and sharp-tongued, Self is not a writer for the faint of heart.
For those who enjoy a bit of grouchiness and a lot of intelligence
he is hard to resist. He describes Tony Blair as “the poetaster
of the glib” (1). In the same essay he goes on: “The
minute I hear your voice, or cop a view of your ridiculous quasi-seventies
haircut—which looks to the future, but is spray mounted by
the past—I feel a deep sense of enervation come over me”
(2). The tone, biting and funny, works here as it does in many other
essays in this collection. He is good at deflating pompousness or
cultural idiocy. One of the books he reviews is Design for Dying
by Timothy Leary. Self reads this book “as a perverse return
to the lonely, strict Catholic boyhood that really made him what
he was” (11). Self, though, manages to find a kind of compassion
for Leary whom he calls the “century’s Great Adolescent”
(12) when he concludes that “while Leary wanted us to believe
he was dying as he had lived, the truth was that he wouldn’t
have minded a crumb of good old-fashioned absolution when it came
to the crunch” (12).
takes on other American subjects when he reviews the TV show, Friends.
I should admit at the beginning, I too hate Friends: “I
like to think there is a special circle of the inferno reserved
for the creators of shows like Friends, in which they’re
obliged to go through the action of just one of the mindless skits
they’ve spawned, inhabiting the minds of the cardboard cut-outs
they’ve created, over and over again, while being incapable
of altering the action one jot” (205). Self put his finger
on one of the main problems with American sitcoms. They are ditzy,
childish, and not funny. Nothing worth laughing at happens in the
lives of these shallow perpetual adolescents. According to Self,
Friends is “an indulgence in an imagined past that
not only never has, but never could have, existed” (206).
The characters in Friends and other sitcoms about young
professionals don’t exist. Or only exist in some writer’s
fantasy life. What supports you people?, one wants to scream at
the TV. And worse, why should I care about your shallow lives? Their
troubles are the “gratification of small desires” (206),
and nothing that is the truth of life in a difficult city ever appears.
is also very good on British media. His essay on the book and film
Trainspotting. He comments: “When drug voyeurism
is allied to a nifty soundtrack and freaky imagery it become a form
of pornography” (215). There is nothing romantic about addiction
and depicting it in a way that viewers can respond to as ‘uplifting’
is pornography. Drug use is a seemingly intractable social problem.
Filmic versions of heroin highs, usually wrong according to Self,
constitute ‘drug pornography,’ a kind of fetishism indulged
in by non-drug users seeking vicarious experiences. Artists should
instead portray the “effect of a drug on an individual”
(216). And that depends on the artist’s genuine experience:
“the chronically disadvantaged being resolutely shat on”
(217). Self points out that filmmakers rarely fit into the chronically
disadvantaged category and profit highly from their depictions of
a life they don’t know. In essays like this Self’s fearlessness
as social critic works remarkably well.
best things in this book are the longer essays. The ones that describe
London or the dawning of the millennium in the Australian Outback
are especially well crafted, blending personal observation and larger
social commentary effectively as we expect these bits of creative
non-fiction to do. Self controls some of his verbal glitz and snippy
disdain, subordinating them into the writing, rather than making
his cleverness the focus of the essay as he does in other pieces.
As Self says on the blurb, this is a book to snack on or gorge until
you puke. The wide range of essay topics invites snacking. Book
reviews, art reviews, restaurant reviews. All snacks. The longer,
more thoughtful essays might be ‘brunch’. I wouldn’t
recommend gorging. You’d miss too many tasty tidbits.