I have been making my way through my birthday books whilst sitting in the gardens of the Irish Museum of Modern Art enjoying the sunshine over the last week or so. I was given a copy of Great Apes and loaned a copy of Liver by the same person, and as I hate lending out books and not getting them back, I made Liver my first reading priority in order to return it promptly.
Liver is written by Will Self and was first published in 2008. I have not read much by Self, just The Quantity Theory of Insanity, a collection of short stories, which I liked but wasn’t hooked by. I think perhaps it may be easier to appreciate an author’s short stories if you first read their longer fiction, as this allows you to really get to grips with their style and appreciate their idiosyncrasies.
Liver is a collection of four stories, or as Self describes it, “a collection of two novellas and two longer short stories, all on a liverish theme…each story features different people suffering from different forms of liver damage”. The first story, Foie Humaine, centres on a private members’ drinking club in Soho called The Plantation Club, which is obviously based on The Colony Room in London, with the character of Trouget taking inspiration from Francis Bacon. It’s an atmospheric story, vividly conjuring up the grotesque seediness and desperation of a bunch of misfits and alcoholics, with a shocking and bizarre climax.
The second story, Leberknödel, tells the story of Joyce, an elderly widow who is succumbing to terminal liver cancer. She travels to Switzerland with her daughter in order to go to a euthanasia clinic and commit assisted suicide. At the last moment, as the doctor is mixing the phenobarbitol concoction she will have to drink, Joyce finds that she cannot go through with it and so discovers a seemingly miraculous new lease of life.
‘Prometheus’ is about an advertising executive, again based in Soho, whose professional talent for persuasion depends on a supernatural vulture that feeds on his liver, re-imagining the Greek myth in modern London. The last story, “Birdy Num Num”, is narrated by the Hepatitis C virus as it spends the day amongst the strung out junkies awaiting a fix in a dealer’s basement flat. This is the weakest of the four stories, the characters seeming more like caricatures, and the subject matter, although seen through the eyes of an original narrator, is predictable and hackneyed.
While the characters that Self writes may not be fully realised, nor particularly likeable, the different worlds of these disparate people are brilliantly and evocatively constructed. Now that I have a handle on Self’s style, I shall look forward to tackling Great Apes at a later date.