Brian Finney

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The Sweet Smell of Excess: Will Self’s Fiction, Bataille and Transgression                      
Brian Finney

Will Self has been called the most original new fiction writer to appear in Britain during the 1990s. He has as frequently been attacked by members of London’s tight literary establishment for his abstruse vocabulary, his claims to Burroughs


-inspired insights into the world of drugs and psychiatry, and the unpleasant material he embodies in his fictions. His first collection of short stories, The Quantity Theory of Insanity (1991), was praised by Martin Amis (as the work of “a very cruel writer--thrillingly heartless, terrifyingly brainy” [Heller 126]), Salman Rushdie (“someone who stands as a one-off” [Shone 39]), Doris Lessing (“a genuine comic writer” [Shone 39]), Beryl Bainbridge (“Black, macabre and relentless” [“Pass Notes” 3]), A. S. Byatt and Bill Buford. His second book, two novellas, Cock & Bull (1992) elicited mixed reactions, partly attributable to the startling sex change that each of the two protagonists experiences. When he published his first novel, My Idea of Fun (1993), a number of the critics moved in for the kill. The novel opens with the narrator telling his readers that his idea of fun consists of “tearing the time-buffeted head off the old dosser on the Tube” and “addressing” himself to the corpse (4). The critic of the London Evening Standard called it “the most loathsome book I’ve ever read” (qtd. in Barnes 3), while the Daily Telegraph book critic referred to it as “derivative and rambling, but spectacularly nasty” (Harris 6).

Self’s subsequent books have all contained elements calculated to enrage or shock various sections of his readership. He has published three more collections of short stories, Grey Area (1994), Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys (1998), and Dr Mukti and Other Tales of Woe (2004); three more novels, Great Apes (1997), How the Dead Live (2000) which continues a theme first explored in one of Self's stories "The North London Book of The Dead" from The Quantity Theory of Insanity, and Dorian: An Imitation (2002) a parody of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey; a novella, The Sweet Smell of Psychosis (1996); and two collections of essays and journalism many centered on drugs and mental health issues, Junk Mail (1995), and Feeding Frenzy (2002) covering 1995-2000. The Book of Dave is due in 2006.

Discomforted commentators have focused on Self’s unusual childhood and early adulthood to explain his literary obsession with sex, drugs and psychosis. Born in 1960 in East Finchley, London, Self started smoking marijuana at the age of twelve, graduating through amphetamines, cocaine and acid to heroin which he started injecting at eighteen. He remained a heroin addict throughout his time at Oxford University which he left with a third class degree. Eventually in 1986 he entered a treatment center in Weston-super-Mare where he claims that he cured his addiction (Shone 39). This did not prevent him from hitting the tabloid headlines in 1997 when he was caught taking heroin in the toilet of Prime Minister Major’s plane while covering the general election for the Observer newspaper. Self continues to inhabit the borderland between middle class literary life and that of the drug underworld. “I feel a sense of doubleness,” he has said. “I will take occasional excursions into my old world, and I live, I suppose, with a kind of Janus face” (Heller 127).

“Writing,” he has remarked, “can be a kind of addiction too” (Heller 149). His distinctive writing style which incorporates this doubleness has been as much a subject of controversy as have his disturbing fictional scenarios. From his first book onwards he has shown a command of vocabulary well beyond that of the average reader or - to their annoyance - most reviewers. Reactions differ widely. According the Guardian, “he writes like Amis going cold turkey with a thesaurus” (Pass Notes 3). Julian Evans complained that “Self leaves no adjective unsaid, no metaphor unturned,” - the allusion to digging is itself a peculiar use of metaphor - “no synonym unexplored, no tiring digression unpursued” (12). On the other hand other reviewers have praised him as “one of the very few writers who make the most of brevity” (Mcdonagh), “a unique stylist” (Page T15), “a masterly prose writer” (“Hardback/Paperbacks” 39), one who “has an awesome vocabulary and real inventiveness of expression” (Robson 10). Responding to the charge that he uses too many difficult words, Self quotes a friend’s remark that “they never told Monet he used too many colours” (Moir 5). He readily admits to using a thesaurus because he “ran out of words” (Moir 5).

Self’s public persona then seems to have become an anomaly and a constant source of controversy. The violence of the response to his self-consciously transgressive writings seems out of proportion to the provocation. However, the notion of excess and transgression does appear to offer a way of reading Self’s work and of understanding why certain readers are driven to respond to it with such violence.

Those reviewers who have defended his fiction as an important contribution to the contemporary cultural scene have tended to represent him as a satirist in the tradition of Juvenal, Swift and their successors. Sam Leith, reviewing Great Apes for the Observer is typical when he remarks that “he works as a sort of wildly horrified Gothic satirist” (16). In Junk Mail Self shows a keener awareness of the moral ambiguities and complexities of the satiric genre:

Satire is an art form that thrives best on a certain instability and tension in its creator. The satirist is always holding him or herself between two poles of great attraction. On the one side there is the flight into outright cynicism, anomie and amorality; on the other there is the equal and countervailing pressure towards objective truth, religion and morality. (172)

Self sees himself paradoxically both as a moral satirist and as a social rebel who is more interested in shocking his middle-class readers than in reforming them. “What excites me,” he has said, “is to disturb the reader’s fundamental assumptions. I want to make them feel that certain categories within which they are used to perceiving the world are unstable” (Glover 15).

Self shares with earlier thinkers and writers of the twentieth century this conception of being born into an unstable world. In particular, his work evokes the ideas of Georges Bataille who felt that social taboos and their transgression were wholly interdependent. Indeed, Bataille argues, it is only by transgressing taboos that we simultaneously contrive to endorse or modify them. Each is dependent on the other: “Organised transgression together with the taboo make social life what it is” (Eroticism 65). Bataille is representative of a complex view of the modern condition that reconciles Self’s need to shock us in his seemingly arbitrary scenes of animal torture and human excess with his claim to be occupying the high moral ground of the moralist. How else are we to understand a writer who talks approvingly about “the social and spiritual value of intoxication” (Junk Mail 19)? In a century disfigured by events such as the holocaust, Hiroshima and ethnic cleansing, Self maintains that the modern writer is driven to parallel forms of excess and transgression:

ours is an era in which the idea and practice of decadence - in the Nietzschean sense - has never been more clearly realized . . . [F]ar from representing a dissolution of nineteenth-century romanticism, the high modernism of the mid-twentieth century . . . has both compounded and enhanced the public image of the creative artist as deeply self-destructive, highly egotistic, plangently amoral and, of course, the nadir of anomie. (Junk Mail 58)

Georges Bataille (1897-1962) has been hailed as one of the most important precursors of poststructuralist thought by Barthes, Derrida, and Foucault, the latter two of whom have written essays about him.[i] Both a radical thinker and a writer of erotic/pornographic fiction, Bataille was cited by Barthes as the quintessential instance of a writer who, instead of works, “wrote texts, perhaps continuously one single text” (157). Whether writing about the erotic or the sacred, Bataille is fascinated by humans’ tendency to excess, to transgress the limits of whatever system they are concerned with, whether it is economic, social, psychological, sexual or religious.[ii]

Bataille and his poststructuralist successors characterize the twentieth century as the era which breaks radically with the search for absolute knowledge and total illumination. Total illumination (in the Hegelian idealist sense that Derrida deconstructs in his essay on Bataille) ends in a kind of blindness, because it hides the presence of base materialism. Hegel’s homogenizing philosophical system obscures the heterogeneity of material existence. Material existence embodies non-knowledge, eroticism and obscene laughter. Chance too is a part of heterogeneity, the other of any homogeneous system.[iii] This post-Nietzschean view of the world is shared by Will Self in his fiction. According to Nietzsche reason is no more than “a system of relations between various passions and desires” (387). In Self’s world passions and desires are exposed as the real factors motivating human conduct. In his eyes British society is characterized by “the insistent iconization of violence and sensuality” (Junk Mail 209). Self gleefully seizes on these iconized elements and uses them to destroy the boundaries between the homogeneous and the heterogeneous. For Bataille the heterogeneous, according to Julian Pefanis, “is what is expelled from the homogeneous body; be this body political, textual, or corporeal” (43). Self’s primary interest lies in transgressing the limits of homogeneity, whether they are social, psychological, sexual or linguistic. Yet he is simultaneously revealing the presence of a limit in the very act of transgressing it. The Fat Controller in his My Idea of Fun does not triumph over the homogeneous world around him; in murdering the woman who had merely been rude to him in the restaurant, he exposes and delineates the limits that construct and constrict that world by grossly transgressing them - and in the process tentatively reinscribing them not necessarily exactly where they were before.

Self’s fictional transgressions of the social run throughout his work. One of the more interesting examples occurs in his most recent novel, Great Apes, a book one reviewer characterized as “seriously silly” (Davidson 4). When the book opens its protagonist, Simon Dykes, is still a human living in a world dominated by his own species. But that world at both the macro and micro levels is characterized by excesses of eroticism and drug addiction, by violence and death. Scanning the headlines of the newspapers filled with accounts of massacres in Bosnia and Rwanda, Simon sees “Bodies dragged by thin shanks through thick mud, bodies smashed and pulverized, throats slashed red, given free tracheotomies so that the afflicted could breathe their last” (14). That concluding verbal conceit illustrates perfectly the perverse way Self reinserts the limit of the homogeneous - the orderly surgical procedures of saving human life - into the heterogeneous world of violence and death. The same act that when used medically can save life, when used aggressively can end it. In this case only the context can demarcate the heterogeneous from the homogeneous. Self immediately draws the parallels between Simon’s ambiguous mode of life and that of both human civilization and of the universe itself: “There was some fit here, Simon realized, between the penumbra around his life, the darkness at the edge of the sun, and these bulletins of disembodiment, discorporation updates” (14). The emphasis on the corporeal, so pervasive in his fiction, represents an insistence on the material presence of the heterogeneous, just as staring at the sun (or pursuing like Hegel rational illumination to its ultimate point) ends up revealing a darkness that exposes the blindness of those who seek only the light.

Simon is a famous British artist who has just completed a set of twenty apocalyptic canvasses. All of them portray imagined contemporary disasters - a Boeing 747 crashing into an empty reservoir near London, the interior of the Stock Exchange swept by a gigantic tidal wave, instant Ebola liquefying newly-wed shoppers in IKEA, and so on. Self has Simon comment on the nature of his own art:

And while at the point of conception Simon had imagined that the paintings would be satiric, concerned with the futile impermanence of all that was held likely to last, as he worked on them he saw that this was not so. That the paintings had nothing to do with the settings, the backgrounds. . . . The human body had - Simon felt - been pushed out over a purely local void, an overhang of time . . . The wind had changed and left Simon’s human subjects distorted in the attitudes required to live in this world of terminal distressing. (25)

This passage inserted early on in the book is warning to the reader against interpreting the narrative as straight social satire. Satire is not the late twentieth century artist’s principal preoccupation. It is searching for a way of artistically representing the penumbra surrounding the light of rationality and order. It is according recognition to the violence and excess that lie at the heart of human and inhuman nature alike.

The opening section of the novel, during which Simon is or thinks of himself as still a human, ends with his and his girlfriend’s, Sarah’s, escape from the boozing cocaine-snorting crowd with whom they have been sharing a night of excess. They return to Sarah’s West London apartment where they sleep in one another’s arms and wake up to make passionate love which is described in intimate detail. Both of them long to abandon their life of endless bodily excess. But Self’s description of their love making represents their meeting as a conjunction of animal bodies, an exchange of bodily fluids, in fact itself a bodily excess. Self’s fictional portrayal of the erotic reinforces Bataille’s assertion that “the domain of eroticism is the domain of violence, of violation” (Eroticism 16). The scene of love-making ends with Simon dropping back to sleep and dreaming that Sarah has turned into the monkey he has always affectionately called her. They are still sexually coupled together at a distance from one another by his elongated penis which Sarah proceeds to chew until she has severed it completely. When he wakes from this dream Simon finds himself severed from the world of humans and is now himself a member of the chimp community. The limit of humanity has been transgressed and chimps are now the evolutionarily successful primate species. Simon wakes up therefore in a world of animalistic excess, a world where monogamy is considered an aberration, where Freud, a chimp of course, is heralded as “the first chimp to recognize the destructive emotional effect of a biological alpha not mating his daughter” (142), and where Simon’s insistence that he is a human is treated as a rare form of psychosis worthy of the attention of an eminent chimp psychiatrist, Dr. Busner, a cross between R. D. Laing and Oliver Sacks. The rest of the novel traces the stages by which Simon is gradually brought by Busner to accept his “chimpunity,” and to become reconciled to the life of excess.

The book is not primarily concerned with satirizing the human race for its pretensions to superiority over another primate species with which it incidentally shares 98-99% of human DNA. Some reviewers attacked the book as a failed attempt to follow in the footsteps of Swift and Wyndham Lewis. This is to mistake its main thrust. What the switch in species allows Self to dramatize is the inherently bestial or brutal nature of the human species: we only recognize the limits of human constraints, of “humanity,” by transgressing them. So Self dwells on the way female chimps in oestrus are mated by a succession of males until they are too sore to continue. To assert their superiority chimps horripilate, spray urine and saliva, cuff, claw and bite their inferiors. They do this at the same time as they mimic human civilized behavior and customs.

Chimp society, then, exposes the artificial limits of homogeneous human society by unknowingly transgressing them. At one point Dr. Busner quizzes Simon over human mating habits. If humans have exclusive mating rights, do they adhere to them? “Not exactly,” Simon replies. In fact, he continues, mating outside the relationship happens all the time. Are these exogamous matings intentional? asks Busner. Far from it, Simon replies. “In many cases they’re involuntary - driven even. The human impulse towards inconstancy seems as strong as the drive to consort.” Busner concludes, “Mark me if I’m wrong, but it looks to me much the same as what chimpanzees get up to ‘huuu’?” Simon “had to admit it - the old ape did have a point” (294-5). That point is that sexuality exceeds every limit imposed on it by humans. In How the Dead Live it even exceeds death when the postmortem Lily Bloom discovers that her “lust was indiscriminate” (393). As Bataille argues, sexual taboos are what distinguish us from the animals. But transgressing those taboos is what generates eroticism. What fascinates Self is that borderline between the human taboo and its transgression which, although parallel to the behavior of animals, is differentiated from them by the charge humans get from crossing the limit they have set up in the first place. Yet in enjoying the frisson of crossing it, paradoxically they are reasserting its presence. The human species needs the illusory ideals of a homogeneous social order so that it might constantly find heterogeneous pleasure by transgressing that order

At least one London reviewer understood this. Philip Hensher wrote that the substitution of a chimp for a human world “in other hands . . . would serve some kind of point - to demonstrate a thesis about conformity, perhaps.” But, he concluded, in Self’s hands it resolutely resists any such unitary interpretation. It remains, like Cock and Bull, “a virtuoso display of the novelist’s pleasure in making things up” (38). The creative imagination is constantly transgressing the limits of homogeneity. What needs adding is that Self is more concerned to offer us a vivid image of our contemporary world in its heterogeneous complexity than to satirize its pretensions to homogeneity, although he is quite prepared to do the latter as part of the former.

In the final section of the novel Busner takes Simon to witness humans in the wild on the shore of Lake Tanganyika. Simon is well on the way to being cured of his illusions that he is a human, having finally mated with Sarah (now a chimp) in the middle of the opening of his new show at the Saatchi Gallery. It is no coincidence that a major component of his cure was taking his turn to mate brutally, speedily, publicly and unashamedly with his ex-girlfriend. The final part of his cure consists of his coming face-to-face with the species to which he had imagined he belonged. After confronting his once-fellow humans whose behavior evokes that of Swift’s Yahoos and Huxley’s simions in Ape and Essence, Simon on the last page has a definitive exchange with Dr. Busner:

“You know, Simon,” Busner’s signing was subtle, the lightest perturbation of the air. “It’s occurred to me for some time now that your human delusion was not at all an ordinary psychosis ‘chup-chupp’.”

“Really ‘huu’?”

“Yes, I mean to sign, your reality testing - as we psychologists like to ascript it - has, throughout all of his, been ‘hooo’ different, rather than straightforwardly wrong. Given your preoccupations before your breakdown with the very essence of corporeality and its relation to our basic sense of chimpunity, it crossed my mind - and I hope you’ll ‘gru-nnn’ forgive me for this speculation in advance if you cannot concur - that your conviction that you were human and that the evolutionary successful primate was the human was more in the manner of a satirical trope ‘huu’?”

Simon mused for some time before countersigning, then simply flicked, “It’s an image.” (404)

This passage comes five lines before the end of the book. Its position and its obtrusiveness forces itself on the reader’s attention. Simon is a successful painter (as Self can be said to be a successful writer), and even a painter producing apocalyptic images of the kind Simon (or Self) does is more interested in the images themselves than in any apparent message, satirical or otherwise. Simon’s (and by implication Self’s) works of art are all images of the limit and its transgression. As Foucault writes in “A Preface to Transgression,” his essay dedicated to Bataille, this non-affirmative affirmation of the image involves proceeding “until one reaches the empty core where being achieves its limit and where the limit defines being” (Language 36).

The implications of Self’s transgressive view of the modern world spill over to affect his handling of subjectivity and of language that offers subjects different positions to occupy. Like Bataille, Self is interested in the moment, as Foucault puts it, “when language, arriving at its confines, overleaps itself, explodes and radically challenges itself in laughter, tears, . . . the mute and exorbitated horror of sacrifice, and where it remains fixed in this way at the limit of its void, speaking of itself in a second language in which the absence of a sovereign subject outlines its essential emptiness and incessantly fractures the unity of its discourse” (Language 48). Like Bataille, too, Self employs sex and eroticism to effect these transformations in the interaction between language and subjectivity. “Sex,” Self writes, is itself “a profound language” (Grey Area 282). He feels that “it is during periods when pornography infiltrates high art that there is the greatest level of creative innovation” (Junk Mail 145). Driven by the fates of sexuality, his characters are repeatedly depicted as mere puppets manipulated by the language of eroticism. Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys, one of his collections of short stories, offers a set of variations on this theme. In “Dave Too” nomenclature overrides individuation to such an extent that all the characters merge into a single name - Dave. Each character appears “puppet-like,” manipulated from above by a giant Dave “trying to coax dummy Dave into a semblance of humanity” (Tough 76). In the last novella-length story, “The Nonce Prize,” a prisoner convicted of child abuse turns to writing stories characterized by their “peculiar absence of affect.” “The author might have felt for his creations in the abstract, but on the page he manipulated them like wooden puppets, like victims” (Tough 225). Self seems instinctually to adopt the poststructuralist conception of the linguistic construction of the human subject.

Perhaps the most subtle and successful fictional instance of the loss of subjectivity brought on by sexual ecstasy occurs in a novella, The Sweet Smell of Psychosis, which was only published in Britain. Self has said that this formed (with “The Rock of Crack as Big as the Ritz” and “The Nonce Prize” in Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys) a “‘triella’ of London noir, a Fitzgerald pastiche” (Moir 5). Aside from its intertextual origins, the novella, one of his best pieces of fiction, features a protagonist, Richard, who is significantly a hack wordsmith for a magazine reporting on London’s cultural offerings (reminiscent of Time Out). “Richard laboured by day in this open-cast word mine, hauling out great truckles of frothy verbiage,” writing “featureless features”(11). He is a frequenter of the Sealink (a thinly disguised replica of London’s premier haunt for illuminati, the Groucho Club) where he consorts with fellow hacks - “transmitters of trivia, broadcasters of banality, and disseminators of drek” (10). This aphoristic type-casting is indicative of what Self means when he asserts that he is “not really interested in character at all” and does not “really believe in the whole idea of psychological realism” (Junk Mail 381). Richard is both a verbal fabricator and verbally fabricated from the texts of earlier verbal fabricators like the Fitzgerald of Tender is the Night and The Crack-Up.

The drug-taking group Richard associates with has one successful journalist, Bell, who has slept with every other member of the group, male and female except Richard. Typical of the way Self constructs characters like Bell is his description of Bell’s relationship to one of his acolytes whose “dirty hands guaranteed Bell’s clean ones. And as befits a parasite and host who have achieved a perfect modus vivendi, they were in symbiosis, oblivious of who occupied which role” (21). This virtual deconstruction of a binary polarity (heavily reminiscent of terms used in the celebrated debate between M. H. Abrams and J. Hillis Miller[iv]) draws attention to the manner in which all of Self’s characters in this story (and others) are constituted not just through but by language. They are simply paradigmatic constructs that become interchangeable. Among the female characters in the story is “the divine, the untouchable, the universally desirable Ursula” (9) whose magnetic sexual allure (together with her signature scent, Jicki) draws Richard irresistibly to her. She too owes much of her narrative individuality to intertextual allusions, not just to Fitzgerald’s idealizations of the Zelda stereotype, but to mythological beings. She is a siren, “calling” Richard, a debased modern Ulysses, “from the rocks” (14). On other occasions Richard is called “a positive Ariel, charming their [his fellow hacks’] isle of tedium” (12), Ursula is “a Venus in spangles” (64), and Bell is twice referred to as “the Minotaur” who “sat in his plastic labyrinth” drawing the members of his group to his lair (77). All their parts have been prewritten. As modern exemplars playing traditional roles, these verbal artifices come alive by virtue of their linguistic excesses.

Bell is an image more than a character, and soon even his image loses any sense of individuality by melting into that of his male cronies in Richard’s eyes. No sooner do these cronies reassume their own image than they lose their odiferous identity when Richard detects the scent of Jicki on all of them. Meantime Ursula herself splits in two: a demure young woman longing to escape from this depraved gang of wasters into a life of homogeneous domesticity, and the sex symbol of the group who appears to have slept with every man in it except Richard. On the drive home from delivering a chaste Ursula to her flat at the end of an evening’s group drinking and snorting, Richard glimpses from the cab a hoarding:

It was one of those three-in-one hoardings, a rack of rotating triangular bars; and as the car idled by the lights, a woman’s pudenda encased in a flawless, silken second skin started to riffle like a pack of cards being spread for the cut, and gave way to those familiar features, the red lips, the broad-bridged nose. Bell’s warm, black eyes looked out at Richard. (29)

This elision of gender identity (which effects linguistically what René Magritte achieved visually in The Rape, 1934) becomes the reality at the end of the novella. Richard finally gets Ursula into bed. There is a highly erotically charged description of their foreplay. Then “[a]s soon as Richard felt himself engulfed by her, he realised that he would be able to manage at best three strokes without coming” (86). Desperately he searches in his mind for an image that would act as an instant bromide. He hits on the off-putting image of Bell. But as Richard now returns to his erotic task Ursula undergoes an Ovidian metamorphosis. Her body turns masculine. “It wasn’t Ursula’s voice that was urging Richard on any more, it was a deeper, throatier voice, a voice not of abandonment - but of damnation” (89). “‘It’s good to have you on board,’ said the big man; “I thought you were never really going to join - become one of us” (89). As Bell pulls Richard down on him Richard can smell the scent of Jicki.

The confusion of genders, pure fictional fantasy, is simply a logical extension of the way subjectivity has been handled from the start. The narrative has returned Richard to the state of polymorphous perversity that preceded his location in the symbolic/homogenous order. The unconscious has prevailed and subjected subjectivity to linguistic displacement. The verbal and visual suggestibility of the hoarding has anticipated Richard’s psychotic transgression of the limits of gendered subjectivity. “All my books are fantastical because I don’t believe in the real,” Self has said (Moir 5).

In what sense can the emergence of the erotic not simply displace the subject from its position of centrality, but further involve, in Foucault’s words, a “questioning of language by language in a circularity which the ‘scandalous’ violence of erotic literature, far from ending, displays from its first use of words” (Language 50)? Self’s first pair of novellas, Cock & Bull, addresses this issue directly. In a conversation with Martin Amis Self confessed that Cock & Bull “is, of course, an elaborate joke about the failure of narrative” (Junk Mail 381). Reviewers have inevitably focused on the outrageous sex change that overtakes the protagonist of each novella. But “Cock” in particular is as concerned with both the external and the internal narrator and her/his narration of the experience of a sex change as it is with its shocking effects on the characters involved.

In “Cock” Carol, married to Dan, an ineffectual husband grown impotent from too much alcohol, turns to masturbation which induces the growth of a penis. This bizarre story is told to the anonymous male narrator by someone who appears to be a middle-aged don who is sharing a railway compartment with him from Oxford to London. In the first of the italicized interchapters confined to the exchanges between the first-person external narrator and the donnish internal narrator the latter is compared to some “ersatz ancient mariner” who, says the narrator, used the occasion to “enfold me in this repellent tale” (14), which he soon “succumbed to” (15). In other words the don’s narration invades and transgresses the conventional limits maintaining the inviolability that the listener/reader presumes he possesses. This modern incarnation of the Ancient Mariner is not interested in relieving himself of guilt over a misspent life. He is intent on involving and overwhelming his auditor with the power of his narration which is itself an account of his transgressive behavior. In the second interchapter he warns the increasingly ensnared external narrator that his is a horror story in which the blood will be the “bloody horror of gynaecological fact” (31). Next the external narrator begins to realize that he is not “the first audience for this tawdry caste” (56). He is trapped by language into occupying a position that has been determined by the narrative past. What is it that traps him? The lure of a pornographic tale. Gradually as the tale gets more lurid the “don” becomes more abusive to his auditor to whom it is becoming clear “that the tale itself had no autonomous existence, that it was simply a direct expression of the don’s nature” (71). The don adopts an identical line, telling his listener that his account of the characters is the literal truth - “there is no lurking, shadowy narrator” (83). Forget, Self is saying, the appeal to psychological realism inherent in the concept of the fallible narrator. With this narration narrator and listener are destined to merge into the narration. Or rather the pornographic narrative will turn out to control the lives of narrator and narratee who are mere effects of its language.

In the finale to his story the don recounts how Carol has her revenge on Dan by getting him drunk and then anally raping him with her newly grown penis in an act so brutal that she batters his head in against the bedhead with her thrusts and kills him. The full story is worthy of De Sade - a story of sexual and physical excess. According to Bataille, there is a bias in language: “since language is by definition the expression of civilised man, violence is silent” (Eroticism 186). Like De Sade, the donnish narrator is breaking through that silence in telling his tale. What enables him to successfully transgress the civilized limits is the fact that he is Carol, as he reveals at the climax of the story. For the don’s narrative climax involves a parallel sexual climax - another anal rape, this time of the external narrator. The point of this finale is to make clear the extent to which the external narrator has invited this violent involvement in the pornographic tale that has excited him despite his attempt to distance himself from it. Sexually aroused by the erotic content of the story, he is even aroused by the don’s attentions: “I had wanted it, hadn’t I, I had asked for it” (143).

The raped narratee of the inner story ends up the novella explaining why he did not report the assault to the police by imagining the advice they would give him:

‘. . . you were asking for it. You actually wanted someone to perform to you. In fact, I’ll go further. I think you wanted to be an audience. Oh, I don’t doubt that you feel bad about it now, you feel used. But really, luvvie - come on. This is what you get if you sit there like a prat, listening to a load of cock . . . and bull.’ (145)

Self’s comic sleight of hand in this final paragraph draws readers’ attention to their own prurient involvement in this doubly pornographic tale of sexual violation, violence and death. Just as the internal narrator positions the external narrator as victim through the power of his transgressive language, so the external narrator does the same to us. We are seduced and then compelled into confronting the “silent life” of violence and transgression lurking within us, concealed beneath our civilized language of sexual love and eroticism. Through language we are made to confront the non-linguistic void, the area of transgression that the erotic can unveil where the speaking subject loses its voice. “Words,” Self has written, “are so many pictures, each corresponding to another reality. Emotion cannot be fixed by them - it can only well up between them” (Junk Mail 149).

Self’s fictions of excess confront us with the predicament of our era, one where, as Foucault expresses it, “the interrogation of the limit replaces the search for totality” (Language 50). Where once we might have looked for complete explanation and transcendence, now all we can do is to transgress society’s boundaries so as to uncover our lack of completeness. Satire depends on a belief in a world of commonly accepted norms. But a fiction of excess concentrates on exploring the boundaries of those homogeneous norms, the boundaries between taboos and their transgression and between language and silence. In drawing a line in the sand in the very process of seeking freedom through excess, Self is rediscovering something like the sacred in the very act of being profoundly immoral. The mistake is to assume that he is adopting only one of these positions. He is celebrating both the act of transgression and the reinscription of limits at the same time. The point of constantly subjecting all such limits to the caustic scrutiny of one who transgresses them, is that the reinscription frequently involves drawing new limits that redefine the homogenous norm. No limits are sacrosanct. Interrogation of the epistemological limits of Western society at the end of the twentieth century, not satirical portrayals of the breakdown of such limits, is what all Self’s fictions are primarily attempting to do.

Two stories in his collection of stories, Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys, exemplify this unusual position that Self occupies in the satirical genre. The title of the first story in the book, “The Rock of Crack as Big as the Ritz,” makes ironic allusion to Fitzgerald’s celebrated satire of Americans’ pursuit of unimaginable riches in “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” (1922). At first Self’s story appears to be offering a similar updated satire of the contemporary drug culture’s search for an unimaginable high. Two ex-Jamaican brothers living in a north London suburb discover a huge seam of pure crack cocaine under their house. Danny, the older one, proceeds to take the same precautions against its discovery by the greedy world outside as did Braddock Washington in Fitzgerald’s story. He puts his drug addicted brother, Tembe, to work as courier and seller of the high-grade crack, while refraining from smoking any himself. As we follow Tembe making his deliveries, the story positively invites us to take a conventional social view of the degradations to which crack reduces Tembe and his wealthy customers. It renders Tembe impotent and pathetic and the craving it induces makes his wealthiest client, an Iranian, get down on his hands and knees and comb the carpet for spilled crumbs of crack: “His world had shrunk to this: tiny presences and gaping, yawning absences” (Tough 18).

However at the climax of the story the Iranian invites Tembe to smoke his latest delivery with him. Tembe is overtaken by the greatest high of his life:

“For the crack was on to him now, surging into his brain like a great crashing breaker of pure want. This is the hit, Tembe realised, concretely, irrefutably, for the first time. The whole hit of rock is to want more rock. The buzz of rock is itself the wanting of more rock. (21)

Why would anyone transgress the limits if there weren’t at least the promise of a charge of pleasure greater than anything available within the limits? And that charge comes ultimately not from the chemical effects of the substance, but from the desire for or anticipation of the pleasure it will give. Pleasure is located in the consciousness, as the narrative makes clear:

The drug seemed to be completing some open circuit in his brain, turning it into a humming, pulsing lattice-work of neurones. And the awareness of this fact, the giant nature of the hit, became part of the hit itself . . . (21)

After he has put the pipe down he feels “all-powerful,” “[r]icher than the Iranian could ever be, more handsome, cooler” (23). The story concludes with his controlling brother, Danny, back home “chipping, chipping, chipping away. And he never ever touched the product” (23). The story effects a volte-face in these concluding pages by raising the possibility that Tembe’s cult of excess makes as much sense as the non-addicted world’s confinement to the limits. At first the reader is invited to occupy a position within those limits, a position which is then exposed in the last pages as one bred of ignorance and of a refusal to pursue the pleasure principle to its natural conclusion. Yet the story is far from a partisan defense of the crack habit. The humiliations and degradation which it produces among its habitués is powerfully portrayed for much of the story. But the ending, like a gust of wind, erases that clear line in the sand which the reader was encouraged to take for granted until the last two pages.

In the last story in this book, “The Nonce Prize,” it is Danny who attempts to impose limits after he has changed positions with Tembe, becoming the addict after his brother has kicked the habit, and falling victim to a Jamaican drug king whom he had cheated before the opening of the first story. The drug king frames Danny, leaving him drugged in a room in which he discovers just before the police arrive the murdered and dismembered corpse of a young boy who has been injected by syringe with Danny’s semen. He is arrested and found guilty as a pedophile murderer. For his own safety has to be separated from the rest of the prisoners in a wing reserved for nonces or child molesters. As a self-respecting drug dealer, Danny is nauseated at being taken by the rest of the world as a sexual pervert. Even this pursuer of excess in the world of drugs has his limits where sex is directed at children. His one aim is to persuade the prison governor to return him to the main prison where he can lose his identity as a nonce. The governor encourages him to attend a creative writing class with two other child molesters all three of whom enter a competition for the best short story submitted by a prisoner that year.

With this metafictional move Self focuses on the specifically linguistic and narrative aspects of the whole question of transgression and excess. Whereas Danny writes a realist fictional account of his and his brother’s experiences as crack dealers that bears an uncanny resemblance to the opening story in the book, one of the other two genuine nonces, who has actually killed one of his child victims, writes a story describing a man’s intense love for his dead wife’s cat. The writer asked to judge the entries, on reading this story, gets “the sense that awful things were happening - both physically and psychically - a little bit outside the story’s canvas” (238). He concludes that “it was one of the cleverest and most subtle portrayals of the affectless, psychopathic mind that he had ever read” (238). It is not until he arrives for the prize giving that he comes to confront the writer in person whom he is told is a child pervert and murderer. Only when it is too late does he realize that the author of the story, far from being “a compelling moral ironist,” “was a psychopath,” that “there hadn’t been a particle of ironic distance” in his story (243).

Limits are defined by language. In a poststructuralist world such definitions are continuously subject to slippage. As a result of a verbal argument in court Danny has been mistakenly categorized as a pedophilic transgressive, while the true pedophile has convinced at least one sophisticated reader and literary expert that his narrative is that of someone who clearly recognizes (through his use of irony) the limits dividing the act from its distanced narration and placement. How then are we to determine the distance separating Self from his transgressive subject matter? One man’s limit is another man’s transgression. Danny fixes his limit which the nonce clearly needs to cross to experience pleasure. Verbal limits have as little durability as a line in the sand. What the final story ends up suggesting is that the line can only be drawn by the recipient or interpreter of language. There is no objective limit. Each of us can only discover his or her limits by performing, narrating or reading acts of transgression. This final story makes clear that, while Self may be able to transgress the limits of the social majority in his fictions, we have to reinscribe our own limits. He can liberate us into a world of partiality and temporality, but only we can decide where to draw our own tentative and vulnerable line in the ever-shifting, heterogeneous sands. In facing his readers with the necessity of making such a choice he can be seen to be writing against the very emptiness that he is too often assumed to be reproducing.[v]


[i] See Jacques Derrida, “From Restricted to General Economy: A Hegelianism without Reserve,” Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1978); and Michel Foucault, “A Preface to Transgression,” Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews,” in Works Cited.

[ii] Bataille’s notions of excess and transgression originate in his account of what he calls the “general economy.” His earliest explanation of this term appeared in “The Notion of Expenditure,” an essay first published in French in 1933. It was translated and collected in Visions of Excess, 1985.

[iii] Bataille introduces the concept of heterogeneity in “La Structure psychologique du Fascisme,” in La critique social 10, 11 (1933, 1934), the review coedited by Bataille and Boris Souvarine. The essay is translated in Bataille’s Visions of Excess, 1985.

[iv] See M. H. Abrams, “The Deconstructive Angel,” and J. Hillis Miller, “The Critic as Host,” in Critical Enquiry 3 (1997): 425-38, 439-47.

[v] I would like to thank Michael North for his helpful suggestions for revising an earlier draft of this essay.

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Copyright 1999, 2005 Brian Finney