In 2012 I read Will Self for the first time – a free online story called “The Rock of Crack As Big as the Ritz”. This “free” story ended up costing me $10.95AUD, as I had to get the full collection immediately to find out how it ended.
It was a taut, exciting story about a black ex-serviceman who is trying to stay straight and instead spirals into a life of crime like a spider down a plughole. It was impossible and surreal but gritty and naturalistic. It broke all sorts of rules about showing-and-not-telling, but that only helped accelerate the story’s pace. The main character, Danny, is unlikeable, and yet I like him – no contradiction there. “Rock of Crack” is an a pulse-pounding page-turner, a non-stop thrill-ride, an [insert gratuitously hyphenated compound words here], and its sequel in this collection, “The Nonce Prize”, is nearly as good.
The other stories are more diverting than fascinating, although I liked “Flytopia”, which is about a man who can communicate with insects in his house. Very much like a Paul Jennings story for grown-ups, with the surreal, pillowy quality of a dream five minutes before the alarm rings. The others are one-idea jokes – entertaining, but they don’t stay with you. “A Story for Europe” brings back the 80s fad of body-swap stories, but in a realistic and semi-serious way. “Design Faults in the Volvo 760 Turbo” is an amusing take on car fetishism.
Some of the stories don’t work – “Dave Too” is dull and obscurantist, for example. Will Self is a talented writer but I think he makes the common mistake of thinking that uninteresting stories will magically become interesting because he’s the one writing them. Not so. It’s the jokes that get the laughs, not the comedian.
“The Nonce Prize” brings back Danny and friends – sort of. The central conceit of “Rock of Crack” is missing (Self offhandedly writes it out of the story in a few sentences), and the characters’ personalities seem to have changed. But it does give Danny a shot at redemption, as he is framed for a brutal crime by a Yardie drug lord and railroaded to prison.
Away from drugs, and trying to avoid the usual fate of paedophiles behind bars, Danny takes a creative writing class and discovers that he has talent at something other than cutting crack. When he learns of a intraprison writing contest, he decides to enter. People looking for an uplifting Hollywood ending should keep looking, but the ending has a ray of hope for Danny, and is even inspirational after a fashion. A man stuck in mud has often won just by not allowing himself to be pulled down any further.
Toys/Boys should be viewed as either a good but inconsistent collection, or a very good two-part novella with some bonus stories. “Rock of Crack” and “The Nonce Prize” are both excellent (especially the former), but the others don’t measure up. Lightning might strike twice, but striking three times is a bit much to ask where Will Self is concerned.