Honestly, who would want to be a junkie? The sweaty standing outside a Clapham council flat, pleading with your dealer through the letter box so you can make it into work. The pain of feeling like a skeleton “assembled from mismatched bones: balls rammed into sockets”; the “liquifying bowels”. The entombing misery of lying in a Kashmir hostel alternatively “shivering and gouching out” on “evilly cheap” heroin….
Well, Will Self wanted to be one, wanted it so much he sought out smack with puppyish enthusiasm at the age of 17, the summer Thatcher came to power, having already experimented with shooting up amphetamine sulphate in his bedroom, the ghost of De Quincey whispering in his ear. By the time he was at Oxford, studying philosophy, he had cultivated a fearsome Class A habit in the gilded company of his adored, imperious best friend Edward St Aubyn, here renamed Caius; he would eventually graduate with a Third after covering half his exam papers in cartoons of Jean-Paul Sartre. His grimly determined accelerating intake in the years that followed would surely see off most elephants: there are nights spent injecting cocaine 30 times in a row and smack binges that lasted for days. Many years later he would famously be sacked from the Observer for smoking heroin on John Major’s plane.
Self’s memoir of his semi-erotic fascination with the netherworld of hard drugs is told in the third person, forsaking the primal I for the wantonly self-annihilating character of Will. Far from distancing Self from his youthful self, this allows him instead a fair degree of clarity and room, to probe some of the whys behind the will.
Variously these include the class-striated tedium of a suburban upbringing and the shame he felt at his father’s intellectual pretensions; his parents’ disintegrating marriage, the failure of which was announced to him on his ninth birthday, and the needling homilies of his mother that he can never silence; and, most of all, an all-consuming desire for an obliterating “velvety underground”.
Yet — and in strong contrast to Caius, whose childhood abuse Will somehow actually envies, for differing so extremely from the “white void” of his own childhood — in the end all whys recede for Will within the tidal wave of because. Essentially Self simply “craves dope as life itself”.
Like many drug memoirs, Will provides a not entirely pleasant, quasi-immersive experience: to ingest its headachy prose and sickly imagery as Will overdoses in Mile End and slumps in hallucinatory immobility in a New Delhi toilet is to feel your blood turning a sour sort of yellow. Self’s writing has the same technicolour velocity, malign comedy and arbitrary use of italicisation and ellipsis as his best novels, but it also imitates the fuzzy contractions in time and the odd discontinuity leaps of an addict’s brain in ways that gradually offer diminishing returns. It is also sometimes numbingly boring. Tales of antic junkie mates, of shooting up methedrine on Welsh mountains and of the beaching agony of withdrawal: after a while the highs and lows blur into one another, the “narrowing gyre” and looping, Sisyphean state of addiction captured rather too effectively. It ends with Will reluctantly (and, as we know, futilely) in rehab at the age of 24; presumably a second memoir will follow. I’m not sure I can take it.
Will by Will Self (Viking, £14.99), buy it here.