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Grey Area.

Will Self. Atlantic Monthly press, 1996. 287 pp. $21.00

It's difficult to hear about Will Self, the author of The Quantity Theory of Insanity, and not hear the word satire. His publisher and agent, his people, have decided that it's by his scabrous wit and satiric premises that his books will be sold. This is fine, of course, and absolutely necessary. But the selling of an author of satires as an author of satires creates a fundamental problem: satires lean heavily on surprise and indirection. They need readers who don't know the text is a satire. Satires visit a reader in disguise, in the costume of a counsel's notes to a young prince, instructions written by an engineer, or a self-help article. A proposal by a well-intentioned and logical gentleman who advocates the consumption of children should appear as a proposal by a well-intentioned and logical gentleman. It should not appear first as a satire. On the title page of the 1735 edition of Gulliver's Travels you will find neither Jonathan Swift's name nor the word satire. The page offers up the first layer of a straight-faced parody of a travel account. The reader of such a book begins innocent of its aims, much as the satiric naif is innocent to the human venality and excesses of his landscape, dutifully reporting to the reader as if satire actually is only travel "into several remote nations of the world."

The moment the reader knows to expect a satire, the text's game is up, the bomb is defused, and every reader may be safely numbered among the converted. The complacent answer to this problem is to settle for the adjective satiric (e.g., Saturday Night Live). A satiric work is primarily a work of attitude. Stuck in its teens and acned, satiric works only require a sustained tone and none of satire's rigorous argument by implication and irony.

In a few stories Self chooses the complacent solution. "Between the Conceits" is narrated by a man who says he is one of eight people in London who control everything. His narrative contains all the familiar rationalizations in defense of elitism. "A Short History of the English Novel" posits that all the waiters in London are frustrated novelists, a joke that the narrator acknowledges makes its way from Los Angeles, where the waiters are actors. These stories are like Saturday Night Live skits with a Master's Degree.

Self succeeds when he uses his stories as a body of stories. His stories concerning psychiatry are good because they rely on a tissue of interconnected references. The character Zack Busner appears in "Quantity Theory of Insanity" and "Ward 9" in the first book and "Inclusion[R]" and "Chest" in this collection. Characters refer to a Journal of British Ephemera in which Busner's research has appeared. In these four stories Busner tries and fails at everything a psychiatrist can try and fail at, from TV psychiatry to drugs. It's unclear whether Busner survives the mess in "Inclusion[R]," but in Self's most confident gesture at this interconnectedness, he includes as the epigraph of his collection Busner's own epitaph, which does answer the reader's doubts, only over two hundred pages earlier.

Perhaps publishers can't or won't publish satire as it needs to be. Perhaps Self will never know the sly anonymity that Swift did, if only briefly. As recently as 1967, it's worth noting that Dial Press did publish The Report from Iron Mountain as the report of a real government agency. However, when The Free Press reprinted it last year a faux warning stamp appeared on the dustjacket: "SUPPRESSED: This satire is subject to the highest security clearance." Self's themes--business, technology and science, and their effects on people are urgent ones, but he needs to find a way out of the satirist's corner. Grey Area is a start. [Paul Maliszewski]
COPYRIGHT 1996 Review of Contemporary Fiction
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Author:Maliszewski, Paul
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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