Some books are more toxic than others, and Will Self's Liver, his latest collection of novellas, is unquestionably one of them. It might even come with a health warning for all the cirrhotic, the faint-hearted, and the politically correct. At the heart of British literature's enfant terrible most recent output is an anatomic concern: the eponymous liver, namely the vital organ whose function is to regenerate the blood system through a process of cleaning and purification. Yet it is quite obvious that the four novellas comprised in the volume have more to do with degeneration than regeneration.
The inaugural tale, Foie Humain, unfolding within the cluttered walls of the infamous Plantation Club, a chaotic, run-down yet ultimate gentleman's club in the bowels of Soho, peopled by arty, boozed-up, surrealistic patrons, sets the tone for the whole volume while simultaneously operating as its diegetic centre. In order not to spoil the reader's delight in discovering this most bizarre tale of alcoholism, cockney slang and extra-terrestrial gastronomy, it will suffice to say that this story will give him a strong whiff of Wildean decadence (a pose which Self had already adopted in Dorian. An Imitation (2003) but here successfully pushed to new grotesque heights)sprinkled with Beckettian pessimism with a touch of Body Snatchers acting as its élément perturbateur. This makes the following story, Leberknödel, the longest of the collection, rather subdued in comparison, as we follow the peregrinations of Birmingham's Joyce Beddoes - in many ways an alter ego of How the Dead Live's protagonist Lily Bloom - through Zürich and after she renounced assisted suicide in a specialized clinic. As Joyce relinquishes her liver cancer for a hearty portion of liver dumplings, one feels that Self's biting prose is simply at its most mordant. Following this Swiss outing, the last two tales, Prometheus and Birdy Num Num are remarkable instances of Self's grotesque realism, his own version of the perhaps more genteel magic realism which thrives in British contemporary fiction. Prometheusmay have been an obvious candidate for an intertextual liver transplant, yet one feels compelled to take off one's hat to the literary surgeon who performed the operation, successfully turning the Greek semi-God into an adman embroiled in a financial and sentimental affair, with Zeus acting as an almighty tycoon and his sulphurous daughter Athena as a dangerous temptress. The best pages of the whole collection are very possibly found in the vultures' repeated feeding operations on Prometheus, hovering between gruesome grotesqueries and metaphorical allusions to heroin addiction. The reference to drug usage, with which Self's name has long - and perhaps excessively - been associated, is also present in Birdy Num Num, the delirious grand finale of the volume. Told by an hepatitis C virus acting as omniscient narrator - and thus recalling the woodworm's tale in Julian Barnes' History of the World in 10 ? Chapters (1989) - this tale is a feat in junkie slapstick and vaudeville. It also gleefully connects with Peter Sellers' antics in Blake Edwards' The Party (1968), thereby achieving a remarkable intermedial effect and sustained humour despite the sordid nature of the story's plot and characters.
The liver supposedly detoxifies blood, which makes it vital. Self, however, seems inclined to demonstrate in his not always palatable latest collection, that intoxication truly is but the best of life, to echo the Byronian motto. What remains vital, however, is the ceaseless circulation of texts within the literary system. A highly refreshing read, best enjoyed with an alcoholic drink at hand.