Will Self’s best research tools are his own two feet
Author Will Self strode off a plane and into the Alaska Airlines arrivals hall at LAX on a recent afternoon, his long legs fairly gulping the yardage and his elongated, funereal face looking toward the outdoors. He barely slowed down long enough to indicate that he didn’t want to look at a map. He wanted to walk.
In fact, he wanted to walk all the way to his hotel in downtown Los Angeles, a distance of more than 17 miles, where he was staying a few days to talk about his new book, “Psychogeography.” The book is a series of short pieces about his use of walks as a literary-cum-political practice in the spirit of the derive -- “drifting” in the French -- a perceptual and experiential technique endorsed by Situationist radical Guy Debord in 1958.
The idea, to Debord, was to use a purposely aimless stroll (enhanced by drunkenness, in his case) to liberate oneself from the deterministic universe whose plot points were work, home and market -- with the goal of reordering urban life on a human scale. Self has a related but different goal: His walks, he said, “are about reclaiming cities, both at a personal and a political level. They’re about assaulting people’s idea that there are places that are not worth being in, or traveling through.”
Self is best known for the twisted, imaginative narratives that drive his most celebrated fiction, including “The Quantity Theory of Insanity” and “How the Dead Live.” But he has been doing these walks for about eight years, and more recently for a column he writes, in the Independent newspaper in London, about psychogeography, the study of the physical terrain’s effect on human behavior. He is both sincere and blunt about his shortcomings as a flaneur, the city stroller so beloved of French poet Charles Baudelaire: Self walks only when he has a known destination. He has little patience for being lost, calling it “ditsy.” “I don’t do ditsy,” he said.
The Watts Towers were the interim goal, almost 12 miles straight east on Century Boulevard in a slash right across South L.A. “Done,” he said, bolting down the sidewalk.
Self prefers it this way: The person accompanying him on his walk, often a journalist or fellow writer, plans the route. His investment in that choice, like his mode of travel, is light. What matters is that he eventually makes his work appointments. Coming all the way from London on a multicity tour, he carries nothing except the few items that fit in the hidden game pocket in the back of his Barbour Beaufort hunting jacket.
He asked directions from a group of four adults with the words “Airport Ambassador” on their shirts, and one woman said, “Go under that blue sign and catch the C bus to the transit terminal. . . . “
“No, we’re walking,” Self said.
“But the bus is free,” she insisted.
“It’s not the money, it’s the principle.”
She looked at him. “Y’all are just playin’, right?”
It was not a particularly hot day, but the miles of concrete seemed to suck the cosmic juice out of the sun and slather it red on one’s neck. Self loped along past the airport hotels of the Century Boulevard corridor, halting to snap a photo of a sex shop. Being on foot instead of in a car, the change in perspective is noticeable instantly: The distance unpacks and takes on a different scale, measured not in songs on the radio or landmarks but in what Self describes in his book as “the metronomic rhythm of my legs, parting and marrying, parting and marrying.” Suddenly, what matters is the texture of the stucco and the color of the sex shop building. The looks on people’s faces.
But this kind of hidden beauty isn’t exactly what he’s looking for. The flaneur, as Self explained, moves through all environments in thrall to the picturesque, a 19th century ideal of beauty embraced by the Romantic poets.
“They’ll go into ecstasies over that manhole cover or a bit of trash or some unrecognized beauty,” he said. “But I don’t want the picturesque. I view this as a complete practice. It is an act that only exists in doing it.”
Instead, he’s looking for an internal state. And here is where his practice both takes shape and breaks down.
“It is closer to Buddhist notions of satori, definitely, for me. It is much more an internal state I’m trying to achieve. It’s a lot to do with not thinking,” he said. Which, given the heroic intake of drugs and alcohol that used to occupy this behavioral space, raises the possibility that this is more about providing a nonabusive focus for his energies than truly exploring the story, such as it were. This is the guy infamously tossed off former British Prime Minister John Major’s campaign plane in 1997 for snorting heroin in the bathroom while on assignment. When he cleaned up in 1999, he started walking.
“It’s the antithesis of drug experience,” he said of walking. “Addicts are the hard-line determinists of the world: We believe that that felt good, and therefore, infallibly, it should feel good again. Push button A, then B will happen.
“This is the opposite of that. Push button A and just deal with it. Whatever happens, happens.”
Still, this inward movement is part of the reason why some of the pieces in his new book, “Psychogeography,” are less than satisfying: Sometimes “whatever happens” is nothing. After the bent but ultimately compelling fictional premise of his other 2007 release, “The Book of Dave” -- about a cabby’s diary that becomes the sacred text of a society 500 years in the future -- one devours the toothsome descriptions of these walkabouts looking for the poetic beauty of Blake, or the alien insights of Baudrillard, or even the cultural love letter of Kerouac’s “On the Road,” but Self is just not going that deep.
Maybe the problem is that he’s not given himself over fully to the ramble or selected a ramble with the possibility of truly shaking him.
“You know, you’re being too penetrating, because you’ve effortlessly skewered the fallacy that lies in what I’m doing and probably revealed the addiction that lies underneath it,” Self said without skipping a beat. “I can’t do the random thing. Because I’m too much of a workaholic.”
He has a wife and four kids back home in London, so it’s probably the responsible thing to do. And the walks do provide some source material. He’s just finished a Conrad-like novel, which he says is “no accident,” and he’s walking from all the airports on his trips about the U.S. with an eye to writing a new book about the country. The thesis hasn’t come to him yet, but he’s busily snapping photos, mentioning W.G. Sebald’s book, “The Rings of Saturn,” as an inspiration.
As Self passed out of Inglewood and into Watts, the sun started drooping in the sky. The scene along Century Boulevard got a little more gritty. Self mentioned that, just the day before, he’d walked into Seattle from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and five miles of the route was along a nature trail.
“It’s not illegitimate to take a prettier route,” he said, laughing. “I mean, it’s not about beauty, per se, but it’s not about masochism, either.”
Thus the stop at the Watts Towers, a series of sculptural artworks built by construction worker Sabato Rodia in the early 20th century. Self is not against satisfying his own touristy curiosity about such places. He probably missed them a time or two in the past, and this is a way to reclaim the experience.
“I’ve been to them all over the years a number of times, [messed] up, and I see nothing, really,” he said. “You get into town, do your press, do your event, get drunk and fly out the following morning. It’s like molesting a place, that. In a few hours, just by the motion of your feet, you can drag these things back from that kind of unknowing in a very important way.”