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Book Review: Liver: A Fictional Organ with a Surface Anatomy of Four Lobes by Will Self

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I. A Culinary Introduction

Liver: A Fictional Organ with a Surface Anatomy of Four Lobes by Will Self explores and revels in decay and degeneration, gushing with bile and blood. The quartet of interconnected short stories focus on the liver, a bodily organ with interconnected lobes.

The liver functions by processing toxins and connects to the gall bladder. People also consume liver as a delicacy. The dish “liver and onions” is a classic in American cuisine. I have eaten deer liver with onions and I enjoy the taste. Prior to preparing it, I divided the sizable organ into four sections. After placing the remainder in the freezer for safekeeping, I washed my fingers, coated in maroon-colored blood. I’ve also had duck liver. It was not foie gras, but still silky and delicious. Unlike the dark deer liver, the duck liver looked taupe, a yellowish ivory hue. Considerably smaller than the deer’s liver, the duck liver only provided for consumption as an appetizer.

Since liver is an organ meat, people have different reactions to it. Some consider it anathema, taboo, or simply gross. To others it is a delicacy to worthy of celebration. Restaurant au Pied de Cochon in Montreal specializes in foie gras dishes, the menu a symphony of culinary excess. Liver as a delicacy created controversy in the United States with cities, including New York City, placing a ban on the consumption of goose liver.

The liver is an organ. What we consider meat is actually an animal’s muscle. Meat, whether it is steak or a chicken drumstick, should be tender and chewy. Liver, including other organs like kidney, possesses a blocky, chalky texture.

For a bodily organ, the liver unleashes bodily, political, and culinary complications. Self mines these complications and creates an interconnected work of addiction, destruction, decay, and violence.

II. Pleasures of the Text

Liver has four stories: “Foie Humaine,” “Leberknödel,” “Prometheus,” and “Birdy Num Num.” The first is a story about alcoholics. The second follows a cancer patient to Zurich for assisted-suicide. The third involves an ad man getting his liver sliced out while he’s alive. The fourth follows a junky into a kaleidoscopic vision of addiction, farce, and disease.

In “Foie Humaine,” the reader is introduced to the Plantation Club. Occupying the Soho section of London and accessed through Blore Court, the Plantation Club exists, preserved and fossilized, like its denizens. Steeped in alcohol and oblivion, the club’s nominal gay clientele have degenerated into an asexual amorphous mass. “No change at all was wrought in this sequestered cell. To say of any of its members that they were ‘gay’ would be a nonsense, for, while outside Old Compton Street everyone became openly gayer and gayer, inside the club they only grew sadder and sadder.”

Amidst this decay and depression, Val Carmichael, the club’s owner, spikes the barman’s beer with vodka. In the story, the deterioration of the liver coincides with city’s decomposition. Buildings and neighborhoods get torn down, only to have newer structures jut from the rubble. Only the Plantation Club remains the same.

Self lavishes the reader with delicious phraseology and a vocabulary as rich as any foie gras. The richness elevates the story from a mere tale of sad sacks drinking at the bar. The ornate writing careens drunkenly from the urbane to the slangy to the outright vulgar. Val Carmichael’s penchant for giving his patrons ironic appellations includes a Polari term that remains shocking and unprintable. Although anyone familiar with Sexy Beast will be familiar with the Latinate term for the female anatomy.

In the end, Val Carmichael dies with his liver bloated and cirrhotic. It is a death not unlike many of his patrons, although the playful Self allows Val an end that transforms the story’s mood and genre.

III. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living

Leberknödel” follows Joyce Beddoes, an aging widow dying of cancer, to a euthanasia clinic in Zurich. The story’s title is also the German word for lamb’s livers, a dish she consumes after she refuses her treatment.

The story begins with Joyce and her daughter Isobel traveling to Zurich in a plane. Her body wizened and weakened from the cancer, Joyce finds herself afraid she will die if the plane crashes. Joyce’s daughter Isobel, an “installation artist” Joyce neither understands nor appreciates, eventually hangs around the Plantation Club with the other artists of questionable repute.

Events become complicated when Joyce’s cancer relapses. The first complication involves her meeting a nice Catholic couple, although they insist they are not extremists, prior to her relapse. Joyce enjoys their company, but gets more and more perturbed by the Catholic Church’s desire to determine whether her relapse was a miracle. Technically. Joyce, a believer, never enjoyed the “state-assisted piety” of the United Kingdom’s Anglican Church, but the Catholic Church’s activities, a combination of intricate legalisms and public relations, seems off-putting to Joyce.

In the end, after making a life for herself in Zurich, Joyce has to make a choice. The contract with the euthanasia clinic remains in place.

While the first story mixed the slangy and the ornate, this story interlards the text with Latin phrases and Schweitzerdeutsch, each chapter named after a section of the Catholic Mass. The story flows to its conclusion, revelatory and powerful, as trenchant as “Foie Humaine” was farcical.

IV. You Are All Diseased

The last two stories, “Prometheus” and “Birdy Num Num,” are short and witty. “Prometheus” follows the eponymous protagonist, a hot shot advertising executive, pitch ideas to Zeus, an entrepreneur selling mineral water. If the Plantation Club, “an aquarium of absinthe,” like Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde, preserved in stasis, then Titan, where Prometheus works, is, to quote the comically oblivious French and Saunders, “Very young and very now.” Epimetheus, the slower brother of Prometheus, also works at Titan.

All is normal and mundane at Titan, except for the griffon vulture consuming the liver of Prometheus daily. The tone and genre is superficially “urban fantasy” with mythological figures coexisting with ordinary mortals. Gods and humans interact with humorous consequences, making the story similar to Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips. Phillips’s work is closer to Douglas Adams, whereas Self turns the genre on its head with a heavy dose of visceral realism. Visceral as in viscera. The griffin vulture wants the liver of Prometheus and it will stop at nothing to attain it. Prometheus is only happy to oblige, since the act gives him intellectual prowess and professional luck. The consequences of the liver removal include physical weakness and harrowing pain. Self makes these all too real.

The comedy continues in “Birdy Num Num,” this time with Billy Chobham and the dissolute junkies hanging around Tony Riley’s Kensington flat. A disease narrates the last story. The perspective gives the story a unique feeling, at once omniscient and omnipresent. Given the setting is London, Tuesday, November 1998, one can easily guess at a possible culprit for the disease.

When high, Billy’s favorite film is the Peter Seller’s film The Party (Blake Edwards, 1968). The story’s title comes from what Hrundi V. Bakshi says to the bird at the party. The film plays as an extended slapstick gag. As the disease states, “Slapstick is, in essence, the ritualized worship of causation, something humans place more faith in than they do their gods.” The story unfolds into situations more and more comedic. Billy plays Sellers playing Bakshi while the slapstick of the Party, the movie, gets transfigured into the shenanigans of this Kensington flat. It’s as if “The Masque of the Red Death” was written as a farce and narrated by the plague itself, not just the crimson robed human carrier crashing Prospero’s shindig.

I enjoyed reading Liver. Akin to discovering a new cuisine, I was initially hesitant. This is the first work of fiction I have read by Will Self. His “Psychogeography” columns in the Independent were my first discovery of him as a writer. To anyone who enjoys wordplay and wit, Liver is highly recommended. While the interconnections hearken to Dubliners by James Joyce, a more accurate literary analogue would be Anthony Burgess. Liver, containing bile and blood and excess and disease, offers visions, revelations, and reading at its most joyous.

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