One of Britain’s most inspired writers employs his novelistic style in a chronicle of his addictions.
In this hybrid of memoir and novel—nominally nonfiction, although one wonders how a serious addict could recall so much—Self (Phone, 2017, etc.) offers a third-person, no-holds-barred tale of his fascinating life. The author has always worn his influences on his sleeve, so his readers won’t be surprised by this heady stew of J.G. Ballard, Hunter S. Thompson, and Philip K. Dick. Much of the narrative falls somewhere between Tony O’Neill’s drug-fueled ultraviolence and the grungy milieu of the self-destructive, filth-covered addicts of Trainspotting. Self’s hallucinatory journey begins in 1986 with 24-year-old Will, with 57 pence to his name, idly pondering stealing painkillers from a chemist’s shop. The book jumps back and forth through the 1980s as Self gets higher and higher, even while studying at Oxford, “hardly ever breaking cover.” The amount and diversity of the drugs are staggering; consider this nod to Thompson: “multicoloured collection of uppers, downers, twisters and screamers…namely: ten blotters of acid, a half-ounce of Pakki black, four black bombers, twenty-odd amphetamine blues, a couple of Mogadons Mike’d nicked from his mum and a bottle of amyl nitrate.” The prose is consistently spectacular, but the narrative is oblique, portraying the author’s troubled youth in moments and flashes. The supporting characters, while presumably real, are mostly generic with the exceptions of Chloë, the love of Self’s life, whom he ultimately abandoned before he could inevitably hurt her; and Caius, the spoiled junkie who accompanied Self on many of his (mis)adventures. Despite the author’s inevitable trip to rehab, this is no redemption song. From London to Marrakesh to India to Australia and back, Self delivers a hallucinatory, confessional version of his life devoid of melancholy and, mostly, regret.
Addiction memoirs are ubiquitous, but a tale of addiction and consequences by the singular Self earns its shock and awe.