Will Self is a writer totally committed, like his idol, J.G. Ballard, to contemporary Western culture. Not for him the elegant, self-enclosed humanistic world of novels where rounded characters play out a parlour game morality tale, with a clear resolution at the end.
Self, quite rightly, prefers his fiction to cut a little looser than that. For nearly 20 years he has been holding a satirical mirror to contemporary British life, and forcing his readers to look again at what their lives, their very selves, actually consist of. (Sadly, the people who really need to do this most don't tend to read this type of book, but what can you do).
Away from the Grey Area of London, the Butt takes place in a completely fictional country, part Australia, part Iraq, part neo-Conradian heart of darkness. It is billed by its publisher as an allegory of the post September 11 Liberal conscience - but this is not a satire as you might expect, contemning the imperialist foreign policy of the Bush/Blair axis. Well it is. But not quite. And it certainly is strange.
Self has said in interviews promoting this book that he feels in contemporary British cultural and political life, you are at liberty to say pretty much anything, and nothing gets listened to. To make an impact, you need to start from first principles. So he creates a protagonist, Tom Brodzinsky (clearly American, though never explicitly stated) who carelessly hurls his cigarette butt off the balcony where he is vacationing with his family. It lands on the head of Reggie Lincoln and scars him. Reggie takes this amiably enough, but the problem is he's married to a Tayswengo woman, and this indigenous people's don't believe in accidents. After a kangaroo court, a sort of show trial, Tom is dispatched across a bizarre, Mad Max esque apocalyptic wilderness accompanied by the odious Prentice (English, though never made explicit). Prentice, Tom suspects, is guilty of a much graver crime (child abuse), but the two men are yoked together as they venture out to make reparations to the afflicted tribe.
Given that many people find themselves in a quandry as to what to make of current events in the Middle East - are you uneasy, for instance, with the way America is determined to impose it's curious cost/benefit analysis democracy through the barrel of a gun, yet certainly don't want to be seen supporting the murderous Baathist regime? - I think Self does an original and intelligent job in trying to make sense of our mental terrain. Tom and Reggie clearly have no idea what they are doing - they struggle with hypocricies (condeming genital circumcision/ogling the breasts of the native tribeswomen), are completely at sea with the prevailing moral culture, and face violent counter-insurgents and bizzarre local rituals.
Tom is convinced the trip is about dispensing with Prentice - yet as events grow darker, he is plagued by ever more weird dreams, including one in which is is turned into a cigarette. Things are not what they seem - and Tom and Prentice wind up in a confrontation with the Levi-Straussesque anthropologist, Von Sasser, who explains to them the truth behind the belief system they have been imbroiled in.
There is so much post September 11 fiction around at the moment, but most of it is facile, and written by men and women who clearly have no idea what the zeitgeist has turned into. Self is too intelligent a left winger to fall into the trap that many of his coevals have blundered into: letting blinkered anti-American thinking ally themselves with the worst reactionary barbaric people in the world. But making sense of the moral climate in a satire is very very difficult to do in todays uneasy climate, swinging as it does between hypocritical moral relativism and scary neo-con warmongering. A very difficult novel to pull off, and Self just about does it.