Bloomsbury, September 2008
I thought sure that when I reached the end of Will Self's latest novel, The Butt
, I would have found myself a new favorite author. Psychogeography
, Self's recent collection of essays of place drew me to Self's work, and I had read great things about his previous novel, The Book of Dave
. Furthermore, the premise of The Butt
captivated me instantly.
Tom Brodzinski is vacationing with his family in a sun-baked, tropical country which, with its warring aborigine tribes, smacks of something of a cross between Australia and Iraq. Tom, who seems to be an American, though his country of origin is never stated, is enjoying a cigarette on his hotel terrace. He carelessly flicks the novel's eponymous butt into the air, at the same time vowing that it will be his last. The incendiary object flips end over end before landing on the scalp of the elderly man occupying the terrace below. The wound seems at first minor and the incident would likely end there were it not for the fact that the unfortunate victim is married to a native tribeswoman whose customs require Tom to make complex reparations to her tribe.
The Butt, like Will Self's previous works of fiction, is a social satire. Self's initial premise, Tom's seemingly trivial accident, becomes an overarching metaphor for the careless and meddlesome Western policies in the third world. The absurdity of the situation in which the protagonist finds himself becomes increasingly Kafkaesque throughout the novel. A ridiculous web of diplomacy and native ritual unfolds that eventually has Tom traveling into the dangerous tribal interior with Brian Prentice, another Western felon who Tom suspects of being a child molester.
This is where Self loses me. The journey across thousands of miles (and hundreds of pages) of barren and war-torn landscape is nearly as tiresome for the reader as it is for Brodzinski. In fact, when the accused arrive at their destination to find their lawyer and the Honorary Consul having already arrived via air, I wondered, as did the protagonist, couldn't we have flown too?
Self's allegory, while punctuated with great metaphorical insights, is ultimately too thin to stretch across the terrain covered in The Butt. In fact, Will Self's entertaining wit and linguistic mastery were the only reasons I finished the novel and the reasons that I will likely give Self the benefit of the doubt the next go-around.