Thrilling Wonder Stories 2: Will Self at the Architectural Association in London
Will Self, about to lay down the "DUH" on a questioner.
I'm just back from London, where I participated in Thrilling Wonder Stories 2: Stranger Than Truth, organized by Liam Young and Geoff Manaugh. As the conference site noted: "We have always regaled ourselves with speculative stories of a day yet to come. In these polemic visions we furnish the fictional spaces of tomorrow with objects and ideas that at the same time chronicle the contradictions, inconsistencies, flaws and frailties of the everyday. Slipping suggestively between the real and the imagined they offer a distanced view from which to survey the consequences of various social, environmental and technological scenarios. Thrilling Wonder Stories gathers an ensemble of mad scientists, literary astronauts, digital poets, speculative gamers, mavericks, visionaries and luminaries to spin stories of wondrous possibilities or dark cautionary tales."
One of those luminaries was Will Self, in fine form answering a question submitted via Twitter, about whether he takes notes while on his walks to and from airports--the fodder for his latest book. Uncoiling his lanky form kinetically toward the microphone, almost like an oil derrick or a descending hammer toward a nail, Self emphatically replied, "Well, DUH. It's not like I'm some Buddhist monk or something. I'm a writer." I'm afraid this sent me into a spasm of laughter that almost dislodged me from my chair. It was exactly what I'd been thinking but might've been too polite to say had the question been directed toward me.
Self was in the grouping "Cautionary Tales," along with me (talking about my novel Finch and failed cities) and Paul Duffield, one of the masterminds behind the comic Freak Angels. Before the question session, Self had delivered a pitch-perfect reading from his new book Walking to Hollywood: Memories from Before the Fall, which won't be released in the United States until spring of next year.
The airport walks, Self said in the preamble to his reading, were a way to '"radically re-orient" himself by traversing "the hinterlands," spaces that are, to most travelers, just a conduit to a destination. "It takes a whole day to reach open fields from central London," Self added, while noting that the walk to Heathrow was one of the more pleasant in his experience. Flying generally he finds a way of rendering an awe-inspiring experience mundane, as passengers are "herded" from one banal space to another. In fact, he said he's given up flying since a five-week book tour of the U.S. last year. (In a side conversation, I asked him how he'd be getting back to the U.S., vague images of a freighter in my mind, and he made a noncomittal concession to the idea of rescinding his ban at some point in the future.)
Among other strengths, Self's a great satirist and the part of his reading describing a hypothetical leap from the Golden Gate Bridge during an airport walk was not just laugh-inducing but gripping, each word carefully chosen and fitting into an approach to style both modern and baroque simultaneously. All in all, it was a masterful performance--and one I had a front-row seat for, since the participants in each session sat at a table in the center of the audience.
Tomorrow, more on the conference. In the meantime, Paul Charles Smith has a short account online and on my personal blog I've posted a few photos of books acquired during the trip (some of which I'll blog about on Omni).