By Anna Aslanyan.
Walking to Hollywood, Will Self, Bloomsbury 2010
Reviews of Will Self‘s latest book link it to a record number of literary figures, from Hunter S. Thompson to Iain Sinclair to, less predictably, Bruce Chatwin. One name missing from this list is that of Christian Kracht: the only explanation that comes to mind is that the Swiss author is, sadly, still relatively unknown in the English-speaking world. Indeed, were his travel essays and novels, particularly Faserland, widely available, both the admirers and opponents of Self’s writing would be having a field day. As things stand, they have to restrict themselves to talking about Gonzo journalism, psychogeography and ridicule of declining Western morals.
All this, and much more, can be found in the fictionalised account of Self’s mega-walks on both sides of the Atlantic. It is split into three parts, the opening one, Very Little, centred on his relationship with a school friend, a monumental sculptor. They are an odd match – Sherman Oaks is just over three foot tall, hardly reaching to Self’s waist. Dwarves are part of the author’s “obsessions with bigness, with littleness, with all distortion in scale”, and Oaks is a godsend in this regard: his schtick is producing images of himself in ever increasing size, an opportunity not to be missed by any art critic.
Author’s obsessions feature heavily in the book, scale being just one of them. Another notable one is Barbour: despite confessing that “I’d never owned one of those waxed cotton jackets before – they were standard-issue country kit for the scions of the British upper and upper-middle classes and as such an anathema”, Self goes on to buy one for a trip to Canada and use it as a coat-cum-coat-bag. The whole thing starts as a mild disorder: “I [...] lay awake night after night obsessing in nauseating detail how I would ‘pack’ the jacket”, but soon the garment assumes a life of its own, first as a mere doll: “Barbour’s waxen arms wrapped around me, my face buried in its musty tartan lining, its double zips nipping my neck”. As the story unfolds, the common creature grows more noble: “The Barbour was a waxwork effigy of William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire, which melted across [the owner's] shoulders”. Finally, its ascent culminates in coronation, at the same time allowing the author to touch upon one of his pet subjects, royalty: “I had the Barbour slung over my shoulder once more, as weighty and useless as a constitutional monarch”.
These lines, too, put you in mind of Kracht – in Faserland his hero, who swears by Barbour, also treats it as a universal suitcase, memorably managing to squeeze four sandwiches, six hot-dogs and two yoghurts into its capacious pockets. The similarities between the two men of letters do not end there – after all, Kracht, like Self, is famous for his take on Western decadence, pop culture, consumerism and other crises experienced by our civilisation. One can easily imagine them meeting over a drink (non-alcoholic, in Self’s case) for a philosophical discussion and finding a lot of common ground – no doubt, of moral high variety.
Going back to the book, in its last part, Spurn Head, Self takes a holiday in East Yorkshire to walk the Holderness coast towards the eponymous landmark. Worried about a possible memory loss, he reflects upon the differences between youth and middle age – once you have reached the latter, the future finally becomes sinisterly clear. The journey along the fast eroding coast may be unrepeatable, for reasons not solely environmental; Self sees it as “a unique walk of erasure – a forty-mile extended metaphor of [his] own embattled persona”.
If the first and the last pieces are inspired by obsessive-compulsive disorder and Alzheimer’s, the main one, Walking to Hollywood, draws on psychosis. The author’s journey through L.A. becomes a film with himself in the lead role (to further complicate his condition, there appear to be two different people cast as “Self”), while everyone he meets on his way is played by a popular screen actor. The writer keeps wandering and wondering: “If I’m a 3-D image of myself, then what exactly am I being projected on to?” His delusions, if that is what they are, are dear to him as the only remaining form of entertainment “now that film is dead”. The death of film confirmed, Self continues his journey, a tribute to the deceased, showering the reader with star appearances and movie references. One of these, a quote from Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, is chosen as the epigraph: “I’ve been around the world several times and now it’s only banality that interests me – I track it with the relentlessness of a bounty hunter”.
The banality Self encounters in America comes in the shape of a menagerie of characters, all skilfully sketched. There is “this fat and fatiloquent young man, his cheeks dimpled by silver studs, his black dungarees wide as an army tent, his moobs silicone-stiff beneath the Gothic fluting of his Tarp-shirt”. The actress cast in the role of the author’s wife constantly imagines herself starring in a “sure-fire smash, with an astronomical budget” and waves “her heart-shaped lollipop like a lorgnette” asking for more marshmallows with her drink. Apart from “the supermen’s batmen, the jokers’ tin men, the Elvises and the Marylin Monroes”, Tinseltown is full of writers, including Bret Easton Ellis (played by Orson Welles), Margaret Atwood “slumped by a storefront, a pathetic styrofoam begging cup on the pavement in front of her”, and Kazuo Ishiguro wearing an eccentric costume.
Film may be dead, but Self is still there, an accomplished actor in real life (if this term can be applied here), as anyone who has ever heard him speak will agree. In his memoir, he is recognised by teenagers in California: “Brit actor, ain’tcha? Saw you in that kids’ movie – wha’ wuzz it, now?” – “It was Harry Potter, man”. The book cover makes a great film poster, complete with the picture of the lead character, “slightly bigger than lifesize”, while numerous visual props – somewhat obscure black-and-white photographs taken by the author – serve to emphasise the quirkiness of this Situationism comedy.
It has often been noted that in order to satirise something properly you have to become part of it. Will Self’s oeuvre, including Walking to Hollywood, is a proof positive of this conjecture. You have to be half-American to expose your half-faserland in the way it is done in the book. You have to be a (former) member of Colony Room, the notorious Soho club described in Liver, to paint it with such masterly strokes. And you have to be human to write Great Apes – unless, of course, you are a Creationist. Assuming that the same principle applies to aristocracy, modern Britain would definitely benefit if Self made it into the Queen’s honours list. Will it ever happen? The author is sceptical about this. In his recent article for Index on Censorship he calls himself “an old punk and a middle-aged republican”, adding: “If there was ever the remotest possibility of my being able to scuttle my way up the back passage of the establishment ‘God Save the Queen’ would act as a formidable piece of barrier contraception”. Yet, let us not rule out such an eventuality. If awarded an MBE, Self might even revise his sartorial style. And then there will be nothing to stop him from becoming the new face of Barbour.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 27th, 2010.