By Will Self
Smoking can damage your health; but giving up could adversely affect your sanity. In fact, the discarded fag-end of the opening pages in Will Self’s latest novel is a mere bit-player in a romp covering much more than the question of whether to puff or not to puff. The real butt in this moral tale is Self’s anti-hero, Tom Brodzinski, a whipping boy for the world’s problems.
Tom is holidaying en famille in an unnamed, imaginary, Third World continent, part-Australia and part-Iraq, when he decides to ditch the seductive weed.
After taking his last drag, Tom flicks away the offending stub, yet its smoulders ignite the pate of Reggie, an Anglo resident linked by marriage to the Entreati tribe. Nothing happens by accident, runs their creed, which is incorporated into state law. So Tom suddenly faces charges of attempted murder, and breaking the land’s insanely bureaucratic anti-smoking laws.
So far, so surreal. What follows is a Kafkaesque descent into nightmarish farce as Tom hires a lawyer — the outlandishly coiffed, smooth-talking Jethro Swai-Phillips — has bizarre encounters with an eccentric consular agent, undergoes ritual markings, purchases guns and cooking pans to recompense the Entreati, and leaves the manicured coastal tourist capital, Vance, for the dystopian hinterland with a fellow miscreant, Brian, whom Tom is sure is a paedophile.
By turns absurd and compelling, The Butt is a Swiftian satire for the post-9/11 era. Self’s fictitious Lilliput serves as metaphor for our moralising nanny society. Perimeter laws demarcating public and private space certainly call to mind London’s draconian parking inspectors. Weird tribal mores and the convoluted legal system echo the worst of our own “blame culture”.
As in his previous books, Self lovingly spears hypocrisy and injustice. The judge who condemns Tom for the supposed crime of smoking then lights up his pipe, while tribesmen in court openly chew engwegge, native tobacco. The infinite gradations of racial categories are reminiscent of apartheid South Africa; and Self cocks a snook at moral relativists who revere “local tradition”, no matter how barbaric.
Some 135 years ago, Samuel Butler’s Erewhon lampooned contemporary Britain through the prism of another fictitious Antipodean culture that regarded sick people as deviant and machines as dangerous. The Butt performs a similar task, and pays homage to other literary predecessors, too. Tom the faux naïve traveller is reminiscent of Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad and Graham Greene’s well-intentioned Quiet American, among others.
Ultimately, though, the package is Self’s. What The Butt lacks in coherence, it makes up for in sheer readability, and its conclusion (which I cannot divulge) offers a timely warning against the dangers of social engineering.