‘The North London Book of the Dead’ by Will Self

This was a very important and formative story for me in my middle teenage years, and I came to it via an episode of The South Bank Show that was dedicated to Self and his writing. The conceit of the story – that when someone dies they just go to live, undead, in another part of London – was the first time that I’d encountered nominally realist fiction that deliberately bent the boundaries of reality – not magical realism, but a kind of grubby and recognisably British weirdness. It was one of those moments where you say ‘I didn’t know you could do that!’ and your world shifts slightly in what seems possible. After that, the short fiction I’d been writing started to change, and in many ways this laid the early groundwork for the kind of writing I’m doing now. If I’d been older, I might have encountered Angela Carter or J.G. Ballard or Alasdair Gray first, but it was this story that opened up that tradition for me, and through that door there was Borges, Lispector and all that other glorious crew.

First published in The Quantity Theory of Insanity, Bloomsbury, 1991

‘The Quantity Theory of Insanity’ by Will Self

Self remains my favourite short story writer. ‘The Quantity Theory of Insanity’ depicts an eccentric academic who invents the conceit that there is a fixed quota of insanity in the world, and therefore that “if you provide efficient medication for manic depressives in the Fens, there are perceptible variations in the number of agoraphobics on the South coast”. I think I was initially drawn to Self’s writing because he writes about madness so well. ‘Quantity’ – both the story and collection – captured the quiddity of my father’s illness (schizophrenia), far better than many stories/novels which aimed to portray the illness in a more direct and obvious fashion. It’s the tone of the story that resonated: the wonderful mixture of the banal and the bizarre, the comic and the tragic, and the swirling schizoidy colours of Self’s imagination. It’s also the first of Self’s stories, I believe, that introduces Dr Busner, the Laingian psychiatrist who became a recurrent figure in Self’s fiction.

First published in The Quantity Theory of Insanity, Bloomsbury 1991

‘Scale’ by Will Self

“Some people lose their sense of proportion; I’ve lost my sense of scale.” So begins Self’s hallucinogenic, 15,000-word tale of a morphine addict, a divorcee living in Beaconsfield in a cramped bungalow next to the Bekonscot Model Village. As the narrator descends in breakdown, he muses on motorway culture, failed fatherhood and his attempt to write a crime novel called Murder on the Median Strip. Burroughs and Ballard are clearly strong influences, as well as Jonathan Swift, Lewis Carroll and Claude Lévi-Strauss in his play on size and scale. Self has stated that “my scale shtick goes right back to childhood scale”, when “I assiduously collected trolls, doll’s house furniture and tiny books such as Langenscheidt dictionaries – little things that I would arrange into tableau.” Self blends all these elements in the melting pot of his warped genius to form something wonderfully peculiar.

First published in abridged form in Granta 43: Best of Young British Novelists 2, 1993, and available to subscribers to read online here; collected in Grey Area, Bloomsbury, 1994; also published as a standalone Penguin 60, Penguin, 1995

‘Understanding the Ur-Bororo’ by Will Self

This is Self’s funniest story: an aspiring anthologist called Janner, based at university in Reigate, wins a bursary to study the Ur-Bororo, a mysterious tribe living in the Paquatyl region of the Amazon. When Janner returns from his mission, he has suddenly become adept at making small-talk, for the Ur-Bororo have rubbed off on him. It transpires the tribe are “relentlessly banal”, their language possessing a number of different inflections which describe various states of boredom – boring hunting, boring gathering, boring fishing, boring sex. In a deliciously satirical ending, Janner marries a member of the tribe and they settle in England, where she fits in perfectly with British society.

First published in The Quantity Theory of Insanity, Bloomsbury, 1991

‘The Nonce Prize’ by Will Self

Danny, a drug dealer with a gentle disposition, is framed for a paedophilic murder. Incarcerated in Wandsworth prison, Danny discovers literature – ‘reading burst through his mental partitions, partitions that the crack had effectively shored up, imprisoning his sentience, his rational capacity, behind psychotically patterned drapes’. When a literary competition for prisoners called The Nonce Prize is announced, he seeks redemption in writingThere are plenty of Self’s characteristic literary fireworks on display here; as well as being a fine piece of satire, this is also an unexpectedly touching story. While Self’s early work demonstrates a lack of interest in character in his preference for ideas and an energetic style, this story suggests a maturing and new subtlety in his writing, for Danny is unusually well-rounded and sympathetic.

Included in Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys, Bloomsbury 1998

‘Chest’ by Will Self

‘Chest’ is a substantial story, 37 pages long, set in an England of the near future where the feudal past has not-so-subtly reasserted itself. There are plenty of familiar details: schoolboys hanging about at bus stops, cell phones, motorways, Citroen cars and The Guardian. But the pleasures of this bleakly funny story lie in the way Self pushes certain elements to make this world both familiar and strange. A permanent fog has rolled in over the country and air quality has deteriorated to such an extent that everyone is ill. Masks and oxygen tents have become highly desirable items, obtained by pulling strings. In this atmosphere of chronic unwellness, nerves are frayed and an English version of the Russian Orthodox faith seems to have taken hold. Everyone has two names, a patronymic for men, a matronymic for women. There is a rigid social hierarchy topped by Peter-Donald, lord of the manor and member of a Lloyds syndicate. The central character Simon-Arthur is an icon painter and thinks it very broad-minded of him to invite the local newsagent, Dave-Dave Hutchinson, to his house for a glass of cough linctus and ‘a go’ on the family’s new nebuliser. Everyone coughs. There’s not much in the way of sex here, apart from Simon-Arthur’s brief glance at his sister-in-law’s “woolly bosoms”. Some of the finest passages are those where Self describes the coughing: operatic, richly productive, baroque. The story is more than twenty years old now, but its themes are bang up to date. The spectre of death is woven into every line.

First published in Grey Area and other Stories, Penguin, 1994