Dastardly satirist Will Self returns with a quartet of loosely related stories whose least tenuous connection is the noble human liver. As expected, they range from the insightful to the grotesque to the delightfully obscene. Self puts his most difficult foot forward, but those with the fortitude to persevere will be well rewarded with a satisfying read.
It is not until the final page of Foie Humain, a culinary tale of binge drinking, that the narrator acknowledges what he knows the reader must have been feeling all along -- that the preceding fifty-eight pages have moved along not with straightforward honesty, but have waddled through needless digressions and grotesque interpolations. This rationalization renders the piece more of an intellectual exercise than an enjoyable story, and delving further into the reasons behind it would only serve to ruin the Twilight Zone nature of the ending. At most, this saves Foie Humain's well written descriptions of people and places (and single entertaining theatrical diversion) from being a complete write off, but doesn't serve to quell this readers irritation at such literary trickery.
It is with the second story that Self gives us what I have come to expect from him having previously only read one of his novels; a darkly comic narrative full of emotion and biting wit. A story about the right to death and the will to live, Leberknodel follows a minor character from Foie Humain as she escorts her cancer stricken mother to Switzerland on a quest to die with dignity. The tale takes a number of interesting metaphysical turns, and almost leaves one guessing as to where Self stands on the issue, but that probably isn't the point. It is the journey, not the destination, that makes this one so enjoyable, which come to think of it, might be the point after all.
Having dashed and then regained our trust in his narrative skills, Self combines the straightforward with the abstract in Prometheus. A British ad man has his liver feasted upon by a griffon, only to have it grow back so it can be eaten again and again in a horrific cycle of ambition and Greek tragedy. Prometheus brings to mind the absurdisms of director Terry Gilliam, and Self has the wherewithal to back up its preposterous premise with a hefty dose of humor. I laughed out loud at the image of the titular ad man bending over to offer his tender white flesh to the carnivorous bird, and so will you.
Birdy Num Num
Finally, there is the surreal evocation of Birdy Num Num. Told from the point of view of a nasty strain of Hepatitis, the story follows the daily routine of a group of junkies, interspersed with hallucinatory references to Blake Edward's 1968 film, The Party. It is Trainspotting meets Fear and Loathing meets The Pink Panther. Seriously. And it is a seriously entertaining finale to this whole audacious enterprise.
What starts out as almost being too smart for its own good, winds up being a highly original take on the human condition. Self is fearless in these stories, risking indignant cries of callous intellectualism while simultaneously giving us a depth of character rarely felt. It is an intriguing duality, one which excites as much as it might alienate. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll be horrified -- all of which are a testament to Liver's scope and Self's mastery of the written word.