Tough, tough reading

Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys

I wish I didn't like Will Self so much. I wish he wouldn't, for example, use "gifted" to mean "given" (although I tip my hat at him for using it when it's appropriate). And, while I'm wishing for improbables, can I wish for a Scalextric, some Space Lego, and a brand new set of die-cast cars?

This collection of Self's stories takes its title from an advertising slogan for Tonka Toys. The appropriation of this and countless other chunks of pop target Self squarely at the demographic which twats on about Bagpuss and Roobarb and Custard. Not, admittedly, at the vapid twenty-somethings whose mental processes start and stop with reciting a list of childhood TV references; instead the psychological make-up of the Self fan is the thirty-something (in my case, late twenty-something---and besides, the reviewer is always exempt from his own generalisations) who sees Nirvana's greatest hits coming out and is gripped with fear. The hunt begins for something that both speaks on the wavelength of the contents-settled 30-year-old, and is still dangerous and avant-garde.

Self is normally reasonably dangerous, and bares his teeth frequently in Tough, Tough Toys.... As a social commentator he ranks with the unashamed like Chris Morris and Jeremy Hardy. But his insistence on tying his work to the stock-in-trade of the provocateur (eg. prison and drug slang, sounding hollow in the mouths of Tembe and Danny in the first and last stories; or the speed-freak in the eponymous story, compiled---like a Julie Burchill column---just to raise the hackles on the sensitive reader) knits hairline cracks into his work. Consequently bits of it (Dave Too, Design Faults in the Volvo 760 Turbo: A Manual) fall apart like the crumbly money-spinner in The Rock of Crack as Big as The Ritz. Self's writing, stripped of its bombast, vocabulary and cute references, is astonishingly variable for someone so accomplished. When it's good, it's the wry Story For Europe or bizarre, finely-turned sci-fi Caring, Sharing; when it's bad (most obviously Dave Too), it's a dribble of A-level standard pseud, good writing if all you've ever read includes none of Self's influences or contemporaries.

A shame, then, that Self's best work is still his debut The Quantity Theory of Insanity. Occasionally the newer stories, in here and anthologies such as Grey Area, reach as high as his first efforts. But you could easily edit most of his work since that smashing beginning into a single book, all of it tight and astonishing. For the life of me I can't see why he hasn't.