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Reviews

The Butt

Will Self
Bloomsbury, 368pp


The main character in Will Self's latest novel is a US tourist, Tom Brodzinski. On an eco-holiday to an island continent (a warped version of Australia), he is on the verge of leaving, but when he flicks his cigarette butt over the edge of his hotel balcony it lands on the pate of an elderly compatriot and injures him. As he flicked away the butt, Brodzinski did not even realise he was taking an action. However, local law springs from the belief that nobody does anything unintentionally, and that there is no such thing as an accident. Brodzinski must make reparation. Instead of being able to depart swiftly and cleanly, he is forced to undergo an ordeal in the desert, being drawn deeper and deeper into local struggles. Does this remind anybody of any other overseas situations that the US have found themselves in recently?

We aren't left to guess - the book jacket announces that The Butt is 'an allegorical account of the Western liberal conscience in the aftermath of 9/11'. Brodzinski's central failing then, is his unquestioning passivity, expressed in the aboriginal term 'inquivoo'. Although I doubt Self would wish to phrase this in such baldly moral terms, it is very like the line attributed to Edmund Burke: 'All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing'. After the destruction of the World Trade Centre, Bush deliberately conflated al-Qaeda with Iraq so that he could declare war and go after those oil reserves. Many millions of thinking people in the USA must have known the difference between Iraq and al-Qaeda, but they failed to prevent their government from invading Iraq. The message of the book is that inaction carries a moral force.

Self accuses westerners of being obsessed with how their lives will turn out, while neglecting to take the very steps which would drive them in the desired direction. He also blames them for imposing their culture on others. While there is little reference in the story to conventional western religion, the natives have a strong and vivacious religion presided over by shamanic makkatas. It affects every area of their lives including their principals of justice and the very clothes they wear. However by the end of the book, Brodzinski has discovered that all is by no means as it appears, and Self avoids the cliche of 'Western culture bad, traditional native culture good'.

It was cruel to announce on the cover that the book was an allegory. Rather like a hiker who has been told there are bears in the forest and who jumps at every rustle, I found myself turning each image into a metaphor and every character into a symbol. I prefer an allegory to creep up on me unawares (obviously not extending the bear metaphor this far). I like to be able to go 'Aaah, I think what s/he's really writing about is this…' Telling the reader how to interpret the work is like giving a child Lego for Christmas and then dictating what they have to build with it. And what on earth did those clams that embed themselves in your skin symbolise anyway?

As ever, Self takes the English language out for a run, winkling little-used words from the dictionary, (by the way, 'neotenous' means 'retaining immature or larval features'), and reshaping common words into original images.

Self however encounters a tension felt by many modern authors. To help the reader engage with the protagonist, the writer must stick closely to that character's point of view, telling the tale in a language that approximates to their own. In doing so, they often have to sacrifice making a display of their own linguistic virtuosity. Self couldn't quite bring himself to do that.

Brodzinski, an undistinguished, prosperous, liberal-ish US citizen, is surely not the kind of person to deploy nuggets of recondite vocabulary. It is even less likely that he would see the landscape in the terms which Self allows himself in occasional overwritten passages, such as 'A mile or so to the south, the pale blocks of Vance's civic centre - the big hotels, municipal and corporate offices, the hypodermic spire of the Provincial State Assembly - flapped in the convection, as if they were the sails of an urban clipper, about to cast off from this protracted and alien shore'.

Because we keep stepping outside Brodzinski's perspective, it is hard to care as much about him as we should. From the start, the very title of the book, The Butt, gives us an external view of Brodzinski - we suspect that our main character will end up the butt of a joke. Maybe we don't have to care about the characters in an allegory, but it would make the tale more keenly felt and cogent.

The humour is admirably dark, for instance there is the situation where Brodzinski is outrunning an ambush in a lawless province and sees a neat formal notice declaring that the town he is entering is twinned with Oendermonde, Belgium. Talking of black jokes, the denouement is certainly worth getting to. Suffice it to say that it owes much to Conrad's Heart of Darkness, with black-forest gateau and women in dirndls thrown in.

All in all, The Butt is a book which jerks and twitches with symbols and metaphors, puns and jokes. It may not make you feel very much, but it will certainly get you to think and might even squeeze a pitch black chuckle from you.

I once thoughtlessly threw a cigarette butt out of the window of a flat in Forest Hill. I heard a cry of pain and anger from beneath, but there was no retribution. I realise now I was lucky.

Clare Hobba