Magic, Trains, and Unfathomable Evil

The Fat Controller is a recurring character on the children’s show Thomas & Friends. He handles the business end of the railway with the callous efficiency of any self-respecting captain of industry. In one episode, a train named Henry refuses to come out from under a bridge because he is afraid of the rain. The people of Sodor try their very best to get Henry on his way. They push him, pull him, argue with him, but nothing works. So, The Fat Controller says to Henry, “We shall take away your rails and leave you here for always, and always, and always.” And so, he takes away Henry’s rails and bricks up the tunnel. The End.

From this relationship between childhood and industry comes the book My Idea of Fun by Will Self. Who better to star in such a book than The Fat Controller himself? But hold on! This is not just another dry examination of capitalism. Now—I would be crucified by the English department if I called it a fantasy novel, but it comes close. While dragons and goblins are absent, black magic is central to the story. Without saying too much, Will Self did the impossible. He found a new way to approach magic. 

My Idea of Fun is cruel, unbearably honest, and darkly funny. Its absence, even within Reed Library’s obscure stacks, should have been my first clue for what was to come. It is a response to casual death: antithesis to the bloodless James Bond bullets, merciful camera pans and chapter ends. In a violent act of altruism, Will Self wrote an unmarketable book.

Will Self’s vision is apparent on every page. Vision, in both senses. Reading this book is like watching a movie. I can still picture every character in more detail than I have any right to. The act of seeing pervades the story: the relationship between reader and narrator, advertisement, and photographic memory. I hung on every strange detail. Image and dialogue create powerful characters. Every voice was unique. Each approached the story from a new angle and left me to unpack an impressive breadth of questions.

All of this said, the story has its flaws. First, it is hard to tell whether sexist and racist views are simply the characters’ or whether they are views held by the book. Judging this is made difficult by the first-person perspective most of the story maintains. I lean toward giving Will Self the benefit of the doubt, but on several occasions, he writes in dubious territory. Second, Will Self is better with scenes than he is with the plot. My Idea of Fun is a series of incredible characters and ingenious happenings stitched together to form a pretty good overall narrative. That is not to say the story was boring; I holed up in my room for two straight days. I simply found that the plot takes a back seat to Self’s other strengths.

I want to end with a bit of honesty. This book haunted me. I put it down and hardly slept the rest of the night. I felt unclean and conversations felt off-kilter for a couple of days. I processed the story in between the mental baths of Terry Pratchett. Maybe I am oversensitive, but this story gave me emotional whiplash. I must reiterate that I loved this book. It is a masterclass in character building and artistic integrity. However, read it at your own risk. My Idea of Fun may not be yours.

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