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May 19, 2015 | The Crew
This week’s review of Will Self’s Walking to Hollywood comes from Anthony Vacca: author, librarian, and director of Write Club at Hoover Library.
Will Self is a little known novelist this side of the pond, but in England he possess a certain notoriety as being a former bad-boy journalist with a drug habit. During the ‘90s he wrote a plethora of articles championing counterculture and narcotics as a means of seeing through the various stratums of contemporary status quo, until around 2000 when Self went clean and became one of the most pertinent commentators of government policies towards individual freedoms. Nearly two decades of sobriety have done little to diminish his powers as an innovative stylist and scathing satirist of the millennial zeitgeist. His early novels were Swiftian dreamscapes that mirrored our world in often grotesque yet palpable configurations. In Great Apes, Self took the Planet of the Apes scenario and relocated it to early ‘90s London, peopling the metropolis with evolutionarily advanced Chimpanzees; with How the Dead Live, he gave a guided tour of the afterlife, which is a lot like life: when you die, you don’t go to heaven or hell, but instead move to another suburb and continue living and (most importantly) working alongside the living.
The notion of inverted worlds is given a bizarre twist with Self’s Walking to Hollywood, a novel divided into three sections, with each recounted by a fictionalized Will Self undergoing a different form of neurosis. The first section of this triptych (while chronologically linked, these three tales are loose enough to be read individually as novellas), “Very Little”, is the Character Self’s 100-page obsessive-compulsive breakdown and a continuation of the Author-Self’s career-long obsession with scale. Self reconnects with a childhood friend, Sherman Oaks, a dwarf who has now become a trendy, international pop-artist. When they were children, Self betrayed Oaks’ trust by having a fairly harmless sexual tryst with his sister, and a confused sense of guilt underlies each increasingly frequent and increasingly random encounter Self has with Oaks, as their paths keep crossing while the diminutive artist globe trots in his pursuit to plant colossal constructions of himself in bizarre locations such as the Easter Isles and the Great Salt Lake Desert. All the while, Self can barely keep his psyche together as he bumbles from one literary festival to the next, his obsession with the arbitrary nature of dimensions and amounts crippling him in profound ways.
The titular middle section makes up the meatiest portion of the book, and embarks a psychotic Self on a gonzo-quest narrative to find who is responsible for the death of cinema as the main means of artistic expression. While Self hounds the mean streets of Lullaby Town, he is beset by a slew of surrealistic adventures, such as fist fighting Daniel Craig, being kidnapped by Scientologists, conspiracies to conceal Tom Cruise’s penis size, transforming into a computerized avatar in a 1st-person video game shooter, an awkward dinner with Bret Easton Ellis, and escaping a CGI-generated riot over Justin Timberlake. Luckily, Self has occasional superpowers and allies, such as Scooby Doo, to help him with his dangerous investigation. This section is the most impressive of the three, considering its boundless momentum and refusal to let up recounting one insane scenario after another.
The third section, “Spurn Head,” is a melancholic slow-burner dealing with a final long walk along the Holderness coast as Self’s mind slowly deteriorates to Alzheimer’s. Much of the comic zaniness which propelled the first 2/3rds of this book are abandoned for a more subdued, grim attention to ecological disaster and the fleeting nature of memory and, culminating with an encounter with an immortal creature borrowed from one of the many isles of Gulliver’s Travels.
What these three pieces form is a bit too nebulous to give a pat thematic summary, but as baggy as the experience may be, Walking to Hollywood is an often hilarious, horrifying, touching and profound glimpse into the personal and creative life of one of our best living authors, as well as being a caustic look at contemporary culture as an ominous cabinet of curiosities.