Difference between revisions of "The Butt by Will Self"

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There's definitely some satire in Will Self's latest novel, The Butt. A tourist carelessly flicks away his final cigarette, and then finds himself charged with attempted murder after it hits his neighbour's head. The satire's target, however, is less clear. Is Self (a man pilloried for taking cocaine on a politican's plane, remember) simply having a dig at the absurdity of the smoking bans that are sweeping across the Western world? Or is this a more sophisticated examination of compensation culture? Moral relativity between different cultures? Post-colonialism? Or, as seems likely, all of the above?

The book is set in a distant land which can't quite make up its mind whether it's supposed to be Australia or the Middle East. It's never actually named, but clearly Allegorica would have been a perfectly apt name. Broadly Antipodean slang, geography and vicious wildlife are offset by guerilla warfare and a bewildering criminal justice system. Even other countries are referred to obliquely - the tourist's American origins are made obvious through his behaviour and dialogue rather than any details of his home town. Prentice is only identified as British through his obsession with cricket.

The novel is told entirely from the point of view of Tom Brodzinski, the man who injures his neighbour and who is eventually forced to travel into the wilderness to make reparations to the man's tribe. The third person narration, however, means we're never entirely in his head. With a story that concerns itself heavily with perception (both of characters and of the country itself), this throws everything into question. Although the reader can't help but sympathise with Tom's plight, various comments from other characters lead you to question his reliability – and the reliability of most of the other characters.

The story gradually turns into a 21st Century Heart of Darkness as Tom takes a trip to the wilderness 'over there' with an unpleasant companion. As events become ever more heightened, with violent ambushes and a couple with some unusual tastes in clothing and sexual practices, it's hard to say whether the association with Apocalypse Now is intentional, but it was inescapable for me.

Brilliantly written, The Butt makes for compulsive reading, even at its most opaque. Every character is well-drawn and memorable, from Tom to the man he injures. Best of all, every character hides – or seems to hide – a secret of some kind. Despite the lack of any whodunnit element in the book, the urge to discover just why everyone was behaving so strangely kept me reading eagerly even through court scenes, which usually switch me into skimming mode very quickly...

I enjoyed every page of this book, and in fact reread it before writing this review. The only small gripe I had about the novel – without giving anything away, the last chapter or so sees a bewildering lurch in tone – was assuaged the second time round. Every scrap of dialogue is significant, and there are only really a couple of loose ends (the tribesman spotted by Tom's wife after she returns home without him remains a bit odd), and the heavy-handedness naming of the 'Intwennyforte mob' – a name so odd that it's clearly an attempt to be clever. Even Tom's horribly graphic dreams make more sense once you have the context provided by the conclusion.

The exception to all this clarity is the mysticism that weaves itself through much of the later parts of the novel, when the two men are on their restitutional road trip.

Although Self uses a great deal of complicated language in the text, the writing flows nicely and it's as easy as a read as anything you're likely to pick up in an airport. Sometimes witty, sometimes macabre, it's certainly the best new novel I've read in 2008.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If you enjoyed this book then you might also like Rant: The Oral History of Buster Casey by Chuck Palahniuk although we have to say that we think Will Self is much the better writer.

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