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BOOKS
Self portrait
BY CHRIS WRIGHT

Those familiar with the work of author Will Self know heís not one generally given to understatement ó he did, after all, once write a book called A Rock of Crack As Big As the Ritz. So it comes as a surprise when, speaking from his home in London, the author responds to a comment about his being prolific with a demure, " I suppose I am, a bit. "

Self is one of those writers who afflict the rest of us in the game with what might be termed output envy. And his writing is as ambitious as it is abundant. His novel How the Dead Live (Grove Press, 2000) combined themes of anti-Semitism, urban dissolution, and Tibetan theology. His latest ó Dorian: An Imitation (Grove, 2002) ó reworks Oscar Wildeís The Picture of Dorian Gray, setting the story amid the sexual and narcotic excesses of the 1980s and using it to explore the ravages of AIDS, postmodern art, and even the iconography surrounding Princess Diana ó all the while displaying his talent for pyrotechnic prose and dark wit.

As well as publishing fiction at a very tidy rate, Self has somehow found the time to try his hand at being a food reviewer, a cultural critic, a cartoonist, a columnist, a profile writer, a political commentator, a TV and radio personality, and an occasional dabbler in the avant-garde arts. How does he do it?

" Well, Iím slowing up, " he says. " I am doing other things, but not with the fervor I was in the past. Iím 41 in September. Iíve got four children. I have to decide whether I ever want to see them. " He adds that, having just finished up a documentary on the arms trade, heís preparing to interview the lead singer of Radiohead, as well as doing his weekly column for Londonís Evening Standard and appearing regularly on a TV game show. Oh, and working on both a new novel and a book of short stories.

Of course, prolificacy doesnít always add up to popularity ó especially when you deal in the kind of grim subject matter that Self favors. " I understand that some people really loved the book, and some people really hated it, " he says, referring to Dorian. Unfortunately, one of the people who really hated the book was Michiko Kakutani, the New York Timesí heavy-hitter critic, who called it " a clumsy, unwitty rip-off. "

" I couldnít give a fuck what Michiko Kakutani thinks, " Self says, sounding more like himself. " Iím not taking some kind of master class; sheís not going to teach me how to write a good book. Iím not writing books to achieve consensus. I want to get at some profound truths. I want to say things that are unpalatable. So Iíd be disappointed if there werenít some really shitty reviews. I hope the book does upset people. It would be awful if it didnít. "

Self has certainly never had any trouble upsetting people. He recalls being accosted recently by a woman who said she didnít believe that the types of characters portrayed in Dorian exist. " I said, ĎOh, just how many upper-class homosexual drug addicts did you hang out with?í This is the milieu I lived in. I hybridized Wildeís characters with people I knew. So even though Iím a ludicrously comfortable bourgeois who takes nothing more intoxicating than a cup of tea, I spent a lot of my life in this world, and itís still at my fingertips. "

Once Englandís most famous junkie, Self has spent the last few years cleaning up. But, as Dorian illustrates, his work is as deliciously nasty as ever. Then again, Self isnít completely clean. " I fell off the tobacco wagon, " he says. " In December, my wife said to me, ĎYou can die of sanctimoniousness as easily as you can of cancer.í So I had a cigarette. I donít want to die of sanctimony. "

Issue Date: February 20 - 27, 2003
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