Self Help

Will Self: Help! I’m being held prisoner in a fortune cookie factory! – Financial Times

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When I was a child, my American mother had an LP record made by the comedian Stan Freberg that I played repeatedly. In one sketch, he made this quip on supposedly opening a fortune cookie and reading the paper slip inside: “It says, ‘Help! I’m being held prisoner in a fortune cookie factory!’”

A gag so surreally apt, I can be forgiven, I hope, for including it among the 88 special fortunes I’ve written, to be wrapped around equally special fortune cookies, and distributed postprandially to diners at Hakkasan restaurants in London’s Fitzrovia and Mayfair.

In a way, my dual Anglo-American heritage makes me an ideal fortune-cookie writer — since, just like me, the cookies themselves are a function of cultural syncretism. There’s been some dispute over whether the idea of a sweetmeat containing (occasionally) sour wisdom was a Japanese or a Chinese idea originally but there’s no doubt that it took the form of a cookie, served after a meal, once these communities became established on the west coast of America. Indeed, the idea of the fortune cookie remains alien to east Asia, while billions of the crunchy little things are manufactured stateside every year.

Billions of frankly rather bland cookies — and billions of equally vapid “fortunes”: I’ve got one beside me that reads “You live in your own dream world.” An assertion that may well be true, but which hardly seems an authoritative prognostication — let alone the prophecy of some latter-day Nostradamus or Cassandra.

Some reading this might imagine that a commission of this sort would be infra dig for a writer such as myself, whose novels, stories and essays have been translated into many languages, while my oeuvre has been the subject of book-length critical studies. Nothing could be further from the truth.

© Benjamin McMahon

In fact, I cut my teeth — if you’ll forgive a subject-appropriate idiom — writing one-liners and gags for joke books and board games. (I wrote most of the questions in a Trivial Pursuit-style game that examined its players’ sexual expertise — a source of tumescent pride.) I’ve performed as a stand-up comedian myself, and did two seasons of Shooting Stars, with Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. In short, I’m that rarest of birds: a literary writer with the soul of a light entertainer.

Moreover, it’s as much the weight I accord my literary metier, as the levity with which I regard life itself that made the commission quite so welcome. “Make it new!” asserted that modernist booster Ezra Pound, and my own fiction has taken a linguistic turn in the past decade, as I’ve struggled to repurpose the novel to convey the strange new directions the human psyche and its social formations are travelling.

My last novel, Phone, took the form of a 620-page continuous line, with no paragraph or section breaks — let alone chapters — and I wonder, can’t this be seen as a sort of humongous fortune-slip, tucked beneath crunchy cardboard covers?

© Benjamin McMahon

True, some might say the book amply confirms the truth of the fortune above — and that I do indeed live in my own dream world; but although it was poetry Yeats hymned as “the social act of the solitary man”, the truth is that the novelist — who invents personae, and then consorts with them — is far closer to the realisation of his aperçu.

My objective with these fortunes has been to create a sort of living novel, by suggesting to diners what might actually happen in the near future. This, if shared by them, may well call forth a conversational response. You can imagine the meal at which you open “You live in your own dream world” and then retell this limp biscuit to your companion: it’s a pretty dull one.

But the occasion upon which you open your new, specially concocted French-macaron-style fortune cookie and read this: “Your food was poisoned — but luckily the antidote is in this cookie” will hopefully have something of a frisson.

© Benjamin McMahon

A feeling then further compounded, if one of your companions reads this fortune aloud: “Avoid making major decisions when you’re sexually aroused — especially ones about who you’re going to sleep with.” You get the picture: as each fortune is revealed, my hope — nay, expectation — is that all kinds of new interactions will ensue.

Of course, if you’re out on a date and your companion gets the fortune reading “There’s a magic potion in the fortune cookie you’ve just eaten that enables you to read the mind of the person sitting opposite you. Are you bored yet?”, then things may not quite turn out as you’d hoped. In that case, I won’t simply have foretold your destiny but actually created it — which is surely the sort of reader response any writer longs for.

True, I accept that most people going out for a night of high-class Chinese cuisine aren’t necessarily looking to have their destiny determined for them but, as readers of the FT, you cannot but be aware that, just as the value of investments can go down as well as up, so the future remains forever indeterminate.

© Benjamin McMahon

This returns me — much as a lazy Susan returns a dish — to that Stan Freberg LP. When I was a child in the north London of the 1960s, a Chinese restaurant you actually sat down in was a very rare bird indeed — while if you wanted your duck shredded and served with plum sauce, you had to go into Chinatown. I’ve always loved restaurants for their theatre as much as their food — and diners tend to play their parts rather better, in my experience, than audiences, who, in London at least, always seem typecast.

And now I’ve had the opportunity to write some mini scripts for these diners, my appetite has been whetted . . . for applause. So, if you find yourself reading one of my fortunes and feeling enthused, please drop me a line. Prisoners always appreciate letters — even those of us banged up in fortune-cookie factories.

Will Self’s novel “Phone” is published by Penguin

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