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Published by Bloomsbury in 2008
Duration: 355 pages
Winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic writing 2008.
Going by the beige colour of the pages adjacent to the spine, this 'paperback' novel either has been handled far more than others in my repertoire, or perhaps it's been in environments that have disagreed with its page complexion. In other words it has prematurely aged. Nevertheless, I regard 'The Butt' written by Will Self as being the most comprehensive novel as far, via the smooth edgings of the narrative. Naturally, Self plays avidly with wordage, that'll make you mop your brow; go 'tutt tutt' with your tongue, and tinker unconsciously with flakes of ear wax. Indeed Self is a connoisseur at mind logistics - his alternative 'new world' analogies runs parallel to our own existence, this could take time to getting use to. Having read 'The Butt' before 'The Book of Dave' - whereby both novels content delivers 'new world' concepts; 'The Butt' required timely deliberation though, just to appreciate the author's irony, satire, and 'semi-conscious' peruses. There's also a volley of undertone jests against the State, post colonialism, political correctness, quangos, bureaucracy, and multiculturalism. 'The Butt' got my full attention - it warranted it.
Derived from the UK smoking ban - Self ignites the novel with a narrative poignant for its time, by using the cigarette butt as if it is the initial atom that caused the big bang. While on holiday, Tom Brodzinski, family man, flicks his 'last' cigarette butt over his balcony and via a nasty twist of gravitational fate, helped on by 'mother nature' the butt's parabola landed on an elderly resident's bald head, inflicting a negligible burn, the unfortunate recipient waves Tom's apologies away, claiming it is nothing - within one day the tide changes, the condition and situation worsens mainly when the authorities hear of the mishap - resulting in a journey of anguish, and despair psychologically. Tom sets out on a futile quest to clear his name, of an attempted murder charge, and while he dances to the authorities tune, the legal snowball gathers pace down the mountain of cultural miscomprehensions, farcical demands, eminent in every office block and governmental building across the western world. The young tribal women, wife of the elderly butt victim, Reginald Lincoln had an entirely different perspective; mainly due to the understanding that the word 'accidental' doesn't exist in her culture. And she isn't the only tribal member who lives via these beliefs. Tribes throughout this un-named land are richly corrupt and their ideologies locked deep inside the judicial system. For Tom to tread on the path to freedom from such absurdity; he has to convey sympathy to the victim beyond the point of call, plus he is to be entrapped within a foreign culture that's disdains of fairness, and ride the storm by vigorously standing by their ritual styled traditions and laws. Tom has an unconventional companion, named Prentice, and his crime? Well, Tom has a hunch.
Big legal cogs grind so slowly - you wonder if they're moving at all. So, days become weeks and weeks become months. Sadly, Tom's family interaction starts off positive and hopeful, albeit when they're forced to separate due to the longevity of Tom's predicament; relationships are strained - then they diminish, and then finally split - Blu-tack usage at Christmas time is no different; it holds up a tangled mess of tinsel to the ceiling; there is a plethora of initial support and as the room heats up the elasticity gets tested until finally the arrangement plummets onto a bald head. Self relates the break-up as a matter of fact announcement; echoing how a MP would robotically read out the names of the Iraq dead in the House of Commons. As does legal folk, which'd generically prefer every morsel soul to abide via an accepted process of order rather than actually trying to help the victims well being. Now there is an idea. Self deploys the facade with frightening precision. Tom's rickety car journey (to freedom he is led to believe) paints a rural picture of the Australian bush and Iraq - Check-points so many kilometers apart - secured by rogue tribesmen, and then empty dusty road ahead, mundane, oppression, blood and filth. For some readers they'll switch-off - however, if you could bare the morose state or lack of activity Self imposed onto his readers, you'll eventually get the gist of what Self is portraying.
After their banal, yet turbulent trip - they were greeted by the same Consul who they left days ago - who'd flown to the location. Cue Self, at his written conversational best: he's in his element. He overdoses on elongated descriptive word and the novel style changes. Behind the dynamism - he ridicules political correctness, authoritarianism with an irony so rare, it was quite unnerving. He cleverly turns on the witticism for a smidgeon - and his satirical droll tone regarding the cigarette ban is absolutely 'smoking'.
A few quips to wet your appetite:
NO IFS, NO BUTTS, STUB IT OUT! - written on oblique bars annulling a stylized cigarette. NO SMOKING - signs inside ashtrays.
'Lurid, discomforting, Kafkaesque: 'The Butt' is vintage Self and handsome proof, should anyone need it, that literary fiction can hold its own against rolling news, pixellated experience and the reality -entertainment industry' - GQ Magazine.
Recommended, if you're a bloke on holiday, who smokes.
There's definitely some satire in Will Self's latest novel, The Butt. A tourist carelessly flicks away his final cigarette, and then finds himself charged with attempted murder after it hits his neighbour's head. The satire's target, however, is less clear. Is Self (a man pilloried for taking cocaine on a politican's plane, remember) simply having a dig at the absurdity of the smoking bans that are sweeping across the Western world? Or is this a more sophisticated examination of compensation culture? Moral relativity between different cultures? Post-colonialism? Or, as seems likely, all of the above?
The book is set in a distant land which can't quite make up its mind whether it's supposed to be Australia or the Middle East. It's never actually named, but clearly Allegorica would have been a perfectly apt name. Broadly Antipodean slang, geography and vicious wildlife are offset by guerilla warfare and a bewildering criminal justice system. Even other countries are referred to obliquely - the tourist's American origins are made obvious through his behaviour and dialogue rather than any details of his home town. Prentice is only identified as British through his obsession with cricket.
The novel is told entirely from the point of view of Tom Brodzinski, the man who injures his neighbour and who is eventually forced to travel into the wilderness to make reparations to the man's tribe. The third person narration, however, means we're never entirely in his head. With a story that concerns itself heavily with perception (both of characters and of the country itself), this throws everything into question. Although the reader can't help but sympathise with Tom's plight, various comments from other characters lead you to question his reliability - and the reliability of most of the other characters.
The story gradually turns into a 21st Century Heart of Darkness as Tom takes a trip to the wilderness 'over there' with an unpleasant companion. As events become ever more heightened, with violent ambushes and a couple with some unusual tastes in clothing and sexual practices, it's hard to say whether the association with Apocalypse Now is intentional, but it was inescapable for me.
Brilliantly written, The Butt makes for compulsive reading, even at its most opaque. Every character is well-drawn and memorable, from Tom to the man he injures. Best of all, every character hides - or seems to hide - a secret of some kind. Despite the lack of any whodunnit element in the book, the urge to discover just why everyone was behaving so strangely kept me reading eagerly even through court scenes, which usually switch me into skimming mode very quickly...
I enjoyed every page of this book, and in fact reread it before writing this review. The only small gripe I had about the novel - without giving anything away, the last chapter or so sees a bewildering lurch in tone - was assuaged the second time round. Every scrap of dialogue is significant, and there are only really a couple of loose ends (the tribesman spotted by Tom's wife after she returns home without him remains a bit odd), and the heavy-handedness naming of the 'Intwennyforte mob' - a name so odd that it's clearly an attempt to be clever. Even Tom's horribly graphic dreams make more sense once you have the context provided by the conclusion.
The exception to all this clarity is the mysticism that weaves itself through much of the later parts of the novel, when the two men are on their restitutional road trip.
Although Self uses a great deal of complicated language in the text, the writing flows nicely and it's as easy as a read as anything you're likely to pick up in an airport. Sometimes witty, sometimes macabre, it was certainly the best new novel I read in 2008. It definitely rewards multiple readings, and as you can pick it up for less than a fiver on Amazon, I feel this does make it a bit of a no-brainer.
This is an amended version of my review that first appeared on www.thebookbag.co.uk