On several levels, novelist Will Self’s memoir, Will, is anything but an easy read ... But if you are looking for a painfully honest exploration of the nightmare of addiction, one that’s offered with a large helping of ironic humor, then you’ll find that Self, if often an unappealing companion, is rarely an uninteresting one ... Writing in the third person, Self is a keen, remarkably unsparing observer of his disastrous early adulthood ... For all his self-absorption and the litany of his self-destructive escapades, Self grows on the reader in odd ways ...
There’s even a certain poignancy ... His manic style evokes both Hunter S. Thompson and Anthony Burgess ... This is a disturbing trip through a benighted world that most people will be fortunate never to experience, something for which they should be profoundly grateful.
Self charges his first-ever memoir with harrowing—and, occasionally, humorous—accounts of drug addiction ... While the author readily name-checks Big Bill Burroughs, his adventures and suffering crackle with absurdity absent from that Beat Generation bible ... Much to his credit, Self shows us everything (emphasis on every), thus defusing any chance of readers romanticizing his buying-and-selling days as an extended hedonistic vacation ... The horrors of withdrawal cannot be understood by the uninitiated, but Self conveys their affect with existential brutality ... A comparison of heroin’s erasure of fear and tension to that of the author as a child, safe in his warm bed, reminds readers that loss plays a profound role here ... Readers of William S. Burroughs and Beat literature, as well as experiential journals from Djuna Barnes, Paul Bowles, and Hunter S. Thompson will find here much to endure and enjoy.
Self’s latest act of perversity is to follow up...acclaimed novels with a drug memoir told in the third person ... Will feels snatched from another age. It recalls the great wave of drug memoirs that came in the 1990s, and particularly Ann Marlowe’s superb, genre-bending How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z. Like that book, Will’s formal structure is central to its impact ... It’s less a stream of consciousness, more like five pools with countless rivulets running between them ... This material is intensely, almost wilfully, familiar, so that reading becomes a battle between the predictability of the subject matter and the darkly angelic prose in which it is expressed. After [the] baleful first chapter, the book is a joy to read, with the final part in particular recalling David Foster Wallace at his best, taking on the 'bogus syncretism of Christianity and sub-Freudian psychotherapy' of AA ... If, as [Self] says early on in the book, 'there’s nothing remotely exciting about heroin addiction', there’s more than mere nostalgic pleasure in this gleefully self-lacerating memoir of drug abuse and rehab.
The logistical minutiae of drug-taking have always been exceedingly boring ... As for drug-fuelled escapades, these are invariably funnier in the recollection than in the retelling. Mercifully, Will isn’t really that kind of memoir: Self relates his adventures in the narcotic wilderness – encompassing amphetamines, cocaine and, most notably, heroin – with a certain clinical detachment...There are occasional moments of earnest candour...but the prevailing tone is sardonic ... The young drug fiend endures a succession of calamities ... These sections are as colourful as you’d expect, but it’s the quotidian details of domestic and familial life that really catch the eye ... Self’s ruminations on class are among the most compelling passages in the book, evincing that contrary blend of snobbish and egalitarian sentiments that is the quintessence of the English middle classes ... Self is never happier than when frolicking in the hinterland between sincerity and performative, winking hyperbole. There is a pantomimic quality to his prose, deployed to a variety of effects ... On still other occasions it is gratuitous, apparently designed solely to prevent your attention from drifting – rather like a children’s party entertainer addressing himself to a roomful of five-year-olds ... There is a refreshing lack of contrition in these pages, soaked as they are in the hubristic folly of youth.
Like many drug memoirs, Will provides a not entirely pleasant, quasi-immersive experience: to ingest its headachy prose and sickly imagery as Will overdoses in Mile End and slumps in hallucinatory immobility in a New Delhi toilet is to feel your blood turning a sour sort of yellow. Self’s writing has the same technicolour velocity, malign comedy and arbitrary use of italicisation and ellipsis as his best novels, but it also imitates the fuzzy contractions in time and the odd discontinuity leaps of an addict’s brain in ways that gradually offer diminishing returns. It is also sometimes numbingly boring ... presumably a second memoir will follow. I’m not sure I can take it.
...at 58, Self has decided it’s time to kill the memoir instead ... [Will] is, to be fair, not without promise as material. There’s the Ballardian setting of Hampstead Garden Suburb...there are Burroughsian jaunts to India and Australia; there’s a car crash; there’s even a cameo from Margaret Thatcher ... Sadly, it is impossible to imagine anyone who has not been paid to do so reading this ferociously boring book to the end — let alone enjoying it as anything other than word bingo (entelechy… ephebe… empurpled… ersatz… entropy… engraft.) ... Self’s prose has ossified ... More sloppy narcissism, more dreary digressions and yet more importuning of his shit upon the reader ... He rails against 'the British-f****** bourgeoisie' — but what he’s usually railing against is their decor choices ... Wherever he travels in the world, all his locations feel the same; it’s never clear what exactly is happening, and he spends more time describing faecal matter than other humans. As for the 'why' — why is he like this? — the only clue he offers is something he mysteriously calls the 'voids'. Some are white, some are black, some are grey. Self seems to be saying they’re responsible for his addiction, but that’s all I can tell you about them. There’s always a sense that he finds the job of communicating a bit beneath him — and as a writer, that’s a pretty fatal flaw.
... suggests that the car has finally left the road, fallen apart, burst into flames and taken several other vehicles with it. The narrative of the book, rebarbatively cast in the third person, is episodic, freewheeling and associative. It’s also marked by a weakness for supposedly ironic cliches, irritatingly portentous ellipses, the repetition of advice bequeathed to him by his mother and a clumsy habit of attempting to lend his story temporal texture by deploying allusions to (and quotations from) contemporary music and culture. It is also self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing and pyrotechnically mean-spirited ... None of this is particularly easy to take, even when one allows for the mixture of self-pity, delusion, grandiosity and desperation that typifies the behavior of addicts. And it would be unfair to suggest that Self attempts to exonerate himself from these charges — our pity, gentle reader, he does not seek. But he does seek our collusion in his contempt for the world in which he is obliged to move, and for the people with whom the cruelties of circumstance have forced him to interact ... This is not to suggest that the book is completely without charm ... there are, on occasion, moments of heartbreak and tenderness ... On the whole, however, this is a memoir of substance abuse and self-harm that fails to generate the sympathy, empathy or interest that one customarily associates with the genre. Time in Self’s company leaves you feeling not that you are thrillingly, if figuratively, drunk at the wheel, but slumped, comatose, over the prison of your desk.
...the problem with this rambling and random, overlong yarn: as John Cooper Clarke has said, when deflecting questions about his own lost decade, 'all junkies’ stories are the same' ... Similarly, knocking satire out of treatment programmes has been done previously many times and better, for example in AL Kennedy’s novel Paradise ... In a sense, given the bizarrely inventive nature of much of his fiction, Self is too smart to be writing this sort of book. What’s more, he knows it, and it shows. Even he seems, at times, rather bored by the endless round of copping, shooting, copping. Which prompts the question: why is he writing about it, without saying much that is new? Contractual obligations, perhaps? Let the reader decide.
...an extreme example of Will Self run riot ... the narrative runs in great associative stream-of-consciousness skeins, shot through with buried quotations from song lyrics, inane catchphrases and second-order cliches ironised with italics and, especially where they end a sentence, preceded with the little drum-fill of an ellipsis ... I dug it in the fiction, but I only half dug it here: it has an evasive quality where memoir seems to ask for more directness; or, at least, a different sort of indirectness. And sometimes it just seems like an affectation ... Self doesn’t shill for sympathy. His feelings towards most other human beings run the slim gamut between envy and contempt ... So Will is, in its way – because of rather than despite its protagonist being so unlikable – an honest-seeming memoir of the experience of addiction.
Interspersed amid the self-analysis in Will is an inventory of his prodigious drug-taking – including smoking dope, popping barbiturates and tranquillisers, snorting morphine, injecting smack and 'shooting up shit coke' – but the law of diminishing returns kicks in quickly ... Self’s memoir is vivid but oddly unengaging on a personal level, unlike Algren’s classic. Admittedly, I am doubtless one of the 'dumb-f—king-straights' who lack his appetite for real hard drugs. Or even, as it turns out, the desire for a vicarious high.