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Making a parallel world

Rudyard Kipling wrote about colonial India, Joseph Conrad wrote about central Africa, and Isaac Asimov wrote about deep space. Will Self writes about Purley, Croydon, and other outposts of lower-to-middle-middle-class London. He imposes his skewed vision upon the ordinary, with a resulting surrealism all the more extraordinary for its origins.

Speaking on the phone from London ("inner suburbia"), Self says of his new neighborhood, "It's pretty grim, but it's my spiritual home," before going on to describe, as if it were the Piazza San Marco, the view from his roof terrace: "I can see the Westway slicing through like a river, leaving behind a great oxbow. In terms of Grey Area I'm at the navel of the world. The absolute beginning of the M40."

Raised in an "effortlessly dull" London borough ("If we wanted to be posh we called it Hampstead Garden, and if we wanted to be honest we said East Finchley"), Self describes a "peculiar obsession with suburbia" that informs his work: "I have a tricky duel lineage: my mother was a Jewish American, so I was raised by somebody who every day was reshocked by the fact of the privet-lined precincts. On the other hand she was quite an Anglophile. So I have an ambivalence and an acceptance of it." This mixture, says Self, has helped him make "something outrageous out of the dull."

Self says of his childhood, "I was forced back on my own resources, particularly my imagination. My parents were pretty much at loggerheads. They were in their 40s, which in the '60s was very old to have children; and they were intellectuals . . . intellectually snobbish. That's part of the weirdly fusty narrative voice in some of my work."

Like the inward child, Self creates "a parallel world for myself and my characters to roam around in." To achieve a warped authenticity, he uses cross-references: "I like to connect, to have a character from one story appear on TV in another, or refer to a non-existent journal that links stories." For instance, Dr. Zack Busner has appeared in The Quantity Theory of Insanity and Grey Area, and is the protagonist of Self's next novel (due out in the US in January 1997). "He's emblematic, a free-floating vehicle for my satire on psychology and the therapies that dance attendant on it." Self adds, laughing: "I'm not very good about characters; I certainly don't give them much motivation." But he's "become kind of fond" of Busner.

Despite his laughter, Self takes his parallel world seriously: "I wasn't altogether happy with Grey Area. I think it would have been a better book if I'd made all the stories link. The ones that were written for anthologies don't link with the corpus, which links with Quantity Theory." With his characteristic mix of ambivalence and acceptance, he adds: "But then that might have been too perfect. I don't like the idea of things being too tidy."

-- CW

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