Book review: “The Butt,” by Will Self

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The Butt, by Will Self
The Butt: An Exit Strategy
By Will Self
Bloomsbury
I hate to admit this, but before this week, the last time I had read a book by Will Self was all the way back in 1992, with his early hit Cock & Bull; and that’s a shame, because on the other side of the Atlantic he’s sort of known as the British Chuck Palahniuk, the author of a whole string of slightly speculative novels that are as equally funny as they are creepy, and which like Palahniuk makes Self one of the most commercially successful “bizarro” authors on the planet right now. (Of course, in this case it helps that Self is also a high-profile newspaper columnist in England, as well as a mainstay on such British “quiz panel” shows as Have I Got News For You.) So when I stumbled across his latest the other day at the library, 2008’s The Butt, you can be sure that I snatched it right up; and I’m glad I did, because it turned out to be exactly what I was hoping it would be, a deeply weird but highly enjoyable parable of the Bush years and the West’s misguided adventures in the Middle East in the 2000s, which in a roundabout way becomes an indictment of all Western disasters in the developing world, stretching all the way back to the various imperial endeavors of the great European powers of the 1700s and 1800s.
And in fact, Self keeps things deliberately vague here in his own story of Caucasian arrogance, in order to comment on all efforts of colonialism made over the centuries; although it’s implied, for example, that our main “anti-villain” Tom Brodzinski is American, it’s never flat-out stated, and the exotic regions of “Vance” and the nearby “Feltham Islands” where our story takes place cleverly combine elements of Africa, the South Seas, the Caribbean and Australia. It’s a place with its own colonial past, with a still sizable “Anglo” population who live in relative unease with the various aboriginal tribes from the area (the main one in our story being the Tugganarong); a place where do-gooder liberals are trying to bring about a multicultural society by honoring as many details of native life as possible, which among other absurdist details allows for half-naked tribal “magic men” to be legally required in such locations as hospitals and courtrooms, and which has resulted in a draconian anti-smoking policy within the Anglo cities, so to not offend certain tribes who believe cigarettes to be literally the work of the devil.
Our arrogantly oblivious narrator Tom, then, starts the novel by smoking in what he believes to be a safe zone, on the balcony of his high-class faux-native luxury tourist hotel room, although accidentally burns his downstairs neighbor when flicking away his cigarette’s still-burning butt; but upon further inspection, it turns out not only that the butt briefly passed through a non-smoking section during its downward path, but that the injured Anglo is a converted Tugganarong by marriage, making the entire thing in the tribe’s eyes a deliberate act of criminal malice, and for which they insist that Tom be prosecuted for attempted murder. This then serves as the rabbithole for the evermore dark and bizarre tale we learn on each passing page, as Tom is sentenced to deliver by hand across the desert a “village recompensation package” to the Tugganarong as his official punishment, and forced to travel the distance with the maybe-British fellow criminal Brian Prentice (who may or may not be a child-molesting “sex tourist”), a surreal journey that raises more and more mysterious questions with each subsequent chapter, questions like: Why does his half-Danish lawyer’s second cousin look exactly like his estranged wife? What’s inside the enigmatic package she’s asked him to deliver to the Tugganarong on her behalf, which looks curiously like a wrapped human head? How is it that the strange-acting unofficial American consul liaison in this region knows that Tom’s favorite drink is Scotch on the rocks? And what exact Heart of Darkness weirdness is going on anyway with the Nazi-like anthropologist and amateur surgeon Erich von Sasser out among the desert villages, whose brother Hippolyte is so far the only Anglo in history to write a comprehensive guide to the native population, and whose nonsense-filled tome is the official bible from which all urban Anglos get their information about these distant tribes’ cultures?
Like I said, obviously a big part of this novel existing is to be a comment on the Bushist international disasters of the early 2000s (there’s a reason, after all, that this book’s subtitle is “An Exit Strategy”); but one of the reasons that Self is so popular to begin with is that a book like this is both more and less than just an attack on Bushism, coming around to its points through startlingly unique facets that only indirectly correspond to real events from the news. Just to cite one brilliant example, look at the so-called “Tontine Townships” that Tom and Brian are forced to travel through on their existentialist cross-country drive, where actual tontine insurance policies are given out to the dirt-poor villagers (in which only the last person alive gets to claim the policy’s monetary award), turning the entire region into an ultra-violent place of anarchy where it’s barely safe to even stand on a public sidewalk; this could be a metaphor for any number of humiliations forced on native populations by Westerners over the years, making it a much more effective statement than to actually pick any of these specific real examples, and especially when you add to the novel that it’s a common occurrence for white tourists to buy out a tontine participant’s share for a pittance and then simply go home, virtually guaranteeing that they’ll be the last one alive when the violence is finally over, and turning a tidy profit on their literal blood-money investment.
It’s for details like these that one reads a Will Self novel, outrageous yet sadly plausible concepts that say more about our current society than any direct reference to real events could; and that’s why The Butt has reminded me recently that it’s more than time for me to finally add Self’s old oeuvre to my “Tales From the Completist” wish-list, starting with the much-loved 2006 novel The Book of Dave (in which 500 years in the future, a post-apocalyptic religion is founded on the bitter, racist, semi-coherent blog entries of a down-on-his-luck loser from our own times — or at least, that’s what the dust jacket makes the book sound like). His work comes highly recommended to fans of so-called “gonzo” fiction, a great example of someone in that genre reigning things in a bit in order to make their stories much more palpable to a mainstream crowd, but who is still weird enough for any fan of the underground to be delighted. I’m looking forward to sharing more of Self’s book catalog with you here as the years progress.
Out of 10: 8.6
Read even more about The Butt: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Jason Pettus is the owner of CCLaP, and a former novelist, slam poet and travel writer. During the day he is a front-end software developer within the Chicago tech startup community. Goodreads | LibraryThing | Twitter | Instagram | Letterboxd