The opposite of The Da Vinci Code.
Published by Bloomsbury in 2004, this book by Will Self is made up of a novella and four short stories. As we have come to expect of Self's work, the prose is exceptional. My copy of the book now has almost as many turned-over page corners as it has intact ones. I cannot fault the linguistic craftsmanship. It seems, however, that the author was so preoccupied with his flawless sentences that he had little time to devote to his plots. Each story ends in a disappointingly, violently abrupt way, which left me feeling a little dissatisfied. The story lines serve as little more than frames for Self's stunning style. In this way, Dr Mukti and Other Tales of Woe is the opposite of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code.
The title tale tells of two duelling psychiatrists. Eponymous Dr Shiva Mukti battles it out with the ever-present Dr Zack Busner. Under the guise of professional second opinions, the doctors play an explosive raquet game, shuttling increasingly dangerous patient-missiles between their consulting rooms. The hatred each feels for the other is expertly described. They envy one another, dreaming up elaborate and inaccurate home lives for their rivals. Jewish Busner imagines Mukti "surrounded by sandalwood-scented, sari-clad womenfolk, [...] to serve and generally mollycoddle him". The Hindu doctor, meanwhile, pictures Mrs Busner "holding diamond-ringed fingers to the coiffured sides of her elaborate false hair. Such fun we'll be having tonight, oy!". As predicted, he frightening game played by these unbalanced psychiatrists end in tears. Or, rather, in blood.
Takes place in an un-named but very Liverpudlian decaying Northern city. Carl the scally flees his blood-thirsty pursuers and seeks refuge in the flat of Dermot, an elderly gent who lives on strawberry-flavoured dietary supplements and cups of strong tea. The ruffian makes a home for himself in the unoccupied bedroom, and shifts his habits to fit in with those of his host, so as to avoid discovery. It is not until he has made up his mind to crack the old man's head open that the story comes together. My favourite lines from this story come when we are told what Dermot makes of the inhabitants of his rotten city on the rare occasions when he descends from his flat on the twentieth floor, and comes close to the people he sees as ants: "they all seemed grotesquely large, their pink mandibles snaffling chips and saveloys in the café [...] their shiny carapaces slick with rain as they scuttled along the street".
The five-swing walk
Is what weekend-dad Stephen embarks upon with his posse of youngsters in the third story. The convoy is tailed by Misfortune, who walks the vandalized streets paces away from the family. At the start of the short story, it seems that Stephen is irredeemably jaded. As it progresses, though, the less than doting father appears to regain some paternal love. If this seems unlikely for a writing by Will Self, that's because it is soon thwarted as the Saturday plummets to its brutal conclusion. Self is more at ease describing London than Liverpool. He thinks, "perhaps [...] the ironmonger's existed solely to refit itself - not so much a retail concern as an evolved play on doing-it-for-yourself".
Conversations with Ord
Sees the author showing off his view of London. From our bird's eye view, we follow Keith and the I character on their traipses through the south of the capital. Both men are at dreadfully low points in their lives (although Keith's spending the entirety of the 1970s in solitary confinement comes close). They entertain themselves by playing the ingenious "Go-Chess", and assuming the character of their imaginary friend, Ord. Their London is as far removed as imaginable from the areas where "the platinum-plates pelvises of the rich paraded as purple parakeets trilled".
Return to the planet of the humans
Serves as a playful full-stop to Great Apes. This time, the metamorphosis is more traditional, in that one man wakes up to find himself transformed into a beast. Too short, in my opinion, at only ten pages, but I suppose that Self said almost all he had to say in Great Apes, so this very short story needs to be no longer than it is.
This is a book for people who have patience and delight in the artistry of the English language. If you loved The Da Vinci Code because the story was so intriguing, give this a miss. If you hated it because the writing was so thin, Dr Mukti and Other Tales of Woe may be for you.
Review by Stephen Smith on January 18th 2004 in The Observer
Review by M John Harrison on January 3rd 2004 in The Guardian
Review by Christopher Fowler on January 18th 2004 in The Independent