of this novel in a sense that you talk about altered states as a kind of trip out and return back. They’re like atoms circling.
SELF: I think I’m trying to say various things. One is, as [Dr. Zack] Busner says himself, after Hiroshima, people wonder at our lack of connection and our emotional malaise as a culture. But what I wanted to suggest in the book was that the idea that Laing borrowed from game theory—the idea of the double bind, which he saw as implicit in psychosis—for me is implicit in every human relationship now. It’s constructed fundamentally around double binds, which has an affinity with the state of subatomic particles that both exist and don’t exist. I think also what I wanted to say there was that coincidence in narrative form is trying to tell us something. We need it because the idea of coincidental encounters that are not really coincidental, in fact, they’re serendipitous in the larger scheme of things, draws our attention to the idea that we’re at home in the world.
FREEMAN: We’re sort of tapping on a door into a conversation about divine order.
SELF: Yeah, totally. Well, I’m quite God-y. Perhaps you didn’t realize it.
FREEMAN: I found it very interesting that you said, to some degree, your previous encounter with mental health was almost simultaneous with a crisis of faith.
SELF: Yeah. But it’s all crises of faith, isn’t it?
FREEMAN: How do you mean?
SELF: Our problem is we don’t believe stuff. We don’t believe anything.
FREEMAN: That phrase keeps appearing in Shark: No-thing, no-thing.
SELF: No thing. Or in Umbrella when he overhears the King Lear performance and the Lear line “Nothing can come of nothing.”
FREEMAN: Were you brought up religious?
SELF: No, no. I think I’d been very determinately nihilistic right up until I cleaned up in the late ’90s and then force of circumstance drove me to an honest reappraisal of that—to the intellectual dishonesty in that atheistic position, the lack of any possibility of going anywhere with those kinds of views. When you interrogate people—our peers, some secularists, humanists—what they turn out to think of as belief I would characterize as kind of bricolage or DIY. It’s not belief; it’s very much jerry-rigged structures of things you can depend upon just to get you to the next ravine. Perhaps I’ve just been reading Dostoevsky this summer …
FREEMAN: Oh, he’s extremely Christian in a sense.
SELF: I think it’s a misreading of Dostoevsky to think of him as a programmatic theist. He’s actually much closer to someone like William James. He’s actually a pragmatist. What he’s saying is, phenomenologically, belief works. On all sorts of levels. If you believe something, you can have a morality that means something as well. You can feel recognized as an individual within the universe; it can give meaning to who you are.
FREEMAN: Do you go to church now?
SELF: No, I don’t go to church. I don’t like the guy nailed to the bit of wood.
FREEMAN: [laughs] It’s a bit of a downer, isn’t it?
SELF: I cannot get around that. But I do think that—ghastly word again—they’ve got our number, phenomenologically, at all sorts of levels. The church understands us, psychologically, quite well, particularly around the relationship between belief, morality, and redemption. I think they’re quite sussed on all of that. And that’s very attractive in Christianity. It offers you a way in. It offers you meaning. And, of course, we’re so used to the furniture of it. It is our culture. I never feel that way about Judaism. I suppose I could be a Jew, I am a Jew. But why would you want to do it? The fashion’s so bad. I think the language is the thing. A friend of mine died a year or two ago, relatively young, early fifties. And we had the full King James burial service. The language is so good. It’s unbeatable, resonant, meaningful poetry. Very spare. And I sort of think, when you hear it, it’s so in our DNA to respond to it. It doesn’t matter about the guy nailed to the bit of wood anymore. I was working on Umbrella at the time, and it was the first time I’d carried the coffin.
FREEMAN: That’s intense.
SELF: It’s so intense. I wasn’t reckoning on it. And it was a beautiful, bright winter’s day in the Vale of Avebury, in that kind of central Wiltshire countryside that looks like an Asterix comic, just kind of green, grassy mounds. And it was a long way from the church to the grave. It was in the churchyard but it was, like, 200 yards, 250 yards. And by the time we got him in the ground, I just had a terrible depression come on me the next day. I just felt, “Oh, God, I’m going to fucking kill myself, this is so miserable.” I was working on Umbrella alone down in the West Country, and I had to bail out, which I’ve never done before.
FREEMAN: Do you think, to some degree, one of the great things about fiction is that it returns a largely incomprehensible, too large world to human scale?
SELF: Totally. It’s a map, or a diagram.
FREEMAN: Yeah. And to some degree, that’s what a robust belief system is.
SELF: Yes. And I think that’s part of the problem of contemporary literary fiction, there’s actually an intellectual and philosophical assault on it at the same time as it’s being technologically superseded. And that’s why it’s crumbling, in my view. Because, of course, if your readers don’t have any beliefs, then what are they looking at the diagram for?
JOHN FREEMAN IS THE EDITOR OF TALES OF TWO CITIES: THE BEST AND WORST OF TIMES IN TODAY’S NEW YORK (OR BOOKS), AN ANTHOLOGY OF WRITING ABOUT NEW YORK CITY PUBLISHED, IN PART, TO BENEFIT THE HIV/AIDS ADVOCACY AND SERVICES ORGANIZATION HOUSING WORKS.