The quiddity of something is its ‘whatness’, the essential aspects which it shares with other things. This contrasts (we learn in Sam Mills’s first novel for adults) with haecceity, which is a thing’s ‘thisness’, the essential characteristics which make it particular. With that in mind, I’d say that the world could do with more novels which have the quiddity of The Quiddity of Will Self; not to mention more novels with equivalent haecceity to The Quiddity of Will Self.
Still with me? Excellent – let’s go!
We start in 2006: a young middle-class layabout named Richatd Smith strikes up a conversation with Sylvie Pettersson, his downstairs neighbour; afterwards, he finds a card which has fallen from her pocket. A week later, Richard decides to return the card – and discovers a man’s body in Sylvie’s flat. It turns out, though, that the body was Sylvie’s – she had been undergoing plastic surgery to change her appearance to that of Will Self. Following a lead on the card he found, Richard finds himself becoming drawn into the strange world of the WSC, a clique of writers with a Will Self fixation, and a penchant for bizarre masked gatherings.
In the subsequent four sections of the novel, we meet Sylvie’s ghost, frustratedly searching for her killer; Richard Smith a year later, when he’s won the opportunity to follow in Will Self’s footsteps by writing in public in a tower block (though more sinister forces are at work than he realises); Mia, a journalist in 2049, who wonders whether the octogenarian Self’s recent death was as straightforward as it appeared; and a present-day writer named Sam Mills working on a novel called The Quiddity of Will Self – but it’s a different Sam Mills…
I won’t pretend to have understood everything Mills is trying to achieve in her novel, nor all the ways in which it’s in dialogue with Will Self’s work – but I found Quiddity a rewarding and intriguing read nonetheless. Themes of identity and obsession reverberate through the book, and the shape of the narrative is especially interesting: each section brings into question the integrity of the previous one, and the story collapses in on itself repeatedly – so, whenever you think you have a handle on it, something will soon be along to change that.
Reading The Quiddity of Will Self made me think of Leo Benedictus’s Prospect article on ‘hindered narrators’ from a couple of months ago. To my mind, Benedictus conflates a few ideas which don’t quite sit together comfortably; but what particularly interests me here is the contrast between narrators ‘with a limited ability to understand the world or write about it’ (which concept shades into narrators with idiosyncratic voices); and those who speak with the Voice of the Author, whatever the character’s name happens to be. It seems to me that the narrators in Mills’s novel (though not necessarily powerless or inarticulate) are all hindered narrators (in that there are fundamental aspects of their world about which they don’t know – but which we, as readers, do); and that Will Self represents the Great Literary Author with the all-encompassing voice – so the characters’ interest in Self may be read as a search for understanding and mastery of the world (in whatever sense).
It’s perhaps difficult to describe The Quiddity of Will Self in a way that doesn’t make it sound like a curio which will only be of interest to lovers of Self’s work – but I do think the book is more than that. It reminds me a little of Christopher Priest’s The Islanders, in the sense that the shape of the novel is important for its own sake; but there’s so much going on, and the energy of the narrative so great, that one can’t help being swept along.
There should be more books like The Quiddity of Will Self. There should also be more books which are nothing like The Quiddity of Will Self – preferably the same ones.