‘Still, I like Rollercoasters – Don’t You?’
As we wanted to mark his birthday with some ‘Self’-esteem, I’ve been reading Will Self’s ‘Walking To Hollywood’. The similarity to W.G. Sebald (whose work Self has written about), struck me immediately. As well as the black and white photographs that punctuate the text, Self’s memoir centres around walking.
Sebald’s written articulation of the process of walking creates a rhythmic lyrical prose lulling his readers with a comforting ‘pedestrian’ pace. In ‘Austerlitz’ , a book that still haunts me, this is used as a dramatic foil to our sudden exposure to harrowing memories that surface. Sebald ‘s walking brings a linear quality to the narrative, which unfolds like a route drawn on a map. Each steady footfall suggest process, and while his thoughts meander, there is always a sense of that eternal constant, the passage of time. In contrast, Self’s walking reads less like a moving meditation but rather a concerted effort to slow everything down and get grounded.
‘Walking to Hollywood’ reads like a drug-fuelled mash up of the ‘Fantastic Voyage’ and ‘Attack of the 50 Foot Woman’, tumbling from macro to micro and back again in a single breath, hemorrhaging literary and cultural references of scale at pace, and at random. Nothing is what it seems, and even the characters, including Will Self are played at times by other people. The tale of his schoolfriend, Sherman Oaks, whose increasingly grandiose works of monumental scale and ambition contrasting starkly with his physical stature, is I think, a searing evocation of our pre-occupation with the success of our peers, and our dread at its capacity to define us. Self’s memoir is no air-brushed story of rags to riches, but rather a critique of the ‘memoir’ itself, and the ego – the engine that fuels our obsession with success and our insatiable appetite for celebrity.
Regularly flicking through his OCDs and nervous tics like well-thumbed rosary beads, Self is at times pompous, at others, vulnerable and self-deprecating, but always razor sharp and blisteringly funny. Reviewers have compared his writing to Gonzo, and with good reason. In his distinctive, florid style, Self grapples with distortions of scale, time and the human psyche, at breakneck speed, leaving me feeling elated, queasy and disorientated in turn.
Walking provides a respite amidst the madness, and all the while, in a bid to escape the trappings of luggage, Self has opted instead to wear a cumbersome Barbour jacket, its pockets groaning with the essentials for his trip. This brought to mind the iconic image from Julian Cope’s album ‘Fried’ with Cope bearing a turtle shell on his back and little else. I can relate to the desire to pare down to the bare essentials, especially in a world which is so obsessed with excess and the senseless accumulation of stuff to the point of suffocation, but there’s something ironic about Self having to carry it all everywhere on his own back. Escaping our baggage is not as easy as it seems.
It also brings to mind a sinister book from childhood, ‘The Land of Far Beyond’ by Enid Blyton. Refusing to believe that they’re tarnished by sin, the book’s characters have their evil transformed into ugly physical burdens which are attached to their backs, that can only be removed by an arduous trek to the promised land in the hope of redemption. Blyton’s thinly disguised Christian scaremongering failed to work on my brother and I, although the story did inspire the invention of a moderately violent passtime, in which we’d chase each other round the garden carrying space-hopper burdens on our backs poised to thwack each other over the head as hard as we could with them, while shouting out ‘Here you are Jesus, here’s my burden’.
Whether Self’s walking is a pilgrimage exactly, I’m not sure. His walk to Hollywood to discover who murdered cinema is certainly a quest. While Self is burdened, I don’t think he walks to seeks redemption at the end, rather the walk is the redemption itself. When Self describes a conversation with a renowned experimental psychiatrist, Zack Busner, whom he sees from time to time,. Busner offers him this prognosis:
the best you can hope for is a rollercoaster of despair and euphoria. Still, I like rollercoasters – don’t you?
Self’s traversing the land is like a respite from his relentless rollercoaster, a sanctuary from the ferocity of digital media and celebrity culture. After all, what could be more constant than the earth beneath our feet? Oh, wait…….