Will self is an interesting personality in the literary world. Across the internet there seems to be an abundance of people who either find him annoying, obnoxious or overly self-indulgent. On the other hand there are some people dotted around on Goodreads and other literary forums who seem to think the man is a quick-witted genius of serious imaginative ability: ‘The second coming of J.G. Ballard!’ they shout from across their keyboards.
Self is also a regular on British political TV programmes Question Time and Newsnight, and has some fairly outspoken but often very sensible views about the state of British politics and the role of literature within society. So bearing all this in mind I was quite intrigued when I picked up The Quantity Theory of Insanity for the first time.
The book is essentially a collection of 6 (very loosely) interconnected short stories set in London, which tackles the issues surrounding death, boredom, sanity, insanity, drugs, academia, and the mundanity of modern living.
The North London Book of the Dead
The first story asks a truly fun and witty, yet awfully banal question (which will go on the make up the main storyline for one of his later books): What if when people die they don’t go to Heaven or Hell but instead just move to a different part of London? These first 20 pages to The Quantity Theory really had me questioning why so many people hate Self’s writing. I personally found it concise and engaging with subtle hint of wit that actually made me laugh out loud at points.
Following this comes a bizarre Kafkaesque tale of an art therapists journey into the world of mental hospital where it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between doctor and patient. Although this was one of the longer stories in the collection I really enjoyed this one too. Self’s surreal characterisation of a descent into madness keeps you guessing at every step, and depicts elements of the extraordinary with the fantastic mundanity of some of Kafka’s best short stories (A Country Doctor comes to mind).
Understanding the Ur-Bororo
The third story outlines a genius anthropologists exposition of the worlds most boring tribe. Self’s writing which, at times, was clear and fresh was becoming obtuse and dull. Understanding the Ur-Bororo was decent but was nowhere near as good as either of its predecessors. This theme seems to continue through the rest of the book: however good the first two stories were, the 4th and 5th were bad.
The Quantity Theory of Insanity
The title piece of this collection had some potential but in my opinion this was where Self’s book really fell apart. It sprawled on for 70 pages, 50 of which seemingly had nothing to do with the actual story. There was literally a 20 page excursion in which the main character spends days looking around London toilets for clues that would help him to locate his estranged university professor, who he thun bumps into completely by chance… No explanation provided. Essentially the last pages had been completely irrelevant to the development of the storyline, which most authors will tell you is a fatal sin when writing short fiction. It seemed to be Self was trying to be too clever in a ‘post-modern’ sort of way, but it failed miserably…
Mono-Cellular is a bizarre hallucinatory tale told from the perspective of what seemed to be like one of Oliver Sacks’ patients. I really felt it was a slog reading through the disconnected time hops and the overly purple prose that Self feels necessary to include in a lot of his writing (though this didn’t bother me as much as it has some reviewers). The idea itself could have had some potential, but yet again I really just don’t think Self pulled it off.
The final story Waiting was a brief return to form. It tells the story of a man who becomes so sick of waiting that he joins what is essentially a cult of bike riding, speed sniffing, courier drivers who believe that the millennium will bring the end of the era of waiting. It was a sharp and witty poke at our modern society that is so obsessed with speed and efficiency that everything, paradoxically, seems to come to a standstill. Not the most engaging story I’ve ever read but pretty solid.
Overall I think that Self’s writing is a pretty accurate description of his media personality. Sometimes clever, witty and brilliant, sometimes dull, self-indulgent and banal. The Quantity Theory gets a Solid 3 out of 5 from me because the first few stories were thoroughly enjoyable, however I’m not in a rush to read any of Self’s novels any time soon if they risk being as inconsistent as this book was. Saying that, if anyone has any recommendations regarding Self’s other works I’d love to hear about them!