Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros51Part 2: Contemporary Forms of Satire‘A Satire at Once Savage and Toot...

Part 2: Contemporary Forms of Satire

‘A Satire at Once Savage and Toothless’: The Politics and Aesthetics of Satire in Will Self’s Works

Une satire féroce et inoffensive : politique et esthétique de la ménippée chez Self
Justine Gonneaud


La majorité des définitions traditionnelles de la satire soulignent la relation incontestable du genre à une norme sociale de référence que le satiriste s’applique à exposer et moquer, afin d’encourager par contraste les pratiques vertueuses inverses. Toutefois, la satire selfienne, multidirectionnelle de par ses cibles et contradictoire dans ses postulats moraux, suggère de reconsidérer ce cadre théorique. Cet article se propose d’étudier les différentes stratégies narratives qui sous-tendent le texte selfien et concourent à créer une forme satirique du jeu, de l’exhibition et de la provocation, telle que la définit Dustin Griffin, plus qu’une satire téléologique, visant à reformer un horizon moral et éthique.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

1In the wake of the January killings of French cartoonists in Paris, author and essayist Will Self—often labelled a satirist himself by academic or literary criticism—was compelled to reconsider the nature and purpose of satire. In an opinion piece tellingly entitled ‘What’s the Point of Satire?’, he explains: ‘We may like to think of our satirists as still speaking truth fearlessly unto power within a social realm bounded by commonly understood norms […]but such a view is largely delusory. In fact, it’s the managed anomie of our society today […] that allows for a satire at once savage and toothless’ (Self 2015).

2Literary criticism and theories of the satirical mode generally emphasise the genre’s need for a clearly defined set of moral values, easily identified by the audience. For instance, according to Northrop Frye, satire, ranging from ‘low-norm’ to ‘high-norm’ (Frye 234), relies on rules and values that are being observed and criticised with varying degrees of severity, but in any case, the satirical form is characterised by its ‘militant irony: its moral norms are relatively clear, and it assumes standards against which the grotesque and absurd are measured’ (Frye 223), which implies that both audience and satirist agree on the ‘undesirability’ of the object attacked (Frye 224). Alvin Kernan defines the persona of the satirist as entertaining a view of the world as ‘a battlefield between a definite, clearly good, which represents an equally clear-cut evil. No ambiguities, no doubt about himself, no sense of mystery troubles him, and he retains always his monolithic certainty’ (Kernan 21–22).

3Whereas most definitions of satire underline the indebtedness of the genre to a doxa or to an established social norm that it must expose and deride so that the opposite virtues can be implicitly extolled and ultimately reinforced, Will Self’s statement regarding the point of satire prompts a revaluation of the very frame within which satire is understood. While he shares, to some extent, a belief ‘in the moral purpose of satire’ and its potential for comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable (Self 2015), he also expresses doubts about the possibility of exerting such cathartic powers within a globalised social context, where ‘competing ethical codes are viewed as alternate lifestyle choices’ (Self 2015). According to him, the onset of secularism has prompted a general moral relativism which might render satire inoperative: ‘In societies such as our own, where people have widely divergent views about what constitutes the good life, no single kind of satire, no matter how prêt-a-porter, can fit all’ (Self 2015). Dustin Griffin, who retraced the history of satiric theory in Satire: A Critical Reintroduction, formulates similar reservations as to the New Criticism assumptions that satire is based on shared cultural values (38). According to him, ‘the notion that clear moral standards are at the center of satire is […] open to challenge’ (37), for indeed:

What we behold in satire is not a neatly articulated homiletic discourse but the drama of an inflamed sensibility, or a cool and detached mind playfully exploring a moral topic. The reader’s interest is not in rediscovering that greed is a bad thing […] but in working through (with the satirist’s help) the implications of a given moral position …, the contradictions between one virtue (justice) and another (forgiveness), or the odd similarities between a vice […] and a virtue. (37–38)

4Griffin stresses that moral ideas should be thought of as the ‘raw material’ of satire, as a point of departure than as an end (37), suggesting that the point of satire would be located within the thought process it applies or within the exploration of moral conundrums and contradictions it displays, in keeping with the postmodernist deconstructive intent. Ruben Quintero furthers this idea, stressing that the satirist is not required to resolve the tensions revealed by the text, thus laying a greater stress on the hermeneutic responsibility of the reader:

The satirist is not obligated to solve what is perceived as a problem or replace what is satirically disassembled or unmasked with a solution […] The satirist’s responsibility is frequently that of a watchdog; and no one expects a watchdog to do the double duty of alarming others that the barn is on fire and of putting out the blaze. Satirists, that is, rouse us to put out the fire. They encourage our need for the stability of truth by unmasking imposture, exposing fraudulence, shattering deceptive illusion, and shaking us from our complacency and indifference. (Quintero 3–4)

5Griffin consequently offers the following analytical framework for an appropriate appreciation of satire: ‘I want to suggest . . . that we may arrive at a fuller understanding of the way satire works if we think of a rhetoric of inquiry, a rhetoric of provocation, a rhetoric of display, a rhetoric of play’ (Griffin 39).

6Bearing in mind the contemporary reframing of satire, this paper examines the narrative and discursive strategies producing a satirical form able to accommodate a perceived current lack of common moral ground, focussing mainly on narratives that use similar plotting tactics: Great Apes and Cock and Bull. These texts set a horizon of expectations that they proceed to disrupt with extraordinary circumstances: in the first one, Symon Dykes, an artist who suffers from a nervous breakdown whereby he hallucinates that he is human, must learn how to live in a new social order where the apes have won the evolutionary race. The second book, Cock and Bull is constituted by two novellas that play on the idea of gender: while in the first one, Carol, a housewife, grows a penis, Bull, a hearty rugby player and journalist, wakes up one morning with a fully functional vagina behind his knee.

7The purpose of this paper is threefold: I shall first look at the rhetoric of display in Self’s ‘savage’ satire, focussing on the reworking of discursive and narrative tropes typically pertaining to a Menippean aesthetics of satire. Secondly, in keeping with Griffin’s notion of satire as an exploratory rather than a cautionary tale, I shall assess how the inherently ambivalent exhibition of a deregulated social body creates a hence ‘toothless’ satire that precludes the teleological reconstruction of an implied moral norm. Finally, I shall consider to what extent the rhetoric of provocation and play underlying Will Self’s bitter sense of humour may (or may not) sting and ultimately spring the reader into re-building a stable norm whose loss is staged by the narrative.

8Will Self’s satire shares common traits with the menippea, a satirical genre that Mikhail Bakhtin defined as mutable, ‘extraordinarily flexible and changeable as Proteus, capable of penetrating other genres’ (Bakhtin 113). According to him, the menippea is characterised, by ‘the use of the fantastic’ and of comic elements of a carnival nature (Bakhtin 114), combined with ‘crude slum naturalism’ (Bakhtin 115), in order to provoke and test philosophical ideas (Bakhtin 114), or ‘ultimate questions’ (Bakhtin 115) that are put to the test by syncrisis – or ‘juxtaposition’ of perspectives from unusual points of view. In other words, the menippea is a ‘multi-styled and multi-toned’ (Bakhtin 118) genre that uses ‘sharp contrasts and oxymoronic combinations’ (Bakhtin 118) in order to try the validity of discourses and beliefs.

9Will Self’s satire shares with the menippea its love for sharp, incongruous contrasts and juxtapositions. In Great Apes, the reversal of the natural order goes hand in hand with an inversion of the moral values: molesting one’s offspring is actually failing to mate and beat them on a regular basis (Self 1997, 142), which challenges the founding social principle of the incest taboo. Similarly, monogamy is considered unproductive and perverse. The proper social etiquette consists in ‘nesting’, that is creating a home organised around one alpha male, various males from beta to gamma, and numerous females that should be regularly mated as well (Self 1997, 146). The aesthetics of a mundus inversus reveals the arbitrariness of the founding principles of our society. Likewise, in Cock and Bull, the metamorphosis that both Carol and Bull undergo allows for an exploration of the relationships between sex, gender and sexuality. Indeed, in an interview Will Self explained that both novellas were partly a response to feminist arguments and an experimentation on gender theory:

People would ask me—and still do—what it was about. I’d give various answers: that it was about my rage with feminist arguments that all men were rapists by virtue of possessing the requisite weapon; that it was about the breakdown in gender distinctions which implied that all it was to be either one or the other was a mix and match of the requisite parts; that it was about my own nature, for as Cocteau remarked, all true artists are hermaphrodites. (Self 2000, 7–8)

10In this respect, Self’s satire is menippean to the extent that it puts arguments, ideas and discourses, or in Bakhtin’s words ‘ultimate questions’, to the test by means of fantastic invention and comic elements of a grotesque nature. Similarly, How the Dead Live, and the seminal short story ‘North London Book of the Dead’ pose the ultimate question of dying and life after death, using the motifs of the threshold dialogue and prosopopoeia, identified by Bakhtin as tropes of the menippea. Such examples abound in Self’s works: The Book of Dave tests the limits of religions based on the exegesis of a book, with the representation of a post-apocalyptic world whose rules are based on what is later revealed to be the diary of Dave Rudman, a misogynist, racist, bitter, depressed and paranoid cab driver, thus testing and deriding social, moral and religious codes.

  • 1 My translation of the following definition: ‘des représentations visuelles dont la brutalité affect (...)

11The menippean testing of ideas gives way to a savage exhibition of characters, grotesque bodies, and dissected organs. For instance, the distinguished psychiatrist Zack Busner can be seen sending an exploratory hand ‘to grope in its folds and pleats of yellow-pink ischial skin, then bringing it up to his flared nostrils and waggling lip’ (31-32), in a burlesque decrowning of the prominent erudite. The ape society—and the intrusion of extra genital organs in Cock and Bull—offer a framework in which all corporeal taboo activities can be exposed, and become the social norm. In an essay dedicated to the representations of the human body in Self’s fictions, Didier Girard stresses that most corporeal depictions focus on the decaying body and its failing organs, making the image of the corpse the smallest common denominator across his works (106). In Cock and Bull, the author explores more limit territories, such as onanism and rape. An exploration that digs even deeper, into the very bowels of the protagonists: ‘His arsehole was sending him internal memoranda on his own mortality—and it leaked. Bowel movements were no longer discrete, his bowels seemed to move all the time, telegraphing him fart bulletins, and faxes of shit-juice that soiled the gussets of his pants in hideous ways’ (Self 1997, 11). In this description, naturalistic, even scatological terms such as ‘shit-juice’, ‘arsehole’, ‘fart’, co-exist with the grotesque idea that the organs, being able to telegraph and fax, are endowed with a life of their own, almost superseding their host, in a savage display of the interiority exposed with blunt graphic humor. For Jean-Michel Ganteau, such obscene exhibitions and crude depictions of the human body partake of a strategy of exposure of what usually remains unseen, all the while allowing Self to revisit the tradition of ars moriendi through the prism of a devastating black humor (130). Such a use of obscene images might even be compared to imagines agentes that Franck Lestringant identifies as a key feature of the menippea.1 According to him, the Satyre Ménippée is fraught with such ‘active images’, or visual representations chosen for their improper quality and their shock value, crafted with an aim to strike the reader’s imagination (Lestringant 65). Franck Lestringant explains that such active images are traditional devices of the ‘art of memory’, used by orators or narrators to signpost a narrative and facilitate its memorization (68). However, such a mnemonic use of imagines agentes is meant to remain concealed from the audience, visible only to the orator. The fundamental difference, Lestringant notes, with their use in Satyre Ménippée, is that active images are meant to be noticed, in order to reveal what normally remains unseen (69) thus endorsing a didactic function in creating immediate striking visual representation in the mind of the audience (83).

12Along the lines of a traditional optical and anatomical perspective, the author uses scalpels and microscopes to anatomise and display the psyches and bodies of his characters. The bodies lay open, dissected, exposed, in keeping with a grotesque aesthetics of decrowning, in order to try ideas and put theories to the test. However, this menippean inquiry, based on the notion of syncrisis, seems to preclude any form of answer to the questions that it had set out to ask.

  • 2 ‘And so Carol began to see Dan for what he was: slight, sour, effete, unsure of himself’. (7)

13Conforming to a tradition of Juvenalian satire—that is to say targeting human vices and flaws with a corrective aim—Will Self’s works abound with portraits of vile and ridiculous characters: pompous academics, presumptuous psychiatrists and doctors, embodied by Zack Busner and Margoulies in ‘Bull’, obtuse feminists represented by Juniper and Beverley in Cock and Bull, or the artsy clique that surrounds Simon Dykes. Will Self’s most recurrent target is the lower-middle class average Englishman or woman, such as Carol in Cock and Bull. She is the ‘daughter of a desperately self-effacing woman and a dissatisfied autodidactic electrical engineer from Poole’ and was ‘not impelled into an original lifestyle’ (Self 1992, 3). She is also depicted as ‘lithe, and pretty in the mean-featured English provincial way’ (Self 1992, 6–7) ‘too insipid to shape her critique’ (3), ‘lazy and with no profound convictions’ (6). The character is described as having no distinctive feature or personality, as the product of an endlessly repeating cycle of normalcy, as self-effacing as her mother, belonging to the same class, living the same type of life, which could also be said of Dan, her husband.2 Under this savage portrait of a dull housewife, it seems that normalcy is being targeted. Indeed, homonyms flood Will Self’s works, from Dave Rudman in the eponymous Book of Dave, to Dave 1 and Dave 2 in ‘Cock’ and the quasi homonyms Barry, Derry, Gary and Gerry, Dan’s friends, conveying the impression that the characters are duplicates. In this sense, the clone characters, seem as equally anguish-fostering as the disruptive metamorphoses that reshape the social order or reconfigure Carol’s personality, and can be read as an implicit criticism of a post-modern, or post-human world, a reading that is confirmed by the grotesque association of bowel movements and technology cited previously. However, every character that diverges from this corporeal norm is either condemned, debunked or eventually re-integrated within its fold: Simon’s delusion ends with his re-assimilation into the social and bodily order of chimpunity, in ‘Cock’, Carol becomes an immoral murderous monster, while in ‘Bull’, the eponymous character falls prey to the seductive Dr Margoulies. The text contradicts itself, criticising both normative practices and what diverges from them, one discourse neutralising the other.

  • 3 ‘There are, first, those which show strange cosmic upsets: a sun and moons shining together in one (...)

14Similarly, the reader’s expectations are constantly thwarted, or purposefully diverted. For instance, Great Apes both uses and subverts the pattern of mundus inversus in a manner that hinders its decoding. Ian Donaldson categorises the inversions within a reversed satirical world3 along three main lines: the reversals can be either cosmic—defying the rules of physics—evolutionary—challenging the natural order of species—or moral—reverting the social roles and values of a given society (Donaldson 22–23). As discussed, the narrative seems to fit easily into the latter categories. The reversal of the natural order goes hand in hand with an inversion of the moral values, the apes at the top of the evolutionary chain instituting a new social and moral order. As if reflected in the inverted world of a mirror, the norm is the opposite of ours. However, this logic of vertical permutations is thwarted by the fact that the social order of the ape society also preserves structural elements of ours. For instance, homosexuality is deemed ‘unorthodox’ (Self 1997, 146) whereas distinctions between chimp races find direct equivalents in the real world. The bonobos, or ‘chimps of African origins’ (Self 1997, viii), are considered good dancers and excellent athletes, reproducing and mocking stereotypes of race. The social inequalities based on race, gender and sexuality are preserved in the ape world, as if obeying a logic of horizontal displacement or translation pertaining to a regime of fables or roman-à-clefs, rather than one of inversion or vertical permutation. Adding more confusion to the hermeneutics, a representation of a ‘human culture’ is preserved, and explained by Simon still under his human delusion: ‘You see, nudity is a taboo in most human cultures, to expose the lower half of the body is to reveal the genitals which arouse an inappropriate sexual interest’ (Self 1997, 226). Principles that quite bewilder Zach Busner for all in all, he realises that ‘the ramifications of Simon’s delusion […] all made such perfect—if deranging sense’ (226). The confrontation of both perspectives illustrates a lack of common cultural references and dramatises the inherently unstable moral ground upon which postmodern satire operates. The human and ape frames of reference are put on the same level, which prompts a contrastive reading of both social systems in the light of each other, ultimately debunking both of them equally and levelling the satirical playing field. The reference world is diffracted in three different directions through the fictional prism of the novel: the narrative reverses yet traces the structures of the real world at the same time. Logics of displacement, inversion and comparison operate simultaneously, thus thwarting the interpretive strategy that would allow the reconstruction of an axiological system.

15The trope of active images previously discussed undergoes a treatment akin to the one applied to that of the mundus inversus. Most notably in Great Apes, the reader develops a certain resistance, or even habituation in the face of the continuous and prolonged exposure to the grotesque, scatological and violent practices of the apes. The constant beating, mating, lice- and excrement-picking of the chimps is displayed ad nauseam in the novel, up to the point that such deeds become the new standard, as the sheer monotony of the repeated patterns weakens their power to upset and astonish. The initially arresting incongruous images progressively lose their power to strike the imagination, turning the trope against itself and rendering the active image rather invisible to the reader.

16The text, echoing multiple discourses and voices, equally targeted by the satirist, is multidirectional, both micro and macro-structurally. The principle of syncrisis, or polyphonic juxtaposition of contradictory truths is used ad libitum in the texts, constantly shifting the axiological direction of the narrative. According to Dustin Griffin, ‘the formal properties of satiric discourse—lanx satura, sermo, farrago, dialogue, essay, anatomy—suggest that the form lends itself to open-ended inquiry rather than to steady progress toward conclusion, either predetermined or predicted’ (41). However, still in his terms: ‘Sometimes one may suspect the satirist of consciously giving in to the attractions of irony in order to let the satiric inquiry go where it will […]. The danger is that the satirist will fall into a mindless cynicism where everything is subject to satire […]. The satire that attacks everybody touches nobody’ (69–70). Both multidirectional, repetitive in its recurring patterns, ambivalent, or straightforwardly self-contradictory the Selfian text represents a general anomie, or relativism, hence becoming ‘toothless’.

17According to Griffin, the politics of inquiry that characterises the satirical form goes with a ‘rhetoric of provocation’, and ‘one obvious way in which satire provokes its reader is in its calculated difficulty. Satire has traditionally been considered a form that cultivates obscurity, using elliptical syntax, cryptic or abrupt allusiveness, brevity and roughness of rhythm’ (52). As argued, the selfian satire certainly orchestrates a calculated difficulty, and cultivates obscurity on a macro-structural level. However, this also appears on a micro structural level in terms of style. The use of Mokni, an invented language spoken by the inhabitants of Ing in the Book of Dave, immediately comes to mind. The reader is even provided with a glossary at the end of the book in order to make sense of the text. According to Nick Rennison, Self’s style shows ‘characteristic verbal pyrotechnics in full flight—the self-conscious dazzling wordplay, the enjoyment of assonance, alliteration and allusion, the promiscuous mingling of mandarin (thesaurus and dictionary are required reference works for the reader) and the language of the street and the drug world’ (Rennison 150). Hence, a scene of crude exhibition, where Carol waggles her penis in front of a mirror becomes a ‘Terpsichorean promenade’ (Self 1992, 54), while the ape psychiatrists’ use of a precise clinical jargon to describe Simon’s pathology contrasts sharply with the simian practice of spraying excrement to settle an argument. The hybrid style combining both demotic and mandarin speeches creates a diverse and challenging language that can also be linked to the notions of play and display, identified as key features of the satiric genre in general and of the mennipea in particular by Dustin Griffin: ‘A taste for play has always been part of the Mennippean or Lucianic tradition, with its fantastic invention, its exaggerations, and its tongue-in-cheek manner’ (86).

18However, the notions of obscurity, playfulness and provocation are best exemplified by the use of irony in the texts. In ‘Bull’ Razza Rob, a stand-up comedian who specialises in demeaning bawdy ‘cunt jokes’ can be read as the embodiment of the author’s sense of humour in the text. While the comedian is acclaimed by the press (Self 1992, 115), Bull deems his act ‘nothing but obscenity after obscenity’, ‘shoring up a set of obsolete, women-hating attitudes’ (146). Juniper, a fellow journalist in the process of writing an article on the artist explains: ‘People are a lot more sophisticated than you give them credit for. Razza is an ironist. You probably didn’t notice […] but all these cunt jokes are just that: cunt jokes’ (146–47). Although self-contradictory, for precisely a joke is either literal or ironic, Juniper’s comment raises questions of paramount importance for the reader: is a coarse joke nothing more than a joke? Or should it be read as an antiphrasis, really denouncing a crass misogynist discourse at the expense of women? According to Griffin, ‘[i]f the rhetoric of inquiry is “positive”, an exploratory attempt to arrive at the truth, the rhetoric of provocation is “negative”, a critique of false understanding. In each case the satirist raises questions; in provocation, the question is designed to expose or demolish a foolish certainty […]’ (52). The dialogue dramatises the reader’s own hesitations regarding Self’s sense of humour, without ever providing a definite key to grasp the ironic dimension of the text, constantly re-activating the enquiry through provocation and destabilsation.

19Similarly, in Great Apes, the reader is continually teased with metalinguistic reminders that the novel is a satirical conceit. First, it is framed as such both by the ‘Author’s Note’ opening the novel, where an ape Will Self warns his reader that Great Apes is a riposte to attacks directed at the ‘apparent lack of sympathy’ displayed in his previous works, a ‘chronic misunderstanding of the meaning and purpose of satire’ (xi) and by Zach Busner’s expert conclusion on Simon’s breakdown at the end of the novel:

[…] your reality testing […] has, throughout all this, been “hooo” different, rather than straightforwardly wrong. Given your preoccupation before your breakdown with the very essence of corporeality and its relation to our basic sense of chimpunity, it crossed my mind […] that your conviction that you were human and that the evolutionary successful primate was the human was more in the manner of a satirical trope “huu”? (Self 1997, 404)

  • 4 Indeed, if a temporary conclusion is reached at the end of the novel, when Simon happily accepts hi (...)

20Within this frame, Simon Dykes’s series of apocalyptic paintings displaying human characters torn apart by natural disasters in an urban context is a pretext for numerous mise-en-abymes seemingly providing the reader with interpretive clues. Thus, Tony Figes scrutinises ‘the oddly satirical depictions of the city’ and realises that ‘by making his focus the conceit of a world dominated by humans, Simon had managed to express far more, with a few pencil lines, about the condition of modern chimpunity, than he had achieved with barrels of oil paint’ (220). This comment prompts the reader to apply Tony’s interpretation to the novel, hinting that a narrative focussing on the conceit of a world dominated by apes achieves an accurate depiction of the modern human condition: both violent, versatile and conditional. However, this hermeneutic logic is denied by the painter/author himself, when he observes: ‘while at the point of conception, Simon had imagined that these paintings would be satiric, concerned with the futile impermanence of all that was held likely to last, as he worked on them he saw it was not so’ (Self 1997, 25). The reader is strategically offered then denied interpretive clues, relaunching the speculative process endlessly4. In keeping with Ruben Quintero’s assumption, the reader is placed at the very core of the satirical process:

Readers of satire are expected to suspend disbelief, to play along with the game, but not ever to surrender sanity or sound judgment. And satirists may employ fiction for seeking truth but not establishing falsehood. The satirist, in seeking a re-formation of thought, expects readers to engage the satire by applying their reasoning, moral values, and taste to the subject. Through an aggressive strategy of distortion or defamation that demands our critical judgment, the satirist seeks to affect our attitude or perspective, and often through the indirection of a narrator purposely designed to befuddle and obscure whatever exact direction the satirist would probably have us go. (Quintero 5)

21My contention is that the notion of provocation is taken very literally in the narratives. The grim representation of the most scabrous anatomical details, the exhibition of excrements, body parts, violent acts of desecration, brutal murders and vicious rapes aims at provoking the reader both directly and indirectly. The epitome of this idea is the rape of the reader that occurs at the end of ‘Cock’. Carol’s story is embedded within another narrative that appears in italics in the novel: a passenger on a train meets a mysterious ‘effete’ don who tells the story of Carol and Dan, and eventually turns out to be none other than Carol him/herself. The passenger embodies the reader who is both disgusted yet fascinated and tricked into listening to this ‘repellent tale’ (Self 1992, 11). At the end of the story, the don/ Carol rapes the passenger, and while the latter ponders going to the police to report the crime, he can imagine the officer retorting:

I mean to say what did you expect if you venture out into the fictional night alone, looking like you do, acting as you did? […] You actually wanted someone to perform to you […]. I think you wanted to be an audience. Oh, I don’t doubt that you feel bad about it now, you feel used. But really, luvvie—come on. This is what you get if you sit there like a prat, listening to a load of cock […] and bull. (Self 1992, 100)

  • 5 The references to Maylis Rospide’s works are my translations from the French.

22The reading experience seems to brutally turn into an experimentation on the readers’ resilience in the face of violence and on their compliance to a provocative narrative authority, no matter how repellent the tale, or how unreliable the focalizer, in a kind of literary take on the Milgram experiment. This final metafictional twist, both directly involving yet distancing the reader, epitomises the didactic dimension of the narrative: the reader is brutally reminded of their own corporeality and forced out of their comfortable position of outside passive spectator, and into questioning their own reading practice, their own attitude towards a disturbing, voyeuristic, manipulative text. As argued before, initially shocking images are made ineffective by way of repetition, epitomising what Maylis Rospide calls ‘the normative machine at work’ (394).5 She identifies various strategies of renormalisation underlying Will Self’s fictions, demonstrating that acts of transgression, deviant behaviors or bodily anomalies are immediately explained away and reintegrated within the fold of logic (Rospide 394–96). Within this renormalising economy, the limits of what is deemed reasonable and acceptable are constantly displaced and redrawn in order to accommodate and ultimately do away with exceptions, transgressions and abnormalities, illustrating ‘the resilience of the norm’ (Rospide 394). In this instance, originally striking images of grotesquely distorted or mutilated bodies progressively lose their power to shock, thus confronting the reader to their own desensitization and loss of empathy in the face of limit situations, as long as they are repeated enough times to give them a semblance of normalcy, or as long as a narrative authority signals their ironic or critical dimension. The reader’s gradual acceptance of the fictional norm mirrors Simon’s own eventual embrace of the codes of chimpunity, thus forcing the reader to experience the ‘normative machine at work’ and to paradoxically acknowledge the need for an axiological stability and for the very norms and conventions that the narrative debunks and thwarts. By literally losing the reader in moral conundrums and hermeneutic labyrinths, the rhetorics of play, display, inquiry and provocation underlying the narrative ultimately initiate a thought process that goes beyond the fictional frame and engages the narratee personally.

Haut de page


Bakhtin, Mikhail, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1963), Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.

Donaldson, Ian, The World Upside-Down: Comedy from Jonson to Fielding, Oxford: Clarendon, 1970.

Frye, Northrop, ‘The Mythos of Winter: Irony and Satire’, Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957, 223–35.

Ganteau, Jean-Michel, ‘“This Empty Tale”: monstration de l’envers et dire politique dans How the Dead Live de Will Self”, Études britanniques contemporaines 34 (juin 2008) : 129–44.

Girard, Didier, “Anatomie des corps morts: le cadavre plus ou moins exquis de l’oeuvre de Will Self”, Études britanniques contemporaines 17 (décembre 1999) : 105–20.

Griffin, Dustin, Satire: A Critical Reintroduction, Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1994.

Hayes, Hunter, Understanding Will Self, Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2007.

Kernan, Alvin, The Cankered Muse: Satire of the English Renaissance, New Haven: Yale UP, 1959.

Lestringant, Frank, ‘Une topographie satirique: la Satyre Ménippée’, Études sur la Satyre Ménippée, eds. Frank Lestringant et Daniel Ménager, Genève: Droz, 1987, 55–95.

Mack, Maynard, ‘The Muse of Satire’ (1951), Collected in Himself: Essays Critical, Biographical, and Bibliographical on Pope and Some of His Contemporaries, Newark: U of Delaware P, 1982, 53–64.

Quintero, Ruben, ed., A Companion to Satire, Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.

Rennison, Nick, ‘Will Self’, Contemporary British Novelists, London: Routledge, 2005, 149–50.

Rospide, Maylis, Stratégies de ‘renormalisation’ dans l’oeuvre de Will Self, unpublished doctoral thesis, Université Paul Valéry-Montpellier III, Montpellier, 2009.

Self, Will, ‘The North London Book of the Dead’, The Quantity Theory of Insanity (1991), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1994, 1–16.

Self, Will, Cock and Bull (1992), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993.

Self, Will, Great Apes (1997), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1998.

Self, Will, and David Gamble, Perfidious Man, London: Viking, 2000.

Self, Will, How the Dead Live (2000b), London: Penguin, 2001.

Self, Will, ‘Return to the Planet of the Humans’, Dr Mukti and Other Tales of Woe (2004), London: Penguin, 2005, 247–57.

Self, Will, ‘A Point of View: “What’s The Point of Satire? ”’, BBC News Magazine Online, 13 February 2015, accessed at <BBC News, on April 12, 2015.

Haut de page


1 My translation of the following definition: ‘des représentations visuelles dont la brutalité affective ou l’incongruité est destinée à frapper l’imagination’ (Lestringant 65).

2 ‘And so Carol began to see Dan for what he was: slight, sour, effete, unsure of himself’. (7)

3 ‘There are, first, those which show strange cosmic upsets: a sun and moons shining together in one sky, fish flying across land, men hunting on horseback across the sea. Then there are those that show reversals in the normal relationships between animal and men […] The third category […] shows reversals in the normal relationships between people’ (Donaldson 22–23).

4 Indeed, if a temporary conclusion is reached at the end of the novel, when Simon happily accepts his chimpunity to reintegrate the ape society, meaning is reopened one more time in ‘Return to the Planet of the Humans’, a subsequent short story in which our Simon finds himself under the new delusion that he is an ape in a world dominated by humans and longs for the ‘exhilarating vigour and violent intimacy, its rank scents and sensual smells, its cathartic fighting and speedy mating’ of the chimp world (Self 2004, 252).

5 The references to Maylis Rospide’s works are my translations from the French.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Justine Gonneaud, « ‘A Satire at Once Savage and Toothless’: The Politics and Aesthetics of Satire in Will Self’s Works »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 51 | 2016, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2016, consulté le 20 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Justine Gonneaud

Justine Gonneaud is a senior lecturer at the University of Avignon and a member of ICTT research team. Her research focuses on issues of ethics and gender in contemporary British literature in the works of authors such as Will Self, Jeanette Winterson, Angela Carter or Peter Ackroyd.

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search