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Review: The Quantity Theory of Insanity (1991) by Will Self   Leave a comment

The Quantity Theory of Insanity is Will Self’s first book, and although I had previously read Cock and Bull before I picked up this text, I felt as though I was starting over with his oeuvre. Reading Self from the start, in sequence, is not a bad strategy – after all, his fiction is littered with intratextual references, recurring characters, and little in-jokes that build from one book to the next.

Self is a polarizing writer whose reputation usually precedes him. He tends to be either loved or hated as a consequence, which is unfortunate, because authors should not be judged solely on the emotional reactions they provoke. You see, Self is clever and witty and erudite in a way that only the English seem to be able to pull off. Personally, I was captivated by the stories in The Quantity Theory of Insanity. Self is not merely showing off here: his satire has real teeth, and is grounded in a fierce intellect that attempts to be revolutionary even as it acknowledges such precursors as Kafka and Chekhov.

My experience of reading the first story in here, “The North London Book of the Dead,” is a perfect example of the unsettling yet amusing nature of Self’s texts. What appears at first to be a tragic tale of how a man loses his mother to cancer gradually transforms itself into minor pathos. The dead don’t go away altogether, the narrator discovers, they merely move to a different part of London. I was, by turns, confused and then amused as I realized the true purpose of the metaphor that Self was creating.

This biting caricature of the dullness of English life is replicated in other stories, such as “Understanding the Ur-Bororo.” The story follows the career of Janner, an aspiring anthropologist who dedicates his career to studying this obscure tribe, the Ur-Bororo, winning a special grant dedicated to this specific purpose. What Janner discovers, however, is that the romance surrounding the tribe derives purely from their obscurity. In reality, they are the most boring people in the world, whose culture shows a remarkable indifference to sex and whose conversations consist of bland observations about the weather. Janner marries one of the tribe and, in a brilliant satirical twist, brings her back to England, where she fits right in.

The stories in The Quantity Theory of Insanity thus typically explore one of two themes: the unexciting, self-limiting way in which humanity tends to live life, as exemplified by the two stories mentioned already as well as the book’s closer, “Waiting,” and Self’s exploration of madness, rationality, and power. It is in this book, for instance, that we first meet Self’s most important recurring character, the experimental psychiatrist Dr. Zack Busner, together with his notorious mentor Alkan (a not-too-subtle but utterly enjoyable caricature of Jacques Lacan). This latter theme is by far the most profound and interesting, and I particularly liked “Ward 9” (an inversion of Chekhov’s “Ward 6”) and the title story, which engages in a brilliant deconstruction of psychology’s attempts to legitimize itself through “objective” testing, a message that few will appreciate and even fewer will understand.

On the whole, I loved The Quantity Theory of Insanity with only a couple of reservations. The first is that I didn’t like the story “Mono-Cellular,” a testament to the occasional tendency of English fiction writers to overreach their abilities (I’m looking at you, A.S. Byatt). The second is that, well, at times it felt strangely dated, in the same way that reading literary and critical theory from the same period feels dated. I get the same feeling when I read Self’s other books, too, as if he is still trying to push the boundaries of 1980s postmodernism without realizing that the rest of the world has moved on. Nonetheless, it’s wickedly clever stuff, for all its strange anachronisms, and I highly recommend it if you are in the mood for something intelligent and anarchic.

Rating: 4.5/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

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Posted May 15, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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