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The Boston Phoenix Up Your Nose

Will Self turns his satirical eye on Britain's catty, cocaine-addled media cliques

By Katherine Guckenberger

NOVEMBER 8, 1999: 

The Sweet Smell of Psychosis by Will Self (Grove), 96 pages, $11.

Several years ago, the novelist Martin Amis was surrounded by a swirl of delectable and well-publicized literary controversy. His trouble began before publication of his book The Information, when he left his long-time London agent, Pat Kavanagh (the wife of his best friend, writer Julian Barnes), for New York agent Andrew Wylie, whom the British press snidely refer to as "The Jackal."

Wylie, known to secure enormous advances for literary fiction, garnered an unprecedented (in Britain) 500,000 pounds for The Information, at which point Amis decided to spend a small fortune to fix his notoriously crooked teeth. (As his readers know, Amis had been obsessed with "chiclet-like" teeth since The Rachel Papers.) Needless to say, the British press made a big deal out of this -- how vain, how American he wanted to be! Finally, as if to prove the Brits right, Amis left his wife of 10 years and took up with an American writer, Isabel Fonseca, who coincidentally is also represented by Andrew Wylie.

His protégé Will Self's The Sweet Smell of Psychosis, published in England in 1996, skewers the very milieu that gave us that controversy: the catty, rumor-ridden world of media hacks. Illustrated by one of Britain's leading political cartoonists, Martin Rowson, the book is as much fun to flip through as it is to read. Its raw satire will make prudes recoil and everyone else rejoice. True to form for Self, it's ridiculous and sobering.

The Sweet Smell of Psychosis opens with a wager. Richard Hermes, the nondescript protagonist, "lacking -- as yet -- urban guile," bets a friend that the man they see from their window at the Sealink Club ducking into a whorehouse won't have sex with any of the prostitutes inside. Why? Richard doesn't want the man to do it. He wants him simply to stroll home, "his conscience clear and his cock unscented." Richard and the rest of the crew that hangs out at the Sealink are media hacks, defined by Self as "transmitters of trivia, broadcasters of banality, and disseminators of dreck," writing articles about articles, making television programs about television programs, commentating on what others have already said. Hacks traffic in the "glibbest, slightest, most ephemeral cultural reflexivity." They live in a whirlwind world of cocaine and indiscriminate sex. But, as the bet shows, Richard is a lone straight arrow in the midst of this
ribaldry and cynicism.

A newspaperman from a small town north of London, Richard is responsible for a "front-of-house, arts/cultural, gossip-cum-preview section on a mass-circulation listings magazine," a jargony job description that barely holds water. Of course, it's meant to sound useless and vapid. In addition, Richard writes "featureless features" for men's glossy magazines, "extolling the virtues of trouser presses, aromatherapy, and ski-boarding." In short, Richard's life itself is useless and vapid.

Adopted by the grand poobah of the media hacks -- a columnist, talk-show host, and radio personality named Bell -- Richard becomes a regular player at the Sealink. Through Bell, Richard meets Ursula Bently, whom Richard describes as improbably beautiful, "like a diamond found in a gutter behind a Chinese takeaway." Ursula is the author of a sex column for a glossy monthly, and the most desirable woman Richard has ever met. During his quiet conquest of Ursula, Richard begins to snort more and more cocaine; at the same time, Bell's omnipresence starts to take its toll on him.

A fish starts to stink from the head. Bell represents everything Richard hates about his life, and about Ursula's. The increased consumption of cocaine heightens Richard's paranoia: he starts to experience what he calls "belles époques," disturbing hallucinations in which every member of Bell's media clique first appears, to Richard, in the form of Bell himself. To make matters worse, Bell's media ubiquity had never seemed so evident, or so repugnant. "It was getting to the point where Richard's revulsion from Bell was becoming physical as well. . . . The thought of the texture of Bellstubble, the heft of Bellflesh, the odour of Bellfluents and Bellsecretions was foul. The idea of touching the fingers that had typed all those bigoted opinions, those tendentious assertations, those unwarranted insinuations! Of pressing to one's own lips the waspish lips that had uttered such slanders, and feeling the tongue loaded with venom press against your own! Richard dreamed this -- and woke up screaming in the cold, clammy, winter predawn."

Confronting the insipidness of his life, Richard decides to make one last effort to win Ursula before heading home for the Christmas holidays, where turkey and stuffing and the family retriever -- real life -- await him. After a dinner date, Ursula invites Richard back to her apartment, where she seduces him with the cold wiles of a sex expert. Richard's love is transformed into a base lust he detests, and he's forced to imagine the unthinkable (guess what?) just to prevent premature ejaculation.

The novella ends here, abruptly, but not without closure. Self's message is clear: life is ugly and ironic, and the sooner one figures this out, the sooner one can not overcome it but accept it. Self is a master at pointing this out.


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