Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys by Will Self

Spoilers Incoming

The opening scenes of drug dealers and rip offs sets up an expectation that Tough, Tough... will be some dime-store thriller, Cowboys & Indians, 007 and Goldfinger. But that expectation is wonderfully, satirically subverted with the literal crack mine — a pit of crack cocaine one could harvest with a pick axe — and the drop off ending. The remaining stories are similar subversive and satirical. I kept expecting the straight-to-DVD type cliches — "And I would've gotten away with it, too..." — but Self takes the stories in these incisive character-driven directions, and the characters are unexpected and smart.

This theme continues, delightfully, and in total, I loved the absurdity and the lack of predictability. The book is both without dribbling into nonsense, which is difficult to do.

But the thing that had me rolling my eyes, and that I haven't seen mentioned elsewhere: the self referencing and subtle threads of connection between the stories. In one story a German business man and baby seem to be switching consciousness, and a german doctor diagnoses the kid. Then, in another story, you hear a reference to another German name. In one story a man is obsessed with everyone being named Dave, then in another we're briefly introduced to a minor character named Dave. These small instances go on, to be concluded in the ultimate self-reference: the final story in this book of short stories is about a character writing a book of short stories in an attempt to find safe passage and redemption. Is this similar to the book itself? Is my — the reader — lingering on these subtle connections the desired effect of an author writing a book about a bunch of self-obsessed, neurotic characters? Now I'm neurotic, too! Wow! How did that rabbit get in that hat?

I felt like I could see Will Self pulling the levers here, a little too obviously. Too many authors of meta fiction treat recursion and self reference as toys, valuable and curious and impressive for their own sake, without realize these tools can produce many and varied effects. Like, I see it as Look, I can break the fourth wall and make this little feedback loop of thought! Except on the other side, in the more abstract worlds of math and computing, there's: Fibonacci, memoization, the different types of infinities, blowing out stack heaps, the halting problem. Where is the literary equivalent to these products? Where are their concrete story-driven demonstrations? It's this lingering question, left unanswered or at least invisible to me, that has me thinking these meta-fictionists don't yet know what they're playing with.

Still a fun read.