Butt,The Hardcover – Sep 9 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. From Self, the British master of the satirical fantasy, comes a loquacious and inventive farce about the demise of civilization. Tom Brodzinski, relaxing on vacation in the postcolonial Feltham Islands, sets off a string of unfortunate events when he flicks a cigarette butt off his hotel balcony. It lands on the scalp of tourist Reginald Lincoln III. Reggie's happy to laugh it off, but things slide from bad to worse when Reggie is hospitalized and Tom is charged with assault with a projectile weapon with a toxic payload. After a chaotic trial, Tom is ordered to pay a restitution of two good hunting riffles, a set coking pots and $10,000. The catch is that the restitution needs to take place in the tribal heartland. This launches Tom and Brian Prentice, another foreign transgressor (Tom suspects pedophilia), on an expedition of Conradian proportions during which Tom is tormented by Brian's rotten, cloacal physicality. Self (The Book of Dave; How the Dead Live; etc.) confirms his reputation for pulling off cleverly modeled literary experiments. This one is at times exhausting, but if you can stick with him, Self successfully presents an ironic and timely metaphor for our post-9/11 Bigger Brother world. (Sept.)
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Top Customer Reviews
I'm a real fan of Will Self but this book is downright uncharacteristic of what I expect from Self in terms of imaginative writing. Similar is the way Homes' The End of Alice (a brilliant read) then became a dull plodding regular, average work in This Book Will Save Your Life. It's as though something happens, the effort spent in writing the really good book is lost and the next one is a writer's holiday or something.
In a way his style here is closest to what he used for Tough Tough Toys. The main character tosses his butt, it burns onto the head of a man below, and our protagonist, if we want to call him that because our identification with him is shallow, is dragged through a tale he has little control over. Things get worse, of course, as though he were the Vicar of Wakefield and the sole purpose of plot is to make things worse. Yeah, it's outdated except in Hollywood. So he gets stuck on a vacation island due to little known laws send fingers across lands, so if he were to merely leave the island people have a right to destroy his belongings up to the two million dollar bond. It sounds a bit like Mark Leyner's "New Jersey State Discretionary Execution Program." I found myself wondering if Self is making fun of peoples of color generally, or whether he understands the implications of his words as he discusses those who inhabit the island since there are a few very stereotypical cliches at use -- he could follow them up to make a point about capitalist society and visible minorities or first versus third world peoples but he doesn't.
Most shocking is the way the book offers so little.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
I am sure Self does not write for the "conventional reader" like me. I would have given the book 4 stars for inventiveness, if only Self had given me the relief of an upbeat ending, or even an ending where he solves some of the main puzzles he drops through the book, particularly those regarding Tom and his family. But he denies me even that, and it is clearly by design. Yet despite all this or perhaps in light of, I look forward to reading something a bit more accessible by Self in recognition of his extraordinary literary talent