We live, by and large, Panglossian lives, reading purpose into the world, and into ourselves. Confronted by our bodies, we wonder at our watchlike precision. Each part of us does something. A heart pumps blood. A skull shields the brain. Eyes see. Hands grip. The liver…

At this point, we begin to lose confidence in a craftsmanlike creator. Not that the liver serves no purpose; on the contrary, the liver has incredibly many functions: glycogen storage, decomposition of red blood cells, plasma protein synthesis, detoxification, bile production – and that’s not even to mention its regulatory abilities. When we look at the liver we see, not a tool for living, but a living thing – and this is a much less comfortable proposition. Like Dirk Bogart’s Servant, the liver intimidates us by its efficient ubiquity.

Liver is not body horror in the science-fictional sense – for a moving and melancholy admission that our bodies are not our own, watch the films of David Cronenberg. Liver is something else, and for afficionadoes of Self, something entirely expected. It is satire. In Self’s vision, our livers are more valuable than we are, more able; above all more alive. The liver is the only organ in the body that can self-regenerate – and still we contrive, over our lives’ course, to squander its magnificent estate.

The four lobes of Self’s liver are stories, casually interlinked. Structure is relatively unimportant here, and the weakest story comes last. That said, Liver contains by far the strongest Self fictions in years, as the denizens of Soho’s Plantation Club, ‘aping the mores of Maclaren-Ross and Dylan Thomas, and lapsing into the secret language of formerly outlawed inverts,’ cast a miasma of grain alcohol over successive protagonists: a terminally ill hospital administrator; a demigod-like Hoxton ‘creative’; a drug-abusing Peter Sellers fanatic.

Self’s writing is not new. It is not radical. (Describing Birmingham in terms of metastisis, it declares its conservatism.) Self’s satire is profoundly classical, rooted more in Alexander Pope than Jonathan Swift. Poor diseas’d flesh takes plenty of collateral damage, as when a character’s ‘massively engorged liver passed beyond mere macrovesicular steatosis into the irredeemably gothic realms of steatonecrosis,’ but contemporary behaviour is Self’s real target. ‘Confronted with the nobility of feeling, high culture and deep spirituality,’ Self, like the ‘Martian’ of his first story, Foie Humain, ‘sees nothing but the stereotypic behaviours of anthropoid geese.’

of course, mere distance is only the beginning. Satire depends for its success upon a pitiless accuracy. Self’s prose, however much it veers drunkenly between the appetizing and the nauseating, is almost always on the nail: proof that the more accurately you describe a thing, the more surreal it appears. An old woman hussled towards extinction by her daughter’s poor timekeeping. The determined alcoholic gavage of a hapless barman. A homeless boy eating ‘a sweet bun seamed with beef’ in a burger bar. This is either the poetry of alienation, or the 20/20 insight one acquires in the face of approaching death. Self plays both sides, nowhere more affectingly than in the collection’s magnificent centrepiece, Leberknödel.

Joyce, a retired hospital administrator, knows that her cancers will not stop ‘until they had toppled the sovereignty of consciousness itself, and replaced it with their own screaming masses of cancerous tissue.’ Appalled at the ‘bad habit’ of terminal decline, she arranges her own suicide. Seemingly reprieved, she finds, however, that her living has become as much of a bad habit as her dying. Having taken the Martian’s-eye view of gooselike humanity, she cannot reverse the process. She has thrown off the veils of meaning, and now looks objectively at her life, her world, her friends, her sot of a daughter – and finds that she has already killed herself.

The highest office of any intellectual activity is the acquisition of knowledge. Fictional knowledge is both essential and fleeting, and the test of its truth is vague and long-winded, as works are strained through successive filters of fashion, criticism and cultural shift. Ayn Rand once ranked with Tolstoy. Flaubert was reviled by his contemporaries. Self usually affects contempt for this process, presumably because worrying about the value of his art will only distract him from the ephemera so essential to it.

Leberknödel (liver dumplings to you) may be an exception. There’s a different kind of ambition at work here. An eye to posterity in that playful nod to Flaubert, as Self gleefully italicises every middlebrow cliché passing through Joyce’s dying mind. Like Madame Bovary, Leberknödel sets satire aside in favour of a spiky yet humane morality. Our bodies are not ours. Nor are our feelings. We think our perceptions are ephemeral, but they are rooted in a physics that will outlast us. Redeemed, secured, and left to herself, Joyce even manages to argue herself away.

If humans are such delicate tissue, why satirise them? For Self to kick the floor out from under himself in this way is no mean achievement. Liver’s hysterical grotesques – The Poof, the Martian, His Nibs, the Cunt – cannot and are not meant to hold.

Joyce will endure.


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