In recent years we have become accustomed to travel writers playing at being fictional versions of themselves: Geoff Dyer as Jeff in Venice, or Bruce Chatwin distancing himself from the fictional "Bruce" in Songlines. Now Will Self adopts a bewildering array of avatars to walk to Hollywood. He is a times himself – or what in his usual baroque style he describes as "that deceptively transparent carapace, the ego" – but also morphs, among others, into David Thewlis, Pete Postlethwaite and a living god as he makes his precarious way by foot from his south London home to Heathrow, and then from LAX to Hollywood.
The conceit allows the narrator considerable licence. Indiscretions – in Self's case, excreting under the M4, sodomy in Seattle and dwarf abuse – can all be ascribed to his fictional counterpart. Any acute observations are all made by "the real man". Such games of peek-a-boo with the reader can be seen as either fictive playfulness or coy and irritating. Only a writer with Self's panache can hope to pull it off – and it's a close-run thing.
Many of the characters he encounters we have met before in his wonderful Psychogeography: occidental Buddhists ("the angriest people in the world"), orthodox Jews and other people who choose to walk, not drive, to airports. But in that mode Self was playing his cards straighter, as reportage, albeit of the "fear and loathing", Hunter S Thompson variety that his collaborator Ralph Steadman encouraged.
The reader needs to take the following statement as a warning: "my life has had no narrative – which implies a linear arrangement of sorts – but only spilled out of control, or into a vicious centrifuge of repetition and coincidence". If this were a movie – and a central conceit of the book is that the movies and Hollywood have failed us – it would be a David Lynch production which you have to see twice to have a hope of understanding. With added dwarves and a guest appearance by Scooby Doo.
Ostensibly, the book is divided into three sections: Self's friendship with conceptual artist Sherman Oaks; his walk to Hollywood; and a final coda in which he walks along the Yorkshire coast. But as Self comments towards the end, it is easier to see them as three overlapping facets of his pathologies – obsessive-compulsive disorder, psychosis and memory loss – and the book as a brave attempt to confront "certain psychological processes that had been latent in me for many years".
So we accompany Self a little nervously on his travels, knowing that the least thing may set him off. The innocuous word "even", used in the wrong context, provokes a very funny rant. Clearly what this man needs is a quiet cup of tea – not a trip to Los Angeles, the most paranoia-inducing city on the planet.
The overall effect is as if WG Sebald had tried to write Martin Amis's Money – and Sebald has been a touchstone for Self over the last couple of years. The final and most moving of the sections is the walk along the eroding Yorkshire coast that equates the loss of memory with the loss of land, much as Sebald did in The Rings of Saturn. In a final apology, Self describes Walking to Hollywood as "contorted, wayward and melancholic". No one would say that it was an easy read; but the flashes of brilliance make being inside his various heads an exciting, if occasionally alarming, experience.
Hugh Thomson's 'Tequila Oil: Getting Lost in Mexico' is published by PhoenixReuse content