‘Non-fiction that will please surrealist fiction fans’ – Walking To Hollywood by Will Self

Will Self’s latest offering is a triptych of long stories blurring the lines between fiction, memoir, travel writing and stream-of-consciousness ranting. Each section of Walking To Hollywood details a particular mental pathology that the author claims to be suffering from – obsessive-compulsive disorder, psychosis and Alzheimer’s are dramatized in turn as the Self character walks, jumps and limps across the US and the UK.  The first section, Very Little, outlines the writer’s friendship and, later, obsession with a dwarf artist called Sherman Oakes, who’s clearly modelled on Anthony Gormley (in artistic style, if not in physical attributes), erecting huge metal body casts of himself all over the world.  Self, suffering from OCD, gets obsessed with both the very little and the very large, to the point where he can no longer even see medium-sized objects and suffers a mental breakdown.  In the second part, the titular Walking To Hollywood, Self is undergoing therapy and becomes convinced that the movies are dead, so he decides to walk (and fly) to Hollywood itself to investigate the murder.  His psychosis develops when he ‘realizes’ that everybody he meets is being played by a famous actor – he himself is portrayed by the double-act of David Thewlis and Pete Postlethwaite, while his psychiatrist is replaced by Orson Welles.  The final section, Spurn Head, brings him back to the UK, where, with his previous two ailments now more or less under control, he begins to forget things and is convinced he’s coming down with early onset Alzheimer’s.  He sets off to walk the Yorkshire coastline, to see where the cliffs have crumbled into the sea, just as his own memories are vanishing from his mind.  His memories of Sherman, Orson and his previous trips have been eroded, and by the end he’s shepherded towards a handy Alzheimer’s clinic by a couple of long-suffering locals who find him wandering along the treacherous cliff-tops.

That’s a roughly accurate outline, okay, but it also makes it sound like each section of the book has a clear narrative line, that they read like individuated, self-contained stories – when in fact, Self’s writing is, as it so often is, manic, hugely verbose and convoluted, and crammed with literary, filmic, political, historical and medical references and in-jokes.  You’d need not only a dictionary and thesaurus, but a Who’s Who and a good few film magazine subscriptions to keep up to date with the asides and the jokes.  It’s rambling and furiously paced, and yet not much happens; the Self character rambles and hurtles from one anecdote to the next, and every situation (each more bizarre and grotesque than the last) is relayed in great detail as he dissects contemporary culture and verbally lacerates his peers (Brett Easton Ellis gets an excellent cameo).  Most of the supporting cast is a flickering, unsteady array of freaks, imposters and nutcases as Self’s mind becomes more unstable and his delusions take hold.  He imagines he’s a participant in a computer game, that he’s got superpowers, that he’s being followed around by a film-crew and HAL, the computer from 2001.  It’s pretty exhausting.  You’ve got to follow him into the heart of his increasingly disturbed mind and back out again, trying (and, in my case, mostly failing) to keep up.

I’ve got a love-hate relationship with Mr Self.  I think he can be hilarious and hugely entertaining; he’s a very astute cultural commentator, insanely well-read and well-informed, and his more straightforward fiction appeals greatly to me. The Book of Dave, I especially loved.  But Walking to Hollywood is cut from the same cloth as his more frantic, prolix, packed-to-the-brim work; it struck me as My Idea of Fun crossed with Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo journalism and mixed up with W.G. Sebald’s peripatetic wanderings along the British coastline.  Self’s own journalism has recounted his fondness for walking and exploring; this is travel-writing on acid, memoir that takes very seriously David Shield’s exhortation to mix memoir and invention.  It’s definitely genre-bending – and the fact that I found it something of a struggle doesn’t mean that it won’t appeal to a large audience.  What I missed was a storyline; what I did like was the humour, Self’s eye for the absurd and his linguistic ability (though it did make me feel like I ought to crack open that dictionary more often).  It’s non-fiction that will please surrealist fiction fans who like a bit of mania amongst their madness – and it’s fictional enough to please those who don’t want to read a Will Self autobiography.

Any cop? I didn’t enjoy it, but I think this is a matter of personal taste – it was too frenetic and crammed for me.  But if you like Self’s My Idea of Fun, The Quantity Theory of Insanity or How The Dead Live, you’ll probably like this – or if you’re a fan of Hunter S. Thompson or have ever wondered what a Sebald on speed might have produced, then you’d probably appreciate this popping through your letterbox.

Valerie O’Riordan

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