Deals with high style
BOOKS: DRINK & DRUGS: JUNK MAIL by Will Self, Bloomsbury pounds 12.99
Sunday 26 November 1995
Junk Mail is a collection of book reviews, interviews, articles and cartoons, dealing, so to speak, with "the politics, culture, literature and ritual of intoxication". Or so it claims on the back cover. Actually it's not so thrilling, or so focused. The "On Drugs" section fills only a quarter of the book. "On Other Things", the material on the remaining 300 pages, "represents the fruits of being prepared to do more or less what any editor asks me to do," says Self in his introduction, "having calculated the ratio of glibness to money that the commission represents."
When that other star of page, screen and Groucho Club, Stephen Fry, collected his jottings in a book called Paperweight, he headed a few of the pieces with apologies for their insubstantiality, and said that the volume as a whole should be viewed as, simply, a paperweight: a heavy object of lightweight significance. In both Self's and Fry's cases, the caveats are irritating. It's not worth the glazier's bill for me to throw stones at other journalists' glibness, but it seems fair to say that if you're ashamed of an article, you shouldn't reprint it in a hardback anthology, and if you're not ashamed of it, you should omit the disingenuous disclaimers.
Here, the fruits of being prepared to do what editors ask can be bitterly under-ripe: a very brief encounter with the novelist Tim Willocks, for instance; a quick glance at a new edition of Louis-Ferdinand Celine; a jokey look at life on Orkney. And while Stephen Fry always sounds like Stephen Fry, even when he's acting, the impeccably professional Self adapts his style according to the articles' original homes, from the Evening Standard to Modern Painters. The result is a schizophrenic hodge-podge, lacking an authoritative single voice to give it a semblance of unity.
Self has a vocabulary similar to Fry's, but this is not necessarily a plus. It wouldn't necessarily be marked down as a minus either, if Self hadn't accused a writer in one of his reviews of "sheer involuted obtuseness", and complained of the "annoying jargon" and "wilful obscurantism" of another. He quotes a fairly easily comprehensible sentence as evidence, and in the same review, Self himself comes up with "bogus syncretism" and the "hydra of relativism".
More rewarding are the longer pieces, or rather those which seem to have been motivated by curiosity as well as a need to pay the rent and the supplier. Self seems to enjoy the role of journalist as private eye, speeding up and down the road to interview subjects, and this enthusiasm - added to his knack of reproducing conversation and his off-beat literary approaches - pays off. He is best on his main interests: motorways, "English culture", and the authors at the top left of his bookcase: Woody Allen, Martin Amis, J G Ballard and William Burroughs.
But his obsession is drugs. Once Self has written a few more pieces on the subject, they will deserve to be compiled in one volume, along the lines of Martin Amis's journalism on all things American, The Moronic Inferno. A daily user of dope and speed at 15, and of heroin at 17 (how did he afford it?), Self hasn't quite grown out of his fascination with the outlaw glamour and ritualism of illegal narcotics. He'll scold Burroughs for trading in "self-realisation for the noxious draft of notoriety" in one article, and yet he'll enjoy a swig of notoriety himself in the next.
Still, he writes passionately and humorously, whether he is speaking to Thomas Szasz, the American "anti-psychiatrist" who believes that all drugs should be freely available, or when reporting a melodramatic visit to a crack-dealer's den. But in that damning introduction, Self says that he had planned to write a non-fiction book-length treatise on drugs, but gave up. In Junk Mail, "scattered throughout the various pieces were all the arguments and points of information that I would have wished to bring together in a book". Scattered is right. He assumes a great deal of prior knowledge in some articles and not enough in others. I wish he had persevered with the full-length work instead.
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