Dr Mukti and other tales of woe by Will Self

Just how much of this cloaca and dagger stuff can you take?
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The Independent Culture

It's challenging to try and review a Will Self book without once using the words "paranoid" and "alienation". In the clinical detachment of his short stories, he often seems to be channelling himself to readers in some off-kilter guise, an aloof, theory-ridden chemistry professor perhaps, or a cadaverous sociologist essaying equal quantities of erudition and chilly analysis as he picks through the remains of disintegrated modern society. In the past a certain dryness has occasionally bordered on dessication, but Self's ability to root about in this gruesome sub-strata of the English language never ceases to surprise.

It's challenging to try and review a Will Self book without once using the words "paranoid" and "alienation". In the clinical detachment of his short stories, he often seems to be channelling himself to readers in some off-kilter guise, an aloof, theory-ridden chemistry professor perhaps, or a cadaverous sociologist essaying equal quantities of erudition and chilly analysis as he picks through the remains of disintegrated modern society. In the past a certain dryness has occasionally bordered on dessication, but Self's ability to root about in this gruesome sub-strata of the English language never ceases to surprise.

In his new collection - actually one novella and four shorter tales - he tangentially returns us to his kick-off point, The Quantity Theory Of Insanity, which suggested a sort of yin-yang equation between lunacy and normalcy. In the titular account here, Dr Shiva Mukti, an embittered, sexually frustrated psychiatrist in a Hogarthian London hospital, becomes embroiled in a murderous duel of fraying wits with successful psychiatrist Dr Zack Busner, creator of the original Quantity Theory of Insanity. Is his rival's behaviour merely designed to establish the status quo, or could he be spearheading the kind of sinister plot usually imagined by his patients?

Both the former and latter tales show Self's fascination with unravelling states of human awareness, but while the language of the original early piece is dense with tics and jargon-packed absurdities (a discussion of internal nose-measuring sticks in the memory), in the new story Dr Mukti's suspicions are catalogued with a mordant narrative formality that grounds the humour and makes this a more satisfying read.

The plot's escalating obsessive focus might not have been stretched to novel length, and Self has explored the absurdities of academia before, but his catalogue of syndromes and phobias is very funny, and it's hard to imagine an anti-climax more horribly appropriate. There's nothing so enjoyable as the childish behaviour of intelligent people, and a Dickensian clarity informs this lush, detached observation of a doctor who can't see beyond the end of his (internal) nose. In Shiva's fearful dreams his pillow becomes "a chute down which he slid into the tumultuous pit of his own dissolution". "I mean, the whole tale is about blood, isn't it?" says one character, and you have to agree.

If the best comes first, by dint of its elegant detail and consistent ingenuity, the remaining tales won't disappoint fans. In "161", a sink estate rat-boy hides out in a pensioner's festering apartment, waiting for a moment to escape his captors, only to find that his safe haven may offer, if not redemption, then a chance to switch identities. Self's fascination with life at the low end yields plenty of dark wit, as in his description of the boy's prostitute mother exchanging sex for drugs; "A rubber bag full of half-humans gets you a paper wrap that will halve your humanity". His gutter fetish occasionally puts him in iffy territory, especially when he adopts the vernacular of the disenfranchised to slightly condescending effect, and the spectre of Mike Leigh briefly looms, but the story holds.

"The Five-Swing Walk" presents parenting as the kind of sysiphean task no one would willingly choose to inflict upon themselves, with an acutely observed trip to the children's playground set in prose so doom-drenched it can only terminate in tragedy. The father feels so inadequate that his sense of paternal dereliction is described as "melting into his shoulders like an irreversible jacket of napalm".

In "Conversations With Ord", we're back on J G Ballard's home turf, as mental and physical landscapes meet in the account of two friends who traverse the bleak traffic systems of Vauxhall playing complex and abstruse mind games. The final snippet, "Return To The Planet Of The Humans", gives a little more closure to the idea, explored in his earlier novel Great Apes, of paranoid alienation as transformation (and in that sentence, I fail the reviewer's challenge).

Altogether it's an attractive, if somewhat less substantial, package for devotees, but readers looking for the sly warmth and subversive optimism of Ballard will have to search elsewhere. The flips and folds of Self's writing are as muscular and alarming as ever; there is simply no one else using language in such a manner in Britain today. Still, you may find yourself wondering just how much cloaca and dagger stuff it's possible to take before Self discovers redemption.

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