The Quantity Theory of Insanity, by Will Self

October 27, 2012 at 08:15 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Magic Realism, Mediocre Books) (, , )


Patience is always required when reading compendia of short stories, especially when the author makes little effort to include closure or symmetry in his writing. This collection by Will Self is meandering and self-indulgent, dreary and dripping with a little too much pathos to be taken entirely seriously. Readers will often suspect that Self is trying to be funny, and will grow rather tired of constantly waiting for a punchline that never comes. The forced limitation of a short story is that the author must decide either to condense a story arc into an immensely tight space, or else simply dispense with traditional things like story arcs and characters, and lean closer to a stream of consciousness style, or at the very least a brief and uncontextualised snapshot of a scene. Privately, readers could be forgiven for wondering if choosing the latter again and again might not be a form of laziness.

Her face had the clingfilm-stretched-over-cold-chicken look of an ageing woman who kept herself relentlessly in trim.”

-The Quantity Theory of Insanity

This early offering is less gratuitously grotesque than some of Self’s other works, which makes it at the very least readable. Some of the stories contained here are paltry things that might be offered up at amateur fiction readings: Mono Cellular certainly fits into this category, being a short and superficially “insane” exploration into the mind of some housebound imbecile, and displaying none of the subtlety or intelligence that a writer like Will Self owes his readers as a matter of course. Others are markedly improved, such as The North London Book of the Dead and Waiting, both of which are written with strong elements of magic realism, ably carried off and the closest he comes here to writing something that does not sound terminally bored.

Therein lies the fatal problem with this book as a whole, in fact: boredom and ugliness. Self spends altogether too much time unleashing his formidable vocabulary in order to viscerally describe things that are as hideous and unnatural and contorted as possible, and things that are so utterly meaningless and nihilistic and starkly tragic, that it becomes difficult for the reader to avoid feelings of discomfort, and the sensation that the author is sneering at them, caricaturing them, and painting them with the same smutty brush he uses on his world. Possibly worth riffling through, but unfortunately its brevity is one of the things that recommend it.


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