Thinking for one's Self

Kiran Acharya experiences a sheer and surreal force of Will

Introduced at a pertinent time in Belfast’s history as ‘a man able to sniff out bulls**t of the rankest kind’, Will Self takes to the John Hewitt’s stage, the heel of his hand rubbing a weary eye, and opens his address.

‘The pain of it all...’

A cosy selection of Belfast’s literati, students and at least two practicing ministers have decamped to Donegall Street’s John Hewitt to attend a reading from the hallucinatory writer, widely regarded as one of the most striking and fascinating authors of the day.

Appearing at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival to present excerpts from The Book of Dave, in which a text produced by a London cab driver is buried only to be excavated and treated with Biblical reverence by the odd inhabitants of the post-flood city of the future, Self fields post-reading questions from the attentive and jovial audience.

‘Were you not tempted to run in the Marathon?’ asks an enthusiastic fan, keen to find out if Self’s levels of physical exertion match his mental acrobatics.

‘I did. I jogged,’ Self offers, surprisingly, ‘...to the ashtray...’

Self, whose Quantity Theory of Insanity won the 1993 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, stood under red and purple lights as the audience basked in the reflective warmth of his surrealist, dowdy wit.

If nothing else, Self teaches the audience how to read his work, for having heard his voice, they’ll scarcely forget it.

Accents shift from something like an irate and disgusted Jeremy Clarkson, to the surly Cockney cab driver Dave, and a nasal, reedy yank tourist, as they travel across London en route to Mill Hill.

Described as ‘a Jeremiah against the modern world,’ The Book of Dave follows the success of previous works How the Dead Live, My Idea of Fun and Dorian, an update and re-telling of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Having walked over the Black Mountain, through the Falls and Springfield Roads, Self compliments Belfast, lambastes Gordon Brown as one of the greatest cowards of the modern day - the ‘Anthony Eden of contemporary politics’ - and replies to one audience member leaving themselves exposed by asking a question that ends with the old NI cliché: ‘why don’t you call a spade a spade?’

‘It would be a very short book,’ he responds, with quizzical affection. "A spade is a spade".'

Elaborating, he posits that fiction can import more profound truths than mere observation, or linguistic representation of a consensually agreed perceived external reality.

‘The spade could be a fork... or a ball of fluff, plucked from the navel of a God,’ he muses.

‘But you’ll like my next novel, he reassures. 'It’s very spadey.’

There’s a certain absurdity that wouldn’t be lost on the author himself, of people lining up, books clutched to their bosoms, to be signed after an hour of being warned against the dangers of fanaticism and taking one man’s word as bond.

Maybe it's something ingrained into the NI psyche.

It would be mean, though, to suggest that the fans are naïve, or sheepish, or that the evening is one of tattling questions and abstruse reaction.

In the warm greetings, jokes and personal exchanges that close the evening it is clear that the readers are independent imaginations, caught by the inimitable Self.

Like any good author might, Self, 'emboldened by your response,' leaves his readers with a question. He sends hands scuttling towards mobile telephonic devices, seeking to find out who, or what, a couvade is. 

The minds of the devoted are dilated, those of the doubtful converted. All leave happily clasping copies of the Gospel according to Will.