Will Self: ‘Something funny is going on in terms of our reality testing’

The author is just out of surgery, which may account for why he thinks we have a fondness for worrying about the wrong things

If there is one constant presence in Will Self’s work it is the underlying influence of James Joyce

If there is one constant presence in Will Self’s work it is the underlying influence of James Joyce


Will Self is a man of many words. The author of 12 novels and seven collections of short fiction, he is a regular contributor to almost every quality newspaper and magazine currently published in the English language, analysing just about everything from architecture to Brexit by way of pizza with style, wit, a passion for stream of consciousness and a willingness to ignite controversy.

Self’s appearance at the International Literature Festival in Dublin on May 24th coincides with the publication of his new novel Phone, the final instalment in a trilogy that began with Umbrella in 2012 and continued with Shark in 2014. The three volumes add up to a whopping 1,227 pages, their scale dwarfed only by their ambition – for they aim to map, not simply the zeitgeist, but specifically the connections between war, technological change and human psychopathology.

When Umbrella first appeared Self wrote in a newspaper, in typically full-on fashion, of his anxiety as to whether he had inadvertently left anything out: “Are there puddles in the novel?” he asked. “Do adolescent girls flick back their hair at least once? And if so, have the lobes of their ears – or lack of them – been described?”

Lack of earlobes appears not to be a problem. The books have attracted high praise from critics – though their high Modernist aesthetic makes it well-nigh impossible to say what each is “about”, never mind sum up the plots. There are fictional characters – the ageing psychiatrist Zack Busner, his autistic grandson Ben, the spy Jonathan De’Ath and the tank commander Col Gawain Thomas – but “real” people often turn up as well, unannounced and/or disguised.

Altered states of consciousness – drugs and alcohol, schizophrenia and autism – are the norm, as are invented words and a playful approach to typography. If there is one constant presence it is the underlying influence of James Joyce.

How does a writer dream up an enterprise such as this in the first place? Did Self conceive of the books as a trilogy? “No, no,” he says. “When I set out I was just writing Umbrella. When I finished that, I was thinking, What am I going to do next? Umbrella was so radical in style that it shattered the mould of me being able to write more conventional books . . . And the other two books just sort of downloaded into my mind, complete.”

Which makes it sound easy. Despite their surface choppiness, however, Self’s narratives are carefully constructed, his characters meticulously developed; so how does he keep a hold on that mass of material? Maps and charts? An app?

He emits a throaty chuckle. “Yeah. A self-designed app. Yeah – all of that. Maps and charts and more. My aim is to reach a point where I know the whole book, which is normally around the third draft. A point where, if you put a gun to my head, I could transcribe it from memory.

“So what I do is, I work on it like people painting the Forth rail bridge. I start the next draft before I’ve finished the last. So I’m in this continual rolling draft - and I find that that helps me.”

When Self began work on Umbrella in 2010 he had just re-read Oliver Sacks’s book Awakenings, about the patients the neurologist had helped to recover from the 1920s encephalitis lethargica epidemic, also known as “sleeping sickness”. He also drew inspiration from Paul Fussell’s genre-bending book of literary criticism, The Great War and Modern Memory.

“That got me thinking a lot about the role of the first war in the collective consciousness of the 20th century. And it was somewhere in between these two, thinking a lot about the impact of technology, that the genesis of Umbrella came.”

If Self was concerned about the impact of technology seven years ago, what about now, when the overwhelming impression for many people is that the world is spinning faster and faster? Or is that just another technological illusion? “Oh no, I don’t think it is. It is absolutely not an illusion. Anybody smart – no, let’s not get value-judgmental about this – anybody lucid can apprehend that the world is a large-scale and inherently chaotic system in all sorts of ways.”

As Self sees it, the worldwide adoption of wireless broadband in 2004 was a definitive turning-point for society. “That really was the point at which the feedback loop began to accelerate. What strikes me, and I think it’s in the three novels as well, is the sense that it’s not good or bad, necessarily. It’s large-scale actions which lead people to believe that they’re in control – that’s the really dangerous thing. It’s the illusion of control, against a background of things running out of control, that’s so worrying.”

With their obsessive circling around his central themes while, at the same time, spiralling in all directions, Self’s trilogy dramatises humanity’s fondness for worrying about the wrong things. He doesn’t, he says, go the way of scientists such as Susan Greenfield, who foresee a radical alteration in our brain chemistry because we spend too much time on the phone.

“As a monist I don’t believe the mind rules the body or the body rules the mind,” he says. “I just think they’re the same thing. But I do think you can see – and everybody comments on it – that at the collective level, something funny is going on in terms of our reality testing; of what we respond to at a collective level, and how we divide up the real and the virtual.”

Even a brief conversation with Self – who has, he casually reveals towards the end of the conversation, just emerged from surgery (he has a rare blood disorder) – shows his ability to produce an effortlessly fluent word-riff on almost any subject. Joyce: “Well, he’s just the best, isn’t he? There’s something so pure about the example of Joyce. From the fact that he does one of everything, and revolutionises each form he moves into with such completion; and just his technical mastery. He can absolutely swivel a sentence semantically around a point of grammar in a way that no other writer can.”

Autism: “A society which can suddenly decide that we’re all on a sliding scale of organically defined brain difference that determines our character in a major way – well, that’s a little bit Brave New World.”

What about satnav? Surely he can’t riff on satnav? “You’ve got 22 global positioning satellites up there orbiting the earth, creating a pure Cartesian cube of space. And I think everybody now feels that they sleep less, they hum more, they’re sort of buzzing more, they’re connected into this enormous simultaneous ‘now’ and absolute sense of location. But we’re losing orientation in some way. We don’t know – or need to know – where we are.”

Is there a message to be taken from the ocean of words that makes up Umbrella, Shark and Phone? There is: and perhaps surprisingly for Self, it’s a concise one. “I think my work is inclined to say to people, ‘Be compassionate and do what you can’. Most of the trouble in the world is caused by people who do stuff, not by people who are quietistic.”
The International Literature Festival Dublin runs from May 20th to 29th. Will Self is at Smock Alley Theatre on Wednesday, May 24th, at 6pm. (Sold out.) He is also taking part in Headstuff lectures with Gearoid Farrelly, Pat McCabe and Claire Hennessy in the same venue at 8pm. ilfdublin.com