Book Review: Broken cycle of waiter's block

GREY AREA by Will Self, Bloomsbury £9.99
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The Independent Culture
IF I had been asked, hitherto, where in fiction the menstrual cycle of the human female loomed largest, I would have said in Thomas Mann's The Black Swan. In that novella, the deceptive resumption of periods in the 50-year-old heroine coincides with her late-blooming passion for an athletic youth. It turns out not to be a sign of hope, however, but a symptom of the cancer from which she shortly thereafter dies. Now, offering the Mann a run for its money in this department, comes ``Grey Area'', the title story in the new collection by Will Self.

The narrator, an office functionary of highly systematised habits, is suffering from premenstrual tension; the only worrying thing is that she has had it continuously for two weeks. The "jammed wheel of [her] cycle", feelingly evoked by Self as a matter of "awful tight vacuity", is the first intimation she gets that in her world bound by "vertical textured fabric louvres" the days have started to Xerox themselves into stasis. Still sticking a hopeful sanitary towel in the gusset of her underpants as the story ends, the narrator is in a state of perpetual incipience, rather like the figures on the vase in Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn", except that Self, in fixing on the premenstrual moment, conjures up a world of yawning, barren discomfort.

If that story has a good excuse for going nowhere, there are others in which the comic replication principle feels more forced. In "A Short History of the English Novel", a pompous publisher out on a jaunt is greeted at every turn by waiters who claim to be aspiring writers - a paranoiac scenario saved from the charge of inaccuracy (acting being the waiter's profession) by the last- minute hint that it has all been a trick organised by his female companion. "The End of the Relationship" repeats the repetition joke more sourly, through a contagious heroine who sees the termination not just of her own relationship but that of everybody she meets on that particular day, including her therapist who has come to regard the "talking cure" itself as the disease.

Readers of Self's The Quantity Theory of Insanity will know how little time he has for psychotherapy and crank science, and how often he relies on narrators who are unreliable because they are mired in the intellectual mess they are reporting on. In this volume, the handling of that convention is sometimes less than secure. "Inclusion" is the story of how an eponymous anti- depressant is tested on an unsuspecting public, and causes its takers to become consumingly fascinated by whatever is to hand, however trivial. It is told through an assemblage of documents that include the diary of a depressive artist, Dykes, and the journal of a Dr Busner, a figure who also crops up on the edition of Newsnight watched by the woman in "Grey Area" (characters, themes and preoccupations - such as Britain's motorway system - recur through the book). But though the former manuscript chronicles the artist's increasingly batty Inclusion-induced projects (installations of rotting fruit, say, studded with electronic components to produce a satirical vision of the mind), the writing remains implausibly lucid and neutral, describing rather than offering a further unconscious demonstration of the effects of the drug.

The depressive artist's diary also affords the most moving moment in the book, though, when he reflects on the idea of scale (at a rather more profound level than the tricksy story "Scale"), and conveys the way in which children seem to someone in the throes of depression to become twice the normal size: an enlarged focus of love, guilt and despair, like those decoy ducks which are constructed at twice the natural dimensions to trick real birds into taking a suicidal plunge.

That passage seems to have been written from the heart - unlike much of the volume, where the desire to be thought hip gets in the way of Self's evident talent and intelligence. He's very fond of making up sound-words: the "scherluump-scherluump" of a laser printer; the "eek-eek" of a fibre- tip pen, and so on. He'd have no difficulty providing an equivalent for the noise you keep hearing while reading this book: the ice-cube chinking of would-be intellectual "cool".