When Tom Brodzinski, protagonist of The Butt, the sixth novel by British satirist Will Self, stands on his hotel balcony and takes the final drags of his very last cigarette, there’s no ashtray in which to victoriously stub out the trappings of his addiction. So, “in a moment of utter unthinking,” he flicks it over the railing, where it lands on and subsequently burns the head of an old man sunbathing on the deck below.
It’s an honest mistake, but Tom happens to be on vacation in an unnamed country whose legal system—an arcane mess based on the folklore of its various indigenous peoples—doesn’t believe in accidents. Even worse, his butt’s brief transgression into public space means that Tom has also violated their particularly vicious antismoking laws. Before he knows it, he’s on trial for attempted murder and sent out into the desert with another convict to make reparations to the tribes they’ve slighted—many of which are actively trying to kill each other.
The Butt is a characteristically sweeping effort from Self, veering with gusto from screwball road-trip comedy to a brooding critique of the West’s lingering imperialist urges. According to him, however, many of the book’s most far-fetched absurdities were inspired by a very real experience in a country he doesn’t mind naming off the page.
“Oh, I was on holiday in Australia, and all of that happened,” Self told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from his home in London. “It’s like all of these things: most of the stuff people think is invented is true, and most of the stuff people think is true is invented. It was so bizarre in northern Queensland, [where] the whites were perpetrating genocide on the Aboriginal people until the 1930s—they were still going out and shooting them in cold blood.
“So on the one hand you have that, and on the other hand you have these draconian antismoking laws—literally the lines painted on the pavement to show you can’t smoke within 16 metres [of a public doorway]. I mean, I didn’t flick the cigarette onto a man’s head, but it did occur to me that were that to happen… It seemed really bizarre, really odd.”
While it’s being hailed as a biting commentary on overbearing governments and ideology run amok, the satire in The Butt is surprisingly broad in scope. In fact, the only places you’ll come across a pointed term like “post-9/11” are in the blurbs on the dust jacket, and from the author himself in conversation. When asked whether Tom’s suffering is wholly undeserved, considering he broke a law that he simply didn’t bother to learn about ahead of time, Self is quick to ground his argument in the realm of real-world politics.
“This is the dilemma of the liberal West, which Tom very much personifies,” he says. “On the one hand, if you don’t want to get fucked up by weird native laws, find out about them. But the other thing is to say ‘This is all shit.’ The traditional robust response to loony local laws is to just get rid of them, take them over, invade them, colonize them, impose your own laws. And then the other response is to, yeah, learn about them and avoid fucking up.
“But liberals are constantly in a muddled third way, where on the one hand they fall victim to a kind of cultural relativism, and on the other hand, he [Tom] is completely maddened by and knows that he’s in a ridiculous position. This isn’t a satire on the behaviour of the neocons or Bush—it’s on the behaviour of western liberals, such as myself, in response to post-9/11 politics.”
Self’s own response to the attacks on the World Trade Center—initially fervent, but quickly settling into repulsion at the amount of misplaced moral outrage he witnessed—is documented in the introduction to Psychogeography, a 2007 collection of his travel writings. And while The Butt is very much concerned with the shape of the world since 9/11, he admits that the day itself no longer holds any significance for him.
“It’s pretty ghastly for all the families of the people who’ve died,” he says. “It’s horrible. But, I mean, lots of other people have died. It’s like when Diana Spencer died, and you used to get in the cabs in London, and the cabbie would be sobbing, ‘Oh, it’s dreadful, guv.’ And you’d say, ‘Well, did you know her?’ The cabbie would go, ‘Oh, no, I didn’t, actually.’ You have to have some conviction, belief, and level of identification with the nation-state involved for it to be totemic, unless you’re personally involved. You have to have some kind of identification with America-stroke-the-West.”
But wait: does that mean that Self, who is both a British resident and American citizen, doesn’t consider himself part of the West?
“No, not particularly,” he says with a laugh. “I mean, you’ve read The Butt. You can see that.”
Bloomsbury, 358 pp, $27.50, hardcover
(interview originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, October 23, 2008)