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Liver, By Will Self

Talking about degeneration in a city of bile

Is it a novel? Is it a collection of short stories or a quartet of novellas? It is none of these things. Liver is a "fictional organ with a surface anatomy of four lobes". "Foie Humaine" begins on territory familiar to fans of Self's The Sweet Smell of Psychosis, but the Plantation Club, hidden up a Soho alley, has more in common with the real Colony Room than the fictional Sealink Club in the earlier novella. The Plantation's regulars go by nicknames – the Martian, the Extra, the Cunt, the Poof – and are a mixed bag of publishers, columnists, actors and general roués united in their respect only for world-famous painter and fellow-member Trouget, routinely rude landlord Val Carmichael. For Trouget (with his "weird young-old face"), read Francis Bacon, while Val heads up the equivalent of the bar once run by Muriel Belcher and Ian Board.

The story charts the devastating effects of alcohol on the liver, specifically in relation to Hilary, Val's barman. Every time his back is turned, his boss spikes his lager with vodka. This dissolute version of gavage – what poultry farmers in the Dordogne do to their geese – is a cruel sport and it's hard to see what Val's motivation might be. But all becomes clear. Sort of.

The characters are for the most part grotesque caricatures, yet somehow living and breathing. For all the extravagant, cartoonish hideousness of the worlds many of Self's characters inhabit – from Soho drinking clubs to Kensington crack houses – life remains something precious. "Prometheus" recycles Ancient Greek myths, just as the liver recycles old red blood cells. In an accelerated narrative set against London's adland, Zeus is an entrepreneur with his finger in many pies – but his Vauxhall penthouse will remind readers of a certain disgraced Tory peer's. The book closes with "Birdy Num Num", a vivid cautionary tale about not only the horrors of addiction to hard drugs, but also the concomitant danger of coming into contact with deadly viruses, especially HIV.

Self's London has the qualities of the eponymous vital organ: "a metropolis that had itself been breaking down cultural toxins and processing rich nutrients for two millennia, yet could only do so by manufacturing hectolitres of bile". The best piece, however, is "Leberknödel", in which Joyce, a former hospital administrator with liver cancer, flies to Zürich intending to "die with dignity". Confronted by the "absolute horror of suicide", she changes her mind, and starts – miraculously, perhaps – to get better. It's the best fictional writing on Zürich since Kim Stanley Robinson's story named after the city, but also a bold a take on a relationship between mother and daughter, with one very, very odd line in it.

Nicholas Royle's new novella, 'The Enigma of Departure', is published by PS Publishing

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