Will Self blogs in the New York Times:
When Mr. Self was in Dublin doing press for The Butt, we conducted a walkabout interview at the William Burroughs/Hans Christian Andersen Cut Outs and Cut Ups exhibition at the IMMA in Kilmainham. (See The View review here).
Here’s Will’s side of the story.
…and here’s ours:
Will Self may be used to walking long distances (last year he famously hoofed it 26 miles from his front door to Heathrow, caught a transatlantic flight and then trekked a further 20 miles from JFK to downtown New York), but for the purposes of the Hot Press books interview, we’ve elected to undertake a rather more sedate perambulation around the Irish Museum Of Modern Art in Kilmainham.
The writer, in town to promote his latest novel The Butt, has agreed to be interviewed while we stroll through the Cut Outs and Cut Ups exhibition by Hans Christian Andersen and William Seward Burroughs. Self professes no special interest in Andersen, although he is something of a Burroughs authority, having written extensively about his work, not least a preface to the republished edition of Junky.
“I had an introduction to go out and meet him the year he died, but I wasn’t really too bothered about it to tell you the truth,” Self admits as we step into the exhibition. “We wouldn’t have got on: he hated women and loved guns and I hate guns and love women. My interest in Burroughs declined when he stopped doing smack, amazingly. He was a problematic man.”
He halts at a spray-paint-on-acrylic piece that looks a bit like a Satanic Christmas tree.
“Yeah, I dunno, what do you think?” he considers. “It’s a bit what’s the point, isn’t it? Nah, I’m sorry Bill, I’m not really digging it, man. It’s difficult to think that he’d get an exhibition in an Irish Modern Art gallery if he wasn’t a writer.”
Self reconsiders when his eye snags on an impressionistic work entitled ‘Silent Film’.
“This one’s a bit better isn’t it?” he says. “What’s he done? Oh, I see, he’s put down stencils and sprayed over them. Now that’s the first one that has any oomph to it at all really. Did you read his Ghost Of Chance and the dream diary? They’re very much in the same spirit as that. I mean, you gotta admire the man’s commitment for using his psyche as a test bed for the imagination, letting stuff come. It’s kind of a commitment to the surrealist project really, just being open in that way. I think that creativity is very close to dream. I mean, I keep dream diaries and leave on voice activated tape recorders when I’m sleeping.”
What’s Self’s position on contentious cut-up works such as The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded?
“I think they have a legitimacy actually, but they’re not very readable. I kind of like that side of Burroughs, I think that he’d be nothing without it.”
He does another double-take upon clocking a faintly demonic anthropomorphised figure called ‘Crazy Man’.
“That looks like a lemur,” he says. “He was obsessed with lemurs, Madagascar. There was something sociopathic about it, all of that kind of love for animals. I like this one.”
If anything, it evokes one of the creatures Self writes about in The Butt. What’s it called again?
“The binturang. They’re real, binturangs. They’re from Malaysia, very, very deep forest. They are ursine, astonishing looking things. There used to be one at London Zoo, you had to go into a little house and you’d see it. They’re big, six feet long and they’re like a cross between a cat and a bear, and you think, ‘Fuck, I didn’t know there was anything that big that I didn’t know existed!’ Me and the kids were just mad about the binturang.”
The Butt is set on an imaginary continent that’s a little bit Malaysia and a little bit Iraq, but is mostly the uncharted wild interior of Australia. Self’s in-depth review of John Hillcoat’s The Proposition a couple of years ago suggested he was already deep into researching the territory (both are riffs on Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness), but as it transpires, the writer has history with the place.
“I lived and worked in Northern Australia in the early 80s for about six months,” he recalls. “My dad emigrated there, and I met a lot of people at that time who went into the interior and got jobs with agencies, working with the aboriginal people. I’ve had this kind of taproot into central Australia over the last 20 years, so when it comes to the landscapes of the strange, it’s always the one that’s most present to me. It’s not as other places, I mean it is completely different to the other continents, its own fauna and flora, its environment is completely different, and it’s huge.”
The Butt opens with its hapless protagonist, Tom Brodzinski, tossing his final cigarette over a balcony and onto the bald head of Reggie Lincoln, an Anglo with deep connections to the Tayswengo tribe. Tom finds himself embroiled in a nightmare of beaurocracy and tribal restitution, and the story – Self’s most compellingly plotted to date – proceeds as Kafka’s The Trial set in the tropics, before arriving at a horrible denouement through a web of complexly imagined anthropologies, cosmologies and folkways.
“That’s what’s so horrible – he doesn’t really grasp how deeply in he is right until the last moment,” Self says. “That’s the awful McGuffin: you know he’s going down the whole way, and he really doesn’t get it. Which is what I think we in the West are like, really. It is an allegory for how the West has blundered into Iraq, ’cos I think the lack of planning in the Iraq war was analogous to Tom finishing off a cigarette and tossing it. This is a war now that’s resulted in half a million deaths.
“The book is about our relationship with ethnic otherness,” he elaborates. “I was standing on a balcony smoking a cigarette and there was no ashtray and I flipped it over the edge and I looked and there was an old guy lying down and I thought, ‘What would’ve happened?’ It’s not that I have a particular gripe about anti-smoking legislation, but it just feels so strange when it’s imposed on this ancient culture, basically in Northern Queensland where there was a genocide of these people, and it didn’t really finish until the 1930s. 70 years pass and it’s illegal to smoke cigarettes. It just seemed so bizarre a contrast.”
He pauses on the threshold of a room pulsating with the sounds of the Master Musicians of Joujouka.
“After you sir, into this tiny room.”
And in this tiny room resides Bill Burroughs’ and Brion Gysin’s fabled trip-out gizmo, the Dreamachine.
“There it is,” Self says, not without excitement. “I’ve never seen it before actually.”
According to the catalogue, it was invented in 1961, conceived as “a flicker device that produces visual stimuli… Viewed with the eyes closed to provoke dream-like images and patterns the Dreamachine reflected their fascination with optical effects that could provoke changes in consciousness.”
To be honest, this writer thinks it looks a bit like a high-speed lava lamp rescued from some hippy homunculus’s crash pad.
“I love lava lamps!” Self protests. “They’re great!”
He shakes his head as we move towards the exit.
“What is not to love?”