Will Self, Psychogeography, (London: Bloomsbury, 2007), 256 pps., ill. by Ralph Steadman, hdbk, £13.49 ISBN: 9780747590330
Mark P. Williams
‘If I am akin to any literary traveller, it’s Lawrence Sterne’ –Will Self, Psychogeography (p. 23)
This wandering text about walking is Will Self’s modern sentimental journey; it is a series of textual digressions in a casually meandering relationship with physical travel. Structurally, the introduction is a discrete piece in its own right, an Anglo-American quest for identity based around a walk in London and New York, while the majority of the book is formed by the ‘Psychogeography’ columns from The Independent. In this respect, the title Psychogeography both is and is not appropriate: as a title for a newspaper column loosely connected to travel it is catchy. Yet at the same moment, it is therefore no longer about subverting media culture or resisting the ‘society of the spectacle’– the function ascribed to the psychogeographical dérive, echoed in the introduction by Self — but rather about embracing it. But then, as Steve Beard suggests in Logic Bomb: Transmissions from the Edge of Style Culture, a media culture can always transform attempts at subverting it into ironic adverts for itself. It depends on how significant the apparent theoretical reference points are to the reading experience of Self’s text or whether they are taken as allusions intended to divert the reader pleasurably, like Sterne’s digressions. In content and style the ‘Psychogeography’ columns are far from, say, Iain Sinclair’s writings on psychogeography, and textually much closer to the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson. This is an impression which the presence of Ralph Steadman’s brilliantly frenetic illustrations seems to invoke tacitly.
Being largely a collection of short pieces, the main body of the text is by its very nature uneven and irregular, which can be both a weakness and strength; it offers wide variations of subject which Steadman’s artwork complements with coruscating imagery. It is most successful where it carries its echoes of ‘alternative-’ and ‘counter-culture’ closest to the surface while quietly subverting them. The piece entitled ‘Zooming Moulay’, set in Morocco, reads like a William Burroughs parody and, with its references to ‘a joint the size of a baby’s forearm’(p. 93) conjures up the spirit of Withnail & I. Many of the other columns, recounting family details, tourist memories and spousal anecdotes, build towards a unifying image but not a critical vision. Indeed direct critique is where the column seems to fall down. ‘Pathological disregard’ is how Self describes the response of Londoners to momentous events such as riots or collective acts of civil disobedience in the piece titled ‘Business as Usual’ (pps. 99-101), and where his columns are let down is when they perpetuate rather than commentate upon this. ‘Fujian Mind Warp’, for example, concerns the death of the Chinese cockle-pickers in Morecambe Bay but is neither sufficiently analytical nor Swiftian enough to be particularly illuminating or provocative. It contrasts ideas of cultural orientation with those of economic orientation in relation to ‘the existential horror of their demise’ (p. 108) but without tying them strongly to either an image or an argument. However, the more satirical and critically-inclined vignettes are far more engaging. Highlights include: ‘Cote of Desire’ which reads like a Ballardian short story; ‘Hitler in Rio’ which is one of the most self-satirising and well-observed pieces about the intrusiveness of tourism; and ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ on the perverse relationship between hunting and wildlife which includes a sly jab at academic expertise. ‘Black Cloud’ on Hemel Hempstead’s oil depot fire is a suggestive piece which explores the possible etymology of the name Buncefield Oil Depot: ‘“bunce” being City traders’ slang for the money they cream off the top of a deal’ (p. 207). This points towards an image of grubby fat cats, lapping up black gold with little regard for safety or environment, something that could have bourn a much more impassioned or polemical assessment.
The more sustained writing of the introduction contains the most gestures toward avant-garde theory in setting out its intellectual stall, preparing readers for the self-conscious eccentricities of the personal quest to follow. It gives the impression that at least part of the quest to walk through London and New York was an attempt at testing social tolerances to ‘eccentric’ behaviour, something firmly in the vein of Fear and Loathing or Hells Angels: asking readers to place their bets: will he or won’t he get himself arrested? The interlude featuring his reported exchange with a member of Heathrow security about the words on their clipboard being on view — ‘“You’re not meant to read that!”…. “I read everything … I’m a journalist”’ (p. 39) — is surely what this hike is really about: a litmus test of real absurdity against deliberated absurdism.
The introduction also summons up the thing which is most conspicuous about this book as a whole, the way it compulsively digresses around the image of September 11th while feeling compelled to mention it: ‘for not to do so would’ve been to leave a gaping, narrative hole’ (p. 60). This is almost a comment in passing, despite the shadowy presence of the event in the whole narrative of Anglo-American identity and airport security politics which dominate the introduction. The introduction explicitly wrestles with ideas of identity following a traumatic event, yet it is reticent about the ways it confronts the obvious spectre, a problem common to other commentators which creates strange loops of reflexive representation in similar columns elsewhere. Self describes the idea of omitting reference to September 11th in a work about journeying through New York as akin to watching a version of Jaws which has been ‘digitally re-edited so as to omit every reference — verbal or visual — to the shark’ (p. 60), yet it remains only a reference. Perhaps this is a teaser-trailer for a longer work assessing the state-of-the-nation(s), a dipping of the toe into shark-infested waters.
At its best the prose in this section of the book steers away from theory and firmly towards grotesque fictioneering: the description of Battersea Power Station in ‘Walk One: Bucolic London’ is evocative and bleakly witty — he renders its industrial architecture into a post-industrial fairytale ogre devouring property entrepreneurs. Similarly, both the tortuous description of an encounter at American Customs and the remembered drug hallucinations, while walking past the Brooklyn Museum, of galvanised skeletons playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue create vivid images and play well with stereotypes of ‘The Americans’ and ‘The Brits Abroad’, conjuring something which is at least heading towards the territories of Gulliver’s Travels. The early part of the introduction also provides a self-puncturing comment on the mythologising implied in some of the other sections, which perhaps brings out something of the comic observations of Sterne, where it says that the people he refers to as ‘the psychogeographical fraternity’ ‘are really only local historians with an attitude problem. Indeed, real, professional local historians view us as insufferably bogus and travelling — if anywhere at all — right up ourselves’ (p. 12).
This is, fundamentally, a Romantic text whose associations of writing and walking have less to do with Guy Debord’s influence on London-based writers and more to do with Wordsworth and Coleridge. Like theirs, this text is walking in uneasy step with the heritage, tourist and culture industries; its defining characteristic is that it returns itself obsessively to the question of whether it is ever possible to outpace these particular travellers.
To Cite This Article:
Mark P. Williams, ‘Review: Will Self, Psychogeography’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 6 Number 2 (September 2008). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/september2008/williams.html. Accessed on [date of access]