Dr Mukti and other Tales of Woe by Will Self

Complex manoeuvres in a war of the shrinks
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The Independent Culture

Is there, you wonder, a psychiatrist somewhere in north London who twitches at the name Will Self, who disdains to read his novels and hurls his dinner at the TV every time the writer appears, holding forth in that erudite drawl? Is there, in other words, a real model for Dr Zack Busner, the unhinged master-shrink who keeps popping up in Self's fiction?

Is there, you wonder, a psychiatrist somewhere in north London who twitches at the name Will Self, who disdains to read his novels and hurls his dinner at the TV every time the writer appears, holding forth in that erudite drawl? Is there, in other words, a real model for Dr Zack Busner, the unhinged master-shrink who keeps popping up in Self's fiction?

He was there at the beginning, helping in the gestation of The Quantity Theory of Insanity. He was behind the disastrous trials of an apocalyptic anti-depressant in Grey Area; and on hand, and hairy foot, to counsel the painter Simon Dykes when he woke up in a world of chimps in Great Apes.

Now we see him again through the jaded eyes of Dr Shiva Mukti, a consultant psychiatrist languishing far down the career ladder from that figure of rampant, radical authority. Mukti is a sorry specimen, washed-up in his married life, alienated from his Hindu ancestry and thwarted in the worldly ambition he sees as the new religion of British Asians.

So he is taken aback when Busner starts referring patients to him. He sees this not as evidence of professional respect, but as something more sinister, and replies in kind. Soon the patients are zipping between them like missiles, "dumb bombs in a deadly duel". Mukti's paranoia expands to build around the Jewish Busner a massive "psycho-Semitic conspiracy" intent on "carpet bombing the culture with manufactured mental malaises".

Self has always enjoyed raiding psychiatric theory for its riches of jargon and metaphor, but here you feel that (bigotry apart) he sympathises with Mukti. The novella is a broadside at the whole discipline, from desultory NHS provision to the "modern obsession with disorders of the psyche" everywhere you care to look.

Nevertheless, "Dr Mukti" is strangely opaque as a story. It leads you trippingly up a mountain of allegory, promising revelation, but leaves you stranded at the summit. Fans, though, will enjoy the further filling-out of Self's fictional world. The vision of Busner, abandoned by his second wife, struggling with arthritic fingers to prepare dinner for his young children, is sweet, recasting the magus as a broken, Bellovian figure.

Likewise, readers of Self's psycho-geographic column in this newspaper will enjoy two London-based, walk-centred stories (of the four accompanying "Tales of Woe"). The writer has not lost his roving eye for the bilious detail, nor his instinctive connection with the capital, from gutter to skyline.

Another story, "Back in the Planet of the Humans", acts almost as a rebuke to Self's sometimes flippant treatment of psychiatric illness. Simon Dykes wakes up to find himself again horribly transmogrified, but this time as a chimp in a world of people. As an epilogue to Great Apes, it is superfluous; but, as a straightforward picture of the misery of mental illness, striking in its simplicity and compassion.

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