And who the hell is Will Self? • part one

'This week, I recommend the Turkish coffee," says Will Self, in the manner of a barista. He warmly waves me down the stairs of his south London home, and prowls off in the opposite direction to root out the grounds. Anxious not to be suspected of snooping, I head straight into the kitchen and study the four multi-sided aluminium coffee pots lined up behind the stove like semi-domesticated Daleks.

"Looks like you've got the set," I say, as Self reappears. "Yes," he nods. "I'm very keen on sets. I write my books in sets." He muses on balancing the numbers of novels, novellas, short-story collections and collections of journalism he publishes. He likes to keep these numbers even. "Or maybe that's just the way it turns out."

Then he turns his back, twisting a tap and asking if I liked his new novel, The Book of Dave. "Yes," I say. "Good," he says, in the deep'n'doomy voice so familiar from late-night cultural review shows.

In the public imagination, Self is a freak-show sesquipedalianist. Roll up and see the man with the world's biggest vocabulary! The intellectual who snorted heroin on John Major's jet! In literary circles, he is known as a brilliant writer of darkly grotesque short stories; named among Granta's best of young British novelists in 1993 before he had published a novel. But also the man who too often thinks a short-story idea can fuel a novel, if only he puts in enough words. I told two friends I was going to meet him. One thinks he's a genius, the other says he's a fraud. Both asked: "Are you scared?"

I thought I would be. But, in person, Self is incredibly gentle and his movements are often strangely slow, as if compensating for the speed of his thoughts. A tall man with an empathetic gangster's face and a tiny white cup in his hand, he motions me back up the stairs like an underwater traffic cop.

The Book of Dave is Self's most successful novel to date. Funny, frightening, moving, its premise is that the unhinged and misogynistic rantings of a London cabbie are unearthed in a future capital (by then just a series of islands). Taking more of an interest in character than ever before, Self tells the sad story of Dave alongside that of the mangled-mockney-speaking, fearful new world in which a soul is a "fare", "irony" is the word for any metal, and Dave is always watching his people in the Rearview.

"The book was very much inspired by this scholarly study of biblical archaeology and textual exegesis by a couple of Israeli archaeologists," he says. "They said something that chimed with me: that even though the whole thrust of biblical scholarship since the early 19th century has been to disprove the Bible as the literal word of God, nevertheless there's a strong residual feeling we have that there's some truth in the Old Testament, that there were kind of sheep herders in the bronze era up to these sorts of things. What these two Israelis did was to systematically go through the Bible to show there is no historical evidence for any of it whatsoever.


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