There is much to take in, in this volume. I took it slow, story-by-story, sometimes sentence-by-sentence, because, after all, Self seems to want to slow the reader, to allow the words to take on new and beguiling meanings.
In the opening of this monstrous, nearly 500-page collection, Rick Moody writes that there are two awesome talents “that make him [Will Self] the singular writer that he is…these are his ear and his imagination.” Inarguably, Mr. Moody is correct, although he’s paid less homage to Self’s singular ability to create characters from places. Whether they be the dank streets of London, or perfectly predictable Manhattan: from Midtown to LES, Self’s settings are rendered so vividly they almost seem personified. The streets want to speak. The sky: to sing.
Self’s imagination, of course, is ever-present, from the giant emotos that watch over their human owners in “Caring, Sharing” to the primitive First Cause in “Birdy Num Hum”. “I am not death,” the narrator states, “For death has no persona; death is only an absence—not even a mask. True, for some I am death’s helpmeet, but I’m not a psychopath, only a cytopath.”
Self never lets the surreal seem surreal. It’s not like being inside a Julia Slavin story or even an Amy Bender one, for that matter. Self’s surrealistic side feels as organic as his settings. Of course there are robots! Of course they drool and drink Kool-aid! Few writers manage this type of unexpected absurdity so cunningly –so convincingly.
There is tragedy and sadness, too. In “The Five-Swing Walk”, a father of five takes his children on a walking tour of swing-sets. He’s not completely satisfied with his fractured life— an x-wife, a new girlfriend—but he does his best. As he attempts to huddle and harangue his children, the narrator states, “Stephen couldn’t forbear from feeling sick with inadequacy, his own paternal dereliction melting into his shoulders like an irreversible jacket of napalm”. But when Stephen witnesses another child on the last playground hang herself on the length of chain from the fifth swing, Stephen, “even in the mad numbness, could feel a tear struggling to detach itself from the trough of his eyelid, fighting tension of this greater surface with its own need to become a moment”.
Or in “The Northern Book of the Dead”, when the narrator begins somewhat coldly but assuredly, “I suppose that the form of my bereavement took after my mother died was fairly conventional. Initially I was shocked. Her final illness was mercifully quick, but harrowing. Cancer tore through her body as if it were late for an important meeting with a lot of other successful diseases”.
Self’s imagination is limitless, but the more you read the less it feels like a trick. His control of language, the precision of diction is also unparalleled. In “The Rock of Crack as Big as the Ritz”, two brothers speak of their ancestry. “Our ‘riginal names are stupid to begin wiv. Bantu! Tembe! Our mother thought they was kind of cool and African, but she knew nothing, man, bugger all. The Bantu were a fucking music tribe, man, and as for Tembe, thass jus’ a style of fucking music”. Even in the midst of trying to understand themselves, each other, Self portrays these brothers with a tenderness and perfect ear.
Again, Moody summarized Self’s body of work impeccably when he wrote, “No short story collection… is a success without use of the complete color wheel of human affinities”. And, I have to agree, The Undivided Self is no exception.