In 1994, Matthew De Abaitua, an aspiring writer and student on East Anglia’s Creative Writing MA, applies for a job as Will Self’s amanuensis. The first interview is preceded by Self passing De Abaitua a tobacco pouch and a large bag of weed, with the instruction: ‘Make something out of that.’ In the second, they meet at Self’s remote cottage and fire an air rifle at whiskey bottles. Matthew is 22, and spent his previous summer working as a security guard in Liverpool; Self is 33, has just published My Idea of Fun and appeared on the famous ’93 Granta list, and is a well-respected author embracing a mad, bad and dangerous to know persona.
De Abaitua is not merely an assistant. The word amanuensis, he reminds us, originates from the Latin for ‘slave at hand’. His tasks range from doing the laundry and buying a new sofa for Self’s cottage to reading not only the writer’s own oeuvre, but the works that have influenced him as well as his current reading matter. Matthew simmers with ambition, and his identity is as yet unformed; he is in search of a Pygmalion and Self is willing to sculpt him, educating him in matters of middle-class mores and how to get ahead in the literary world.
De Abaitua is no Jeeves, however; he gets plenty of comic mileage from the gap between their classes and life experience. When Self’s former wife and present girlfriend telephone, he risks causing offence by muddling the two, explaining ‘all posh women sound the same to me’. On another occasion, he neglects to wash the duvets, to the discomfort of Self’s guests, for Self enlightens him that ‘your duvet is about 80 per cent sperm’. If Self is rather a strict master, he is also a generous one, using his contacts to get De Abaitua published in the Idler, which subsequently leads to a life-changing internship.
The author compares their scenario to Withnail and I. There are certainly similarities between the film and memoir: Self and De Abaitua revel in occasional debauchery, having fun with the opium plants growing in their back garden. But there are also significant differences. Withnail and I is a film about two men locked in the pleasure–pain of a hedonism that becomes claustrophobic. By contrast, Self, having hired his amanuensis, proceeds to desert him, taking trips to Brazil and Australia. He declares that he wants someone at his desk while he is away who can ‘keep the Will Self industry ticking over’, though a poignant detail earlier on suggests a deeper motivation. Self has moved into his cottage after leaving his wife and children. He asks De Abaitua to file the contents of six bin bags, his salvaged possessions, finding it too painful to sift through them himself.
De Abaitua then appears to play the role of a surrogate family, both son and wife, one who constructs not just a home, but a faux domesticity that Self can connect with while he’s away via affectionate postcards and phone calls. This presents a problem for the narrative: the sections where Matthew describes his resulting solitude sometimes feel like padding. A visit from his friend Nelson drags a little, and one longs for Self’s return. But such interludes are saved by the verve of De Abaitua’s prose, which is full of wit, playfulness and intelligence. His digressions range around motorways, sci fi, food, failure and a love of metaphors — which feature in abund-ance throughout.
Since De Abaitua reminds us frequently that his story is a ‘warning’ about the danger of ambition, we begin to expect a more dramatic climax than the one we get. ‘I just want to know who I have to become to succeed,’ he frets, as he considers sacrificing his relationship with his girlfriend El in order to devote himself to his writing. But as he matures, he learns to place the actual craft of writing above the dream of ‘being a writer’. Though De Abaitua mourns the fact that literature since the 1990s has lost its cultural force, the denouement to his smart,funny memoir ends up being a paean to the novel itself.