“I’ve been shedding readers by the cartload,” says Will Self, speaking to Stuart Kelly about the reaction to his recent foray into modernist stream of consciousness writing. “It’s hardly a commercial decision.”
Self is at the Edinburgh Book Festival tonight to discuss Shark, the work he describes as a “sprequel” to his 2012 novel Umbrella. Examining the “psychiatric relationship between the Second World War and psychosis”, it is written in the same viewpoint-juggling style, eschewing punctuation and other novelistic conventions. Thematically, it in part fulfills what Self refers to our “duty of compassion” towards understanding the mentally ill.
With a style harkening back to Eliot and Joyce, Shark’s prose is filled with thoughts, snippets of dialogue, lines from songs and references to other modernist works. In writing it, he has treated the novels of his literary predecessors in the same manner as they treated the classics – as “fragments lying around to be appropriated.” Admitting that stream of consciousness is something which can never truly be represented on the page, he at least aims in his latest works to allude to it. Though he is unapologetic, recognising the boundaries of the medium he is writing within. “Fiction,” he says. “It’s all lies.”
He is fascinated by the inner workings of the human mind, admitting he is “jealous of everybody’s thoughts” before going on to ruminate on our current human condition, living our “lives of well-cushioned ennui” in our world subjected to a constant barrage of information. He sees the interruptive nature of this as a real threat to the lifespan of the traditional longform novel, wondering what impact it will have on our cultural progress.
Answering questions from the audience, Self is the first to admit he is conscious of his oft-criticised “use of words”, but remains a staunch defender of intellect. He agrees with an audience member that a “romance of derangement” exists, whereby we can almost feel envious of those with psychiatric conditions who see the world in a different – and perhaps truer – light.
Self’s two most recent novels have the First and Second World Wars as their backdrop. When asked if he believes there can ever be a “just war”, he pauses, before responding that if the national ‘box’ he existed in was under threat, he would indeed defend it, but how he vehemently is against the notion of invasive, pre-emptive miltary action.
However, with yet another demonstration of his dry wit and intellect of mass construction, Self is proof positive that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.