Will Self's My Idea of Fun had been sitting on my shelf for about 20 years. I'd started it, didn't warm to the first few pages, so set it aside for another few years and tried again.
Reader, I finished it, but it wasn't my idea of fun.
The book begins with an Epigraph by Isaac Bashevis Singer: "I have told myself a thousand times not to be shocked, but every time I am shocked again by what people will do to have fun, for reasons they cannot explain." It's a warning, if you like, about what's to come, about Ian Wharton who loves his wife Jane but is considering doing terrible things to her. Ian says, "I'll give you the opportunity to participate in the denouement. I'm all for audience participation". I mean, who could blame you if you wanted to read no further? But then, who could blame you if weren't intrigued?
Ian narrates about half of the story. He is an infant when his father leaves the family, and his early years are spent with only his mother for company, living near Brighton on a caravan site. When the boy is on the cusp of puberty "Mr Broadhurst came to live at Cliff Top" and this larger than life man has such an influence on Ian that he takes on the moniker The Fat Controller.
That's more than enough of the story. Since much of the impetus for continuing to read lies in questioning what is and isn't real, I'd rather not give anything away. If I were to compare it to other books, I'd go with Iain Banks's The Wasp Factory for the damaged protagonist, and Martin Amis's The Rachel Papers for the male-centric outlook. Will Self has named Amis as an influence, as well as J.G. Ballard, and yes, I remember there was some gratuitous violence in Super-Cannes. However, I don't recall being taken aback by these three books as much as I was by My Idea of Fun.
Nor was the language in those books quite so intimidating. If I'd stopped to look up unfamiliar words as I read it would have detracted from the flow of the story. Here's one sentence that indicates the gulf between my literacy and Will Self's: "...I have raced laggardly protons around the cyclotron, revelling in the sempiternal sciamachy...". I laughed out loud when I read this.
But how to rate the book? Did I like it or not? Well, there was plenty to dislike, as I've already intimated. Once you've visualized a well-written yet disturbing description, the image isn't easy to erase. Well, you don't need to like a book to appreciate its artistry, inventiveness and originality, and in that respect My Idea of Fun is one of the best I've read recently.
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