Liver‘s subtitle is “A fictional organ with an anatomy of four lobes” – because it’s a collection of four short stories all set in the same fictional universe. Between the gory physicality of that summary and its literary precision, Will Self gives a perfect biopsy of his style. Funny, bleak, grotesque, dispassionate: Self’s liver is a bilious organ.
I started reading Self when he was doing the cult books segment for Mark Radcliffe’s graveyard shift show on Radio 1: every few weeks, he’d show up and laud a work of fiction, and a bit later I’d borrow it from the library and add it to my store of teenage pretension. I read Lolita, Perfume and Kafka on Self’s recommendation. I also read Self’s Quantity Theory, Grey Area and Cock And Bull, really enjoying the mixture of dismal sex and absurdist satire. But then Tough Tough Toys… was a bit disappointing, and the columns in the Indy felt laboured and drab, and I let Self drift out of the circle of things in which I was interested. Look, I was 18, barely out of Point Horror and working my way through the best books ever written. It’s almost completely not my fault that I totally underrated Self.
I even managed to miss this happening. But I’ve started to catch up now, and Liver is a decent place to start. All of the extended short stories take place in the same fictional universe, with characters moving between as connecting tissue, although each narrative is essentially self-enclosed. And, more jarringly, each one twists distinctively out of realist-satirical mode and into another genre of its own: Greek mythology, supernatural interventions, sci-fi. The lobes of the book are separate but related, forming a whole from which any part could be lost without changing the function of the book (apart, obviously, from the function of being like a liver).
And it’s also about livers, and the abuses the organs are put to by human appetites. Scabrous about consumption and acute about addiction and desire, there’s a striking lack of compassion despite all the close observation. Sometimes – especially with the characters who stick around across more than one section – this feels almost too hard to take. It’s not the dreadful things Self does to his characters that you mind: it’s that he can’t say anything nice about them while he’s acting as their tormentor.
But the mysanthropy’s the only thing you can see coming. I’ve never read a fiction narrated by a chorus of microbes before. Nor have you (I imagine), and Self throws out these unexpected inventions with the ease of someone who can make this shit up with some to spare. And he can write, too: not just slinging together a few well-constructed sentences, but rolling out perfected phrases by the pageful. His language is excessive and his vocabulary ripe, but it’s controlled excess – the abundant swears have a well-timed precision, and the moments where he throws in one deliberate cliché too many are rare enough to be tolerable.