Will Self: Shark – Ilkley LitFest

The promise of an hour’s talk on how hoteliers try to distract their guests from the revolting thought of previous, nefarious use of the bed they are sleeping in, was not, I would hazard,  what the audience was expecting.  Will Self hates hotels, told us why, and proceeded to try to inveigle his way into someone’s spare room after the show.

Given the critical reception of Shark, and Man Booker Prize shortlisted Umbrella before it, you could be forgiven for expecting  Self to be a tad defensive.  This is not a Difficult Book, he says, stay behind later, and I’ll tell you all about Difficult Books.  But he is not defensive.  He is not curmudgeonly nor grumpy; he is in fact very funny and very sweet.

He tells us why he thinks the critics don’t like his book, and why they think it is Difficult.  He says he has merely started to write in the present tense, because that’s what fits the story,  has omitted the omnipresent overview that much fiction uses, and is writing about what people are thinking.  Thoughts are funny things, and not very controllable; they are often inappropriate and come all of a tumble.  So that’s what he has been writing, and we are treated to a reading

Shark centres around the torpedoing of the USS Indianapolis, the last US ship to be sunk during the closing stages of World War II.  Of the 1200 crew onboard, 300 or so were killed immediately.  Owing to a ghastly series of mistakes, Navy Command knew nothing of the sinking, and no rescue was mounted.  By the time a passing ship discovered them three days later, there were only 300-odd men left alive.  Many of them had been killed – eaten –  by sharks.

The tale is beyond harrowing; the prose beautiful and explicit.  Self reads it with conviction and confidence, and it does not appear Difficult in the slightest.  Perhaps it just needs a little persistence.

It is clear why Self has made the show more light-hearted.  He addresses this directly during a very funny Q&A, saying he knows the subject is distressing, but he doesn’t want to leave us depressed; he’s putting in a few jokes.  He returns to images of late-night abuse of hotel cushions, and asks again, does anyone have a spare room?

October 9th 2014

Also published on The Ilkley Literature Festival Review site