Monday, 15 October 2012

Is Will Self having a laugh?

Here he is in the Guardian, talking about his novel, Umbrella, which has been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize:

‘For a writer who increasingly mistrusts the metaphoric – nothing, in the final analysis as much as the first impression, is like anything other than itself – when it comes to the subject of my own books, and my attitude to them, I find myself mired in similitude.’

Everything in this sentence is slightly out of focus – other than the sense of self-importance. For one thing, the end isn’t quite connected to the beginning. Maybe if you clear all the other stuff out of the way, the beginning and the end would just about hang together:

‘For a writer who mistrusts the metaphoric… I find myself mired in similitude.’

Even so, there’s something odd about that construction. Wouldn’t an ‘although’ or a ‘but’ do the job better?

Although I’m inclined to mistrust the metaphoric, I find I can’t avoid using metaphors to talk about my own writing process.

I mistrust metaphors, but when it comes to writing about my own books I seem unable to escape them. So here goes…

Part of the problem is that the opening has a third-person feel to it. It’s not the way people usually talk about themselves. But you have to wade through all the parenthetic stuff before you get to the ‘I’, which is the first thing that definitely tells you this is Self talking about Self and not some other writer talking about Self, or Self talking about some other writer. Even the first ‘my’ doesn’t clinch it, though the second ‘my’ sort of does, so the knowledge that this is a first-person statement seems to creep up on you in a creepy kind of way. A third person ending would actually follow more naturally:  

For a writer who increasingly mistrusts the metaphoric, when it comes to the subject of my own books, Smith is strangely free with metaphors, chucking them about like empty bottles at a Bullingdon Club dinner.  

That would be Self talking about some other writer. And this would be some other writer talking about Self:

For a writer who claims to mistrust the metaphoric, Will Self is strangely attracted to phrases like ‘mired in similitude’.

That muddy image, by the way, is not the metaphor he’s apologising for. He hasn’t started talking about his book yet – the subject on which he finds himself getting bogged down in metaphor. He’s still talking about the process of talking about his book. This is what happens when he really gets into it:

‘So Umbrella, like all my other novels, seems to have come about through the conjoining of one idea or preoccupation with another, until, having reached a critical mass this fissionable material exploded and so produced the blast pattern that is the text itself.’

That’s the metaphor he’s apologising for. No apology necessary, I’d say, though the claim that his writing has the force of a nuclear explosion might come better from somebody else.

Which takes me back to the argument against metaphor that’s slipped in between dashes. Is it really true that ‘nothing… is like anything other than itself’? Isn’t a carrot more like a parsnip than either is like a suitcase? And anyway, since when was metaphor about putting things together that are like each other? When did it involve looking at a carrot and seeing a parsnip? I’m not being pedantic here about the difference between metaphors and similes. I’m talking about the imaginative process that transforms my luve into a red, red rose, or life into a mortal coil to be shuffled off, or ideas into fissionable material.

Here’s Jeet Thayil, whose novel Narcopolis is also shortlisted, giving a less clamorous and more convincing account of the way elements come together to form a whole that is more than the sum of its parts:

'I recalled moments I did not know I had stored away, snatches of old Hindi film music, bits of conversation, a slant of dusty light in the late afternoon, a room in which life occurred at floor level, a face lit by an oil lamp…. I understood that the book had decided its own shape and it would be foolish to resist….'

For the complete set of articles by the six shortlisted authors see:

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