BOOK REVIEW / Genitalia rules, okay?: Cock & Bull - Will Self: Bloomsbury pounds 9.99

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The Independent Culture
THE PUBLISHERS must have been beside themselves when they received this dream of a book, complete with structural symmetries (clever, but not too clever), a cool eye for contemporary social detail, and calculated monstrosity. The novel comes with the post-modern gold merit ribbon of a book-mark, but this is functionally superfluous, since the stories resist interruption resolutely. Not that they appeal to the reader's better nature: I didn't want to put them down, but thought that I probably should have.

Usually, the principal effect of satire is to reveal the callowness of its author. A notable indicator of Self's literary judgement is that he rations his social satire, adducing spare lampoons of Alcoholics Anonymous or consumer culture in the new-style NHS to his central purpose. This is to explore what would happen, on the one hand, if a woman were to grow a penis (the anagram that afflicted Nixon's vice-president Spiro Agnew); or, on the other, if a man were overnight to acquire a vagina on the back of his leg.

The lucky woman is Carol, product of a provincial college and married to an inebriate designer of similar origins. She stays at home in Muswell Hill while he goes out to work and then on to imbibe with the lads; it takes her belated discovery of masturbation to give a sense of purpose to her life. The young joint-mortgaged women of North London rarely enjoy such anachronistic leisure, but it serves to enhance the passivity against which is set the terrible energy that comes with her new appendage. The implication of 'cock' in the title is either that a penis encourages the abuse of power by its owner, or that it is an organ with which women could not be trusted.

'Cock' is told to the narrator by a mysterious don on a train from Oxford to London, making it a double-decker narrative. The upper plotline does not match up to the main tale; the mystery has worn off the don halfway through, the tone is too shrill, and the climax - aptly, perhaps - perfunctory. 'Bull' is more straightforward in structure, and unerringly controlled. Not the least of Self's multiple achievements is to make a sympathetic hero out of a man called John Bull who works as a cabaret editor on a London listings magazine, and plays rugby.

Like Carol, Bull is a plasticine figure upon whom the outside world makes its mark, or doesn't, as it pleases. His new orifice, the ultimate mocking inscription, bestows none of the power that Carol acquired. Instead, it subverts not only Bull but his doctor, a sleek and glib practitioner of double-entry ethical bookkeeping. The doctor falls in love with Bull's pudenda, leading to a whirlwind affair conducted behind the backs of the rugby club and of the medics gathered at the 'Learning Jamboree', a weekend of role-playing games to give the profession insight into NHS reforms.

While Bull's condition is not one a man could take in his stride, he survives seduction and abandonment to achieve a quiet dignity. 'Bull' is callously subtitled 'A Farce', but is actually quite tender in parts. It is also mordant, acute on drunkenness and masturbation, exquisitely cunning, and, with its companion piece, the funniest book about late onset hermaphroditism you'll read all year.

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