The first novel from Self (the novella, Cock and Bull, 1993), a British writer of considerable ingenuity and perversity. A dinner-party question (``What's your idea of fun?'') and Ian Wharton's shocking mental response occasion the memoir of a deranged (or perhaps superhuman) man in the moments before he aborts his wife's baby. Wharton grows up in the Sussex town of Saltdean with an overprotective, social-climbing mother and the specter of an absent, bad-penny father. He discovers that he has an eidetic memory: His brain involuntarily freezes images for permanent retention, and he can ``enter'' the frozen images—a bit like a virtual-reality experience. A stout, imposing older man named Broadhurst, who likes to be called The Fat Controller and is also eidetic, adopts Ian as a pupil and eventually becomes an oppressive Svengali. Strange, psychedelic set pieces accumulate, culminating in Ian's recognition that The Fat Controller is godlike. After some icily perverse, mind-bending episodes (readers will remember an eidetic scene during sex involving Ian's first love and the boorish interruption of The Fat Controller), the novel abandons the tension of its effectively freaky narrative and becomes a fancy-pants writing exercise in sick fantasia. The grotesque sequences are cool, but strangely imitative of William S. Burroughs's iconography: junkies, cartoon sex and violence, evil doctors, capacious realms of the subconscious. In the second half, Ian gets an education and goes to work for a successful marketing agency, during which time he is routinely analyzed by another controlling force: a junkie-ward psychiatrist named Hieronymus Gyggle. With some slapdash juxtapositions of drug-addict mentality and business-marketing philosophy, the novel concludes, likely leaving readers with an expanded vocabulary (``ataraxy,'' ``saccade,'' ``intercrural,'' ``strabismus'') but also grasping for meaning.

Pub Date: April 1, 1994

ISBN: 0-87113-565-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1994

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An enjoyable, cozy novel that touches on tough topics.


A group of strangers who live near each other in London become fast friends after writing their deepest secrets in a shared notebook.

Julian Jessop, a septuagenarian artist, is bone-crushingly lonely when he starts “The Authenticity Project”—as he titles a slim green notebook—and begins its first handwritten entry questioning how well people know each other in his tiny corner of London. After 15 years on his own mourning the loss of his beloved wife, he begins the project with the aim that whoever finds the little volume when he leaves it in a cafe will share their true self with their own entry and then pass the volume on to a stranger. The second person to share their inner selves in the notebook’s pages is Monica, 37, owner of a failing cafe and a former corporate lawyer who desperately wants to have a baby. From there the story unfolds, as the volume travels to Thailand and back to London, seemingly destined to fall only into the hands of people—an alcoholic drug addict, an Australian tourist, a social media influencer/new mother, etc.—who already live clustered together geographically. This is a glossy tale where difficulties and addictions appear and are overcome, where lies are told and then forgiven, where love is sought and found, and where truths, once spoken, can set you free. Secondary characters, including an interracial gay couple, appear with their own nuanced parts in the story. The message is strong, urging readers to get off their smartphones and social media and live in the real, authentic world—no chain stores or brands allowed here—making friends and forming a real-life community and support network. And is that really a bad thing?

An enjoyable, cozy novel that touches on tough topics.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-7861-8

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: Oct. 27, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.


A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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