Perhaps a writer’s success ought to be measured not by how long they spend on the bestseller lists or how many accolades they win, but by whether they achieve immortality in the work of other writers. Will Self now enters the ranks of such authors, as he is the central element around which the various narratives of Sam Mills’ novel coalesce.
It’s a bold move to centre a book on any living figure, but when that figure is a writer, and a clear influence on the novel in which he is invoked, then it becomes an even more daring ploy. So is The Quiddity of Will Self a successful display of intertextual dexterity, or is it an awkwardly intellectual piece of fan fiction?
Essentially, the story is a murder mystery. It begins with the killing of a young woman, whose body is discovered by her neighbour, Richard. A budding crime writer, he sets about investigating her death, and is drawn into a literary clique obsessed with Will Self. As he tries to infiltrate this cabal, Richard reads Self, and becomes even more infatuated with his work than the objects of his enquiry.
For the most part, Mills handles the looming influence of Self admirably, especially given that she is writing in the voice of a character who has come under the influence of Self. As Richard reads Self, the prose begins to imitate his famously sesquipedalian style (‘sesquipedalian’ being a word that appears quite frequently in this novel, clearly a direct result of Self’s influence): ‘I wanted his thoughts to become my thoughts; I wanted to be penetrated to my very quiddity; I wanted to put myself into the hands of a magnificent psychogeographer and allow a chthonic metamorphosis to fulcrate me…’
This is a highly unsubtle sentence, but knowingly so. But elsewhere Mills is a little heavy handed. One of the Self-loving literati warns Richard of the effects of reading Self’s work: ‘You start imitating him and using long words like transmogrification, only he is inimitable, so inevitably one is just a poor carbon copy. He can wield long words like rapiers, but the rest of us just slice the page into a mess.’ Mills comes close to rapier-like control at times, but in this instance she’s just slightly too blunt.
Of course, there’s much more to Self than just a predilection for deploying arcane vocabulary, and as such Mills has more to drawn on than wordplay. The novel is divided into five parts, of which the section narrated by Richard is the first. The next two parts are macabre and original enough that they might sit comfortably alongside any of the stories in Self’s dark collections Dr Mukti and Other Tales of Woe, and Liver. Part Two is narrated by the spirit of the murdered woman, who hovers outside Self’s window, watching him work; Part Three concerns a sinister rehabilitation programme for criminals. In the latter, the connection with Self is that the programme takes place in a Liverpool tower block: it was in a similar building that Self put himself on public display while he wrote his story ‘161’, included in Dr Mukti.
Mills certainly crams a lot in, weaving the murder mystery plot through the novel’s distinct parts. The fourth of these fast-forwards to 2049, where a book reviewer rediscovers the case, and threads dropped in the first and third parts are resurrected. But the self-referentiality runs out of steam in the largely redundant Part Five, in which a writer called Sam Mills (not the very same Sam Mills who wrote this book, as this character is male) begins to write Part One of The Quiddity of Will Self.
Throughout the book sheets of narrative are layered over one another, then pushed together and crumpled up like tectonic plates in an earthquake. The result is cleverly realised but, like a building in an earthquake, the structure of the novel doesn’t always hold up under such pressure.
Another textual layer is added when we consider Mills’ engagement with Self’s work outside of her novel. She has established an organisation called the Will Self Club – the name of the literary clique described in Part One of The Quiddity of Will Self – a semi-serious quasi-religious organisation, which takes as a precedent the idea that authors might be the subjects of worship; and which apparently has much in common with the Will Self Club in the novel, including a penchant for cloaks and absinthe. Apparently, it was the novel that gave birth to the club, and not the other way around, but since the novel was written over the period of a decade, there has clearly been a two-way exchange.
Over that decade, Self has added to his oeuvre substantially, and one imagines Mills’ book undergoing various redrafts as she struggles to keep up to date with his work. But when writing about a writer who remains prolific, it is necessary to draw a line under his work at some point, and Mills manages to do so – inventing future Will Self novels in the section set in 2049 is a neat way of achieving this. One wonders, is The Quiddity of Will Self dexterous intertext or awkward fanfic? For the most part it’s the former. But perhaps the question that we should really be asking is whether this book successfully captures the quiddity of Self.
Mills states on her website that Self has read at least part of the novel, and that she is pleased that he hasn’t attempted to sue her. So she has at least his passive blessing, even if there’s no outright endorsement from her subject. It’s fitting that this should be the case, however, as the Will Self presented in Mills’ book is clearly not a direct portrait, but more of a mythologised figure. Yet his essence does pervade this playful novel, and even if Mills is a little too cleverly self-referential at times, the fact that she is writing very much in the spirit of Self ensures that she gets away with it.