Walking to Hollywood, By Will Self
A loquacious ambulator becomes too enamoured with the celebrity culture he set out to satirise
Sunday 12 September 2010
Will Self's latest has its roots in a former Independent Magazine column called "Psychogeography". That column, in turn, was a journalistic enactment of the idea – forged by mid-20th-century leftist cultural theorists – that to walk through the modern environment is a radical act, capable of disrupting the false consciousness imposed on us by capitalist drudgery. All three stories in the triptych that forms Walking to Hollywood, then, see Self on foot, in search of metaphysical truth. The result is a work full of his trademark hypertensive invention, but less effective than it might have been.
Walking to Hollywood is styled as a "memoir pushed to the limits of invention". But this – as with so much here – is really a smiling deception; the book is a surreal fiction that makes use of the increasingly popular author-as-protagonist. In "Very Little", Self recounts his relationship with the egomaniacal sculptor and "person of restricted height" Sherman Oaks. In the long, dream-like centrepiece, "Walking to Hollywood", a disturbed Self walks across LA. Soon it becomes clear to him, however, that he is an involuntary actor in a movie, and that every person he meets is played by a Hollywood star. Finally, in "Spurn Head", Self walks the coastline of east Yorkshire and plays checkers with Death.
There is a sense in which Walking to Hollywood feels a natural end point for Self. He has always been the overarching presence in his fiction, and the author/protagonist dispenses with any residual need to speak through a fictional character, allowing his own famous (or infamous) loquaciousness a new fluidity. An airport travelator, then, is free to be a "grooved tongue glistening as if with saliva".
The trouble, though, is that for all the noise of his apparent experimentalism, Self cannot modulate his essentially conventional fictive technique in order to fully inhabit the author/narrator device. When employed by its most famous exponent – WG Sebald, whose ghost hovers over this book – it provided a new kind of psychological intimacy, used to shake off the demands of plot and capture the sound of consciousness itself. But Self is a writer anchored in the physical world, and we enter his mind only, really, to see what he sees. So we get long, pyrotechnic accounts of ever-more fantastical happenings: Self is imbued with action-hero martial ability; he transforms into the Incredible Hulk; he is trapped in a game of Grand Theft Auto. This is vast inventiveness, but always of a limited, cartoon-world kind.
Without plot or a fully realised inner life, the pleasures of Walking to Hollywood should reside in satire. But Self is leaning hard on the obsession with celebrity that he sets out to satirise. Is he not depending on the idea that we will be thrilled by the appearance of Scooby- Doo, or Jamie Foxx? Soon enough, it's he who seems over-enamoured of celebrity culture.
Self might have dared to present us with an entirely different account of the journeys that informed this book: an exploration of his private, psychic unease in the face of what he has called "the man machine matrix" would have made for a less flashy, but potentially fascinating work. Here, we have the CGI version: glittering, but all surface.
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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