Will Self loves to go a-wandering; this much we know. For the past few years, he has followed the lead of authors such as Iain Sinclair, and undertaken huge, looping walks around city and country, before writing about the experience afterwards — in his case, in a column for the Independent. This ‘psychogeography’ (for such is it called) is meant to be an exercise more for the mind than for the legs. The dedicated psycho- geographer stomps across ground that is soaked in human interaction, history, myth and potential. His pen seeks out the significance in it all, cosmic or otherwise.
And so we arrive at Self’s latest book, Walking to Hollywood — whose title tells you everything and nothing about its contents. On one level, it is a retread of his newspaper column: the account of a series of walks through Canada, Britain and, in particular, the west coast of America. Self himself is the walker and narrator, and the pages are interspersed with photographs and details that seem to suggest… this actually happened. But, then, most of it patently did not happen. The conversations with Scooby-Doo, the made-up characters, the sex, lies and videotape — this is a landscape contoured, almost in whole, by Self’s imagination.
As to whether you will enjoy this book, the answer depends on how well you can tolerate imprisonment within Self’s mind. It is, as always, a place crammed with a Devil’s Dictionary’s worth of wordplay, and with an unerring tendency towards the absurd and perverse. I have only hinted at its oddity above, so perhaps a synopsis is in order. For starters, Walking to Hollywood is actually a triptych. In its first part, Self’s life overlaps with that of an artist who defies, or perhaps defines, his dwarfism by erecting sculptures that span across skyscrapers and hills. In the second, the author goes on a hunt for whoever killed the movies, and ends up in a deranged mystery movie of his own. And in the final part, he stumbles onto a cliff-side where both ground and time are receding into the sea. Lest it need adding: traditional narrative is there none.
The second of these rambles is the most resonant, and the one around which the book is structured. With its rat-a-tat movie references, and a cast of characters played by actors (both David Thewlis and Pete Postlethwaite stand in for Self), it contains, I admit, a wealth of simple pleasures for film fans. But there is something more clinical and metallic hidden between its furrows: a tale of how a modern art form — and, with it, the modern world — has been eroded by violence, computerisation and gullibility. As Self observes, processing another dollop of fact into the fiction, ‘it can’t have escaped your notice that this is the first year ever that video-game sales are set to surpass movie receipts.’
There is very little here that isn’t pessimistic, or at least sarcastic, in tone. All of the characters are ludicrous; all of the furnishings are ‘dun’-coloured and sterile; and all of the words seem to leer psychotically from the page. Throw in the parched Californian setting, and the effect is very similar to the work of Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho and, most recently, Imperial Bedrooms — a parallel that has not evaded Self. One chapter of Walking to Hollywood is titled ‘My Dinner With Bret’, and is precisely that. Elsewhere, he mentions reading Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park — another book that features its author as its main character, trapped in a dimension somewhere between fact and fiction. Indeed, if there is a joy to Walking to Hollywood, then it is in this kind of self-awareness. One footnote observes that a particular word is used to ‘convey the implausibility of this reconstructive memoir’.
By the time we reach the end of this walk, some sense is made of it all. Writing in an afterword, Self — the real Will Self, that is, not a fictionalised doppelgänger — describes a murder, one of a series of teen stabbings, near his home in South London. That crime, he says, and the recent deaths of his father-in-law and J. G. Ballard, informed a book that is stuffed with ‘mental pathologies’. In which case, Walking to Hollywood is certainly an engaging enough breakdown on the part of its author. Just make sure to approach it with all the professional detachment of a psychiatrist.