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Feeding Frenzy
Will Self
London: Penguin, 2001.
£7.99, 390 pages, ISBN 0-140-29055-9.

Cher Holt-Fortin
SUNY Oswego, Oswego, NY

Will Self says in the Introduction to Feeding Frenzy that the title does justice to the collection because “it not only carries an implication of my propensity for writing/feeding too much, but also gives a nod to my tenure as the Observer’s restaurant critic from 1995 to 1997” (v). It also refers to the media frenzy over his admitted drug use on John Major’s election jet. In addition the title refers to the behavior of sharks, a not inappropriate allusion both to the media’s devolution into the “’broadsheet tabloid story’” and to Self’s own sharp-toothed style. The essays in this collection fall roughly into reviews of food, architecture, art, political commentary, and private musings, or what we on this side of the Atlantic would call ‘creative non-fiction.’ One can imagine Self’s reaction to that label.

Cranky 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).

Self 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.

He 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.
His strengths as an observer and writer also come into play in his restaurant reviews. The past thirty years have seen an enormous change in the way we eat, both here and in Britain. Dining out is now at least as common as eating in, and during the boom years of the 1990s where one dined defined exactly who one was. Foodieism arose. And trends followed. Restaurants came and went. And the industry of reviewing was born. Oh there had been reviewers before. But suddenly food writing was as trendy as eating in the latest restaurant. Self’s reviews come at the topic in the most oblique ways. The Bridge End Restaurant review begins with five paragraphs of approaching the restaurant and a somewhat offensive reference to the woman with him as the ‘mule;” she was carrying some mint cake. Self gives the décor its due, as is required in good restaurant criticism. His usual pungent writing and odd humor apply here as in the other essays. The menu is “adjectival (hot, crispy, sun-dried, wild)” and the salad is described as a “jumble of salad leaves’. Now, there’s not a lot of salads you can say that about” (65). Reviewing the Ark in London, Self notes that “To enter this trendoid time capsule is to immerse yourself in a vanished civilization” (67). He means the 1970s. The food is less good than the décor. But with reviews that describe tomatoes as “the Liberal Democrats of the leguminous polity” because they refuse to be fruit or veg are read not for the actual recommendation of an eatery. We like them for saying witty things we wish we could say. We like the vicarious experience of eating in new or legendary places and we, educated, upwardly mobile readers, want to be able to use language as Self does, to cut to the heart of things, to show off, to tweak the Bourgeois nature of our very selves. Self pokes holes in our self-delusions and pretenses and makes us laugh while he does it.

The 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.


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