A strange thing happened last October after the ceremony to announce the winner of Britain’s most coveted fiction prize, the Man Booker. A stock photograph of the nominees, posed in front of the sponsor’s logo, holding their books and wearing the forced smile of solitary authors obliged to sparkle like movie stars at a premiere, went viral on the Internet. Five of the authors, including the eventual winner Hilary Mantel, are dutifully standing in a line, with the covers of their novels delicately poised in front of their chests, just as the publishers’ publicists have, no doubt, instructed. Looming behind them, however, is the immensely tall Will Self. Not content to tower physically above his rivals, he is holding his novel, Umbrella, at the end of his fully extended right arm, so that it hovers way above their heads. In contrast to the strained cheeriness of the other novelists, Self’s long face wears the sepulchral expression of a dead-eyed zombie.
Self’s comic pose is at once a cheeky parody of outrageous self-promotion and a sweetly defensive gesture. He places himself both above and outside the competition, preempting the forthcoming disappointment of Umbrella’s failure to win a prize that many critics thought it deserved. As well as being very funny, this little tableau also captures Self’s uneasy place in contemporary English literature. As his wife Deborah Orr wrote in The Guardian, “Umbrella winning the Booker would have been weird, a category error, like a goat winning Best Sheep.”
Self has indeed been a goat among the sheep of contemporary English fiction, a puckish trickster self-consciously at odds with its middle-class politeness. His disdain for many of his contemporaries is summed up in his declared admiration for J.G. Ballard’s decision to “reject…the English image of the writer as a superior craftsman who wears a tweed jacket with leather arm patches and who stands up after a day’s work and says ‘There’s another good coffee table I have sanded down today.’” Like the Anglo-Chinese Ballard and the part-Irish Anthony Burgess, whose work is another obvious influence, Self is English in a complicated way—while his father was an English professor of political science, his mother was a Jewish New Yorker, and his wit owes more to Woody Allen than to P.G. Wodehouse. His fame as a shibboleth-shaking journalist and dyspeptic TV commentator has gone hand-in-hand with a position as a literary outsider.
This status owes as much to his own efforts as to any conspiracy to exclude him from the ranks of respectable novelists. In coping with a long, now happily concluded history of substance abuse (he has written about “my own past on-off membership in twelve-step programmes such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, and my residence at a Minnesota Method treatment centre for four months in the mid-eighties”), he invented “Will Self” as a public persona, somewhere between Jonathan Swift, Oscar …