The journey can be more enjoyable than the destination in Will Self anthology

July 8, 2012

There’s no question that Will Self is an able writer, but his 1998 collection of short fiction never quite came together for me as a reader.

Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys has eight stories in all. A pair, including the eponymous work, revolve around the dissolute, philandering psychologist Bill Bywater. Another pair, which bookend the anthology, concern drug-dealing London brothers.

These four stories were my favorite in the book, especially “Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys.” (It appears immediately before its companion piece, “Design Faults in the Volvo 760 Turbo: A Manual,” despite occurring at a later time.) “Tough Toys” describes Bywater’s epic single-day drive from the northern coast of Scotland to London.

The psychologist is both methodical and reckless. In the morning, he checks his fluid levels and repaired engine; then he lights a blunt and takes a large gulp of whisky from “‘the car bottle’ as he jocularly styled it — to himself” immediately before pulling on to the road.

Self’s description of the journey is impressive for its imagery and its vocabulary, which can be challenging.

It was exhilarating — this headlong plunge down the exposed cranium of Britain. After twenty miles or so Bill had a spectacular view clear across the Moray Firth to the Grampians. The mountains pushed apart land, sea and sky with nonchalant grandeur; their peaks stark white, their flanks hazed white and blue and azure. Not that he looked at them, he looked at the driving, snatching shards of scenery in the jagged saccades his eyes made from speedometer to road, to rearview mirror, to wing mirrors, and back, over and over, each glance accompanied with a head jerk, as if he were some automated Hasidic Jew, praying as he went.

In a way Bill was praying. In the concentration on braking and accelerating, and at these speeds essentially toying with life and death — others’ as well as his own — he finally achieved the dharmic state he had been seeking all morning: an absorption of his own being into the very act of driving that exactly matched his body’s absorption into the fabric of the car; a biomechanical union that made eyes windscreens, wheels legs, turbo-charger flight mechanism. Or was it the other way round?

While Bywater is crossing grounds I’ve never visited, the territory of the long-distance drive is familiar, and Self evinces it masterfully. Bywater glimpses places familiar only in passing, reminisces about his past and fantasizes idly as the road unfurls beneath his wheels.

Bywater may make rather unsavory company, as is made clear when he picks up and interrogates a down-at-heels hitchhiker, but he is a fascinating character.

Unfortunately, nothing else in the collection lives up to the title story. “Design Faults” details Bywater’s adultery and features some fantastic moments, such as when some characters listen from an isolated park bench as London reacts to a penalty shootout at the end of an important soccer match.

The three of them wait for two minutes, then there’s a second eruption of roaring from the metropolis. They wait another two minutes and … nothing. Worse than nothing — a negative roar, a sonic vacuum in which a roar should have been. ‘They’ve missed one … the fuckers … they’ve missed one…’ The little man is destroyed, ripped asunder. He grinds the Havana into the grass with his training shoe, then he heads off back down the hill.

Bywater’s guilty fantasies are also amusing. As he recklessly kisses his paramour in public, he imagines himself as a giant. Later, he believes his car is impeding his escape from the scene of his crime: “As he circles the triangular enclosure where he snogged with Serena, he is appalled to see that the back end of the Volvo is passing by on the other side.”

To fight his obsession with Serena’s genitalia, Bywater attempts to eradicate the brand name of his automobile. Unfortunately, this story’s conclusion lacks the punch that “Tough Toys” had.

The other connected stories, “The Rock of Crack as Big as the Ritz” and “The Nonce Prize,” take fascinating journeys but don’t seem to wind up anywhere important. The second story is the longer and more interesting of the two, as the protagonist haltingly moves toward redemption after being convicted of a horrific crime.

The other stories in the collection all involve elements of horror, science fiction and fantasy. “Flytopia” tells of a bug-infested rural cottage where the inhabitants come to make certain accommodations with one another. “A Story for Europe” describe an English two-year-old and a German banker whose minds seem to be trading places. The characters in “Dave Too” share surprising, and increasing, commonalities. “Caring, Sharing” depicts a future society in which so-called mature adults are cuddled and cared for by childlike 14-foot-tall robots but eschew physical contact with other humans.

“Flytopia” and “Caring, Sharing” are the most fully realized of the quartet, but again, lack punch. I didn’t have enough emotion invested in any of the characters to care much about this horrifying death or that surprise revelation.

Self, who is British, has written several other books. I would read them with interest, but based on Tough, Tough Toys I won’t seek them out, and I can only recommend this book with reservations.

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