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The Butt, by Will Self
High-tar hearts of darkness
Friday 18 April 2008
Monstrosities come and go in this strange, misleading and horribly compelling novel. You won't miss a single one. Will Self is not a man for the smooth narrative surface. He's out in the open in the blazing sun, his shirt off, hammering and welding and bending. The sheer racket in this novel is astounding.
Hardly a moment when something doesn't go haywire, from the opening where Tom Brodzinski chucks his final fag-butt over his unspecified balcony in an unspecified hotel in an unspecified country where NO SMOKING is the only real moral imperative... only to have it land in the unpersuasive hairpiece of a scrag-end Anglo and his 20-year-old gorgeous matt-black native popsy. Who turns out to be his wife.
And so hell ensues. Parallel systems of justice, tribal restitutions, an interminable ride through desert and mountain, insurgency and hired goons, IEDs and a pair of monstrous adult-baby enthusiasts in giant baby-gros... So we're back in some sort of ethnographical Attica, is it, where intention counts for nothing and consequences are all; where anything bad which happens is evidence of bad faith? The old guy whose rug has been singed is inquivoo in his hospital bed. His wife is in charge; her indigenous people, the Intwennyfortee mob, are entitled to restitution: $10,000, a set of cooking pots, two hunting rifles, to be delivered across a hypnotic landscape, something like the Australian bush. And then what?
Here's where Self shafts the reviewer good and proper, right? (Ocker fake interrogatives dominate the dialogue.) It's impossible to engage with the crucial thesis of the novel without ruining it. I can tell you that this is an intertextualist's paradise. Self deploys (having first appropriated, mugged and bashed) every colonialist, post-colonialist, deconstructionist ethnographical narratologist you can think of. All the usual suspects are twisted, blackened and reconditioned under Self's cracked and maniacal narrative virtuosity: Greene, Burgess, Orwell, Conrad, even Julian Jaynes and Stan Gooch.
A colonial-guilt dystopia, shades of the Archbishop of Canterbury's sharia ventilations gone troppo, hovers over a Waugh narrative oddly invaded by Greene colonials, including an Honorary Consul. Here's Rousseau, here's Huxley, here's psoriasis as the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible inquivoo. Here comes everybody.
So far, so very bloody odd. The puff from JG Ballard describes The Butt as "brilliantly original", but its strength is not its originality, but synthetic power. Self throws all our ideas about colonialism, moral relativism, a corrupted neo-Benthamite moral utilitarianism and, if you like, the Heisenberg principle of ethnography, back in our well-meaning faces, first having macerated them in a mephitic stew of petrol, booze and Viennese cooking. You finish the book, go to bed, and find the thing glowing in the dark, illuminating what you thought made sense until it doesn't... or, rather, it makes a different sort of sense. If that is an incoherent observation, then it is an accurate representation of the magnificent incoherence of The Butt as a whole.
At the end, the reader is left floored among the Anglos and the bing-bongs – Self's abbos, his indigenous peoples, violated, knackered, buggered-about-with and just plain buggered. You want to know what happens to Brodzinski? You'll find out soon enough. And the rest, the honorary consul, the psychoanthropologist, the lawyer, the odd cousin? You'll find out.
The orphans in the orphanage? The tribal customs, immemorial, different-yet-equally-valid? The Anglo obsession with narrative, "sitting in the dark and smelly multiplex of their minds, gagging to know how their lives would turn out, while completely neglecting to live them"? That, too, all of it.
Brodzinski's family – the pointless wife, cipher twins, vapid daughter, video-game obsessive adopted son? No. They just disappear at the first sight of trouble. The moment the butt flicks from Brodzinski's fingers, hurtling out of his private space and bringing a world of retribution tumbling end over end upon him, they're off.
Hard to enumerate what Self has sodded up here, right? Australia. Aboriginal councils. Sharia law. Live Aid. Western "respect" for other "folkways". The whole damn planet. And all the things Self's Australia isn't, or might be: Africa, the Middle East, Papua New Guinea. He's wrapped it up and crushed it out of shape, and the absurd ending exists really to be unnecessary. Things have gone far enough, anyway. The Butt is a hideously engaged, overwritten, barking masterpiece. You're going to read it, that's for sure, but don't say I didn't warn you.
Michael Bywater's 'Big Babies' is published by Granta
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