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A predictably witty, clever, disturbing collection
on 13 December 1998
For regular readers of Self I don't think there are many surprises to be found in this collection. We find here the usual London-centric black satires, the drugs, the affairs, the shrinks and the insane, and I didn't find on reading it that I could easily place this as the last in a progression of his novels/stories over the last seven years. One could almost call it an in-between book, where Self lets out his best previous stories as yet not included in a collection, along with his recent works, before moving on to his Magnum Opus, but who can tell. There's certainly an element of introspection in the closing short story (dare I say Self-analysis).
"Flytopia", in which Jonathan Priestley, an indexer, finds his cottage overrun with insects who eventually influence him in a most disturbing way, sees a return to the mind-games and macabre of "My Idea of Fun", and in "Caring, Sharing", the most light-hearted and probably the funniest of the collection, rivalled perhaps by "A Story For Europe", Self creates one of his "Great Apes"-esque worlds of humans reduced to their animal nature, but at the same time under the parenting of social etiquette and frigidity. The darkest and most disturbing story in the collection, "Tough Tough Toys for Tough Tough Boys"(a reference to the Tonka toys slogan), involves the self-realisation and eventual suicide of a psychoanalyst-turned-psychiatrist. He becomes, in a sense, one with his turbo-charged three litre saloon, before having his truth painfully revealed to him inadvertently by a hitch-hiker, whereupon the machine takes him to his end. And succeeding chronologically "Design Faults in the Volvo 760" also involves the strange psychological role of a man's car.
But in my opinion altogether more interesting than these is the closing tale of the collection, "The Nonce Prize". A sequel to The Rock of Crack as Big as the Ritz", the story of two London crack dealers, "The Nonce Prize" tells the tale of one of these men, who is wrongly convicted of convicted of child rape and murder, and of the subsequent realisation of his previously un-tapped literary abilities. While in prison, inspired and encouraged by his writing teacher, he reaches the runner-up stages of a prison writing prize with a short story about, ironically, two London crack dealers. There appears to be the possibility that Self is here writing about himself; the story of the crack dealers, the only un-pretentious and honest story of the competition, loses the prize to a pornographic work of a paedophile, due to the mistaken belief of the judge that that this work showed great powers of empathy, when in reality it was merely a representation of it's author's foul and depraved mind. The junkie's story loses through being faithful to his inspirational teacher in writing about what he knows, and through phonetic transcription of non-standard English; essentially through his honesty.