Tom Sutcliffe: Naked truths in a slippery read

The week in culture

Friday 10 September 2010 00:00 BST

When you turn page 225 of Will Self's new book, Walking to Hollywood, you get a modest surprise – or perhaps that should be an immodest one. There, at the bottom of page 227, is a picture of a naked man. As in the Duchess of Argyll's notorious Polaroids, the man is effectively headless since the picture has been taken in what looks like a bathroom mirror and the reflection crops him off just above the nipples. Unlike the Duchess of Argyll's Polaroids, it is a sexually innocent image, the shadows in the shot concealing all anatomical detail. One arm hangs down beside the torso; the other is out of sight, presumably holding the camera with which this odd image has been taken. And what makes it particularly arresting is your reasonable assumption, as a reader, that this is a portrait of the author. "Will Self's just flashed me," you think, before you turn your attention back to his prose – which both demands and deserves it.

It would be a lot more of a surprise, I grant you, if this was the only photograph in the book – a work which hovers intriguingly in the unmapped ground between memoir and fiction. That would genuinely feel like an ambush, after 226 pages interrupted only by chapter headings and paragraph breaks. But Walking to Hollywood has lots of photographs in it, the first of them cropping up just 10 pages in. There are pictures of Barbour jackets, an airline meal and plastic bags stuck in the undergrowth. There are pictures of underpasses and overpasses, remote beauty spots and inner-city streets. There are pictures of things described in great detail in the book and pictures of things that don't seem to be mentioned at all. And many of these pictures appear to tack – as a dressmaker tacks cloth to a pattern – the imagined events of the novel on to the real experiences of the writer. It is, Self has suggested, "as close to a true piece of autobiography as anything I've ever written" – and the photographs seem to back up that. When the book's narrator writes about a murder in a park near his home and describes his neighbour's car being dusted for fingerprints you may wonder whether life has supplied this detail or Self's imagination. A few pages on a high-angle shot of Crime Scene Officers by an Audi estate confirms that he must have been present at just such a scene.

It isn't a conventional thing for a novel to do, but this is such an unconventional novel that it begs the question of whether the word will serve at all. There's something very intriguing about the vibrations set up, not just between the fictional events the book describes and the raw, real material that has fed into them, but also between the verbal descriptions of things and these mechanical proofs of life. Photographs in books are generally included as an elaboration and expansion of what the prose has tried to do, an acknowledgement that no description of a scene will be quite as immediately graspable as a picture of it. Pictures are a kind of evidentiary trump card, irrefutable in a way that recollection is not. Here, though, the pictures offer a monochrome echo of things you feel you have already encountered in colour – not just because they are literally black-and-white, but because they are so flatly literal. Take that car, for instance, which we first encounter under its fingerprint dust and the crime-scene Klieg lights as "like a baby whale coated in vernix". The photograph isn't there to corroborate the accuracy of that metaphor, which in any case delights in stretching likeness to just short of breaking point. The picture is almost there to show how flat the world can look when it hasn't yet been written up.

Formally speaking, the pictures in the book are captionless – that is, they aren't underwritten by a line of text that identifies for us what they are doing there. In fact, though, the book itself is a kind of caption that has burgeoned and blossomed and overflowed its boundaries until it has almost entirely eclipsed the objects that gave rise to it. The pictures are there to remind us how mutely uncommunicative a photograph can be. But I'm still not entirely sure about the nude one.

Between the lines of a cooked-up controversy

It's been intriguing having an inside view of the Booker coverage this year, a perspective that allows you to see how ritualistic the reactions have become. I was startled to read in one paper the other day that our longlist was "the most controversial in years", a controversy that I have to confess had passed me by in the preceding few weeks. Perhaps I had my nose buried in a book... or perhaps the newspaper in question was staying true to its own worked-up controversy over the "misogyny" of Christos Tsiolkas's novel The Slap. A lot of the coverage is bemusing but nothing is quite as baffling as the cherished concept of the "Booker snub", the term applied when a journalist expects that a novel might be included on a longlist or shortlist and then finds that it isn't. The "snub" suggests that someone on the jury has said "I know, let's poke a stick in Martin Amis's eye", and then everyone else has gone, "Yeah, brilliant! And what about Ian McEwan while we're at it." In truth, you struggle to assemble a list of the books you like most, a process that does not necessarily mean you dislike those that don't make the list. The same thing goes for "shock exclusion", which was used just the other day about David Mitchell. It's a bit like being asked to choose between an apple and an orange, and then everyone concluding that you must hate citrus fruit when you opt for the former. Preference, it's worth remembering, is not an implicit condemnation of the unpreferred.

A fresh look at death and taxes

Watching Tiny Kushner – the Tricycle Theatre's evening of five one-act Tony Kushner plays – I found myself thinking that there was an odd one out. The theme of the evening, Kushner suggested in an interview, is "mothering", a concept which could loosely be attached to all of the plays except, it seemed to me, for East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis, which retold the story of a 1996 scandal in which various New York City employees were discovered to have found a way to withhold all their taxes. The scam involved writing a letter of baroquely legal formality citing a particular exemption code and declaring yourself as an entity separate from federal oversight. For Kushner it offers a comic parable of the irresponsibility of tax-cutting ideologies – the fantasy that we can dodge the bill for civic society without the whole system collapsing. And suddenly the other day this entertaining footnote from history became the most topical element of the evening, with newspapers all across the political spectrum advising their readers on the best way to sabotage the Inland Revenue's attempt to get its books in order. Our own little tax revolt seems to be gathering steam, and suddenly it's the other four plays that seem a little out on the margin. It's an artistic version of that old adage about death and taxes. The subject will always be fresh somewhere.

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