Phone, by Will Self
Will Self is an author with a peculiar quiddity. Much like Marmite, it’s impossible not to have an opinion on him. I’ll confess to a certain ambivalence here — on the matter of Will Self, not Marmite, which I’d happily eat with a spoon, were it socially acceptable. His columns for the New Statesman, rambles through non-spaces and roadside fast food joints, tinged with a hint of psychogeography, are just swell. Perceptive, cutting, full of juicy little phrases. Self’s Guardian essay on his years of drug addiction and his treatment for polycythaemia vera — a condition where your bone marrow produces red blood cells in overdrive — is that rare thing, a confessional essay which actually feels like a confession, rather than a posture.
But Self’s novels remind us that you can have too much of a good thing. All that wit, all that learning, coalesces and congeals into something quite unappetising. Phone is a sprawling, stream-of-consciousness (or consciousnesses) novel that deals, loosely speaking, with the ravages of dementia, psychiatry, and the depredations of the British army in Iraq.
A phone rings and awakens Zack Busner from some reverie or another. Busner, an ageing shrink and veteran from Self’s last two books, is beginning to show signs of senility. He finds himself, trouserless, being strong-armed to a hotel room caked with his own faeces. Haven’t we all? But all of a sudden, we’re not in a shit-smeared Hilton bathroom in Manchester; we’re listening to a monologue from Jonathan De’Ath’s penis.
The person attached to the penis is known as The Butcher to all and sundry. To his ever-so-English family — his two brothers are The Baker and The Candlestick Maker. To his friends at university — after a stunt with his college’s vegetarian society and a quantity of frying offal. To his colleagues in MI6 — The Butcher is a spook, a spy, and a budding Mycroft Holmes, with an eidetic memory and a penchant for expensive clothing. But, of course, Mycroft Holmes probably wouldn’t give his member a name of its own. Or date-rape a man.
That man is Colonel Gawain Thomas, who goes on to enjoy a furtive, undercover relationship with the man who drugged and violated him, without giving too much thought to the matter. He also goes on to command an outpost in Iraq, and preside over the murder of prisoners of war, again without giving too much thought to the matter.
Busner has pretty much no relevance to the plot — such as it is — of Phone, but his grandson, a severely autistic boy with shades of Gary McKinnon, threatens to uncover The Butcher’s secrets. This happens in the last stretches of the novel, after pushing six hundred pages of penis-soliloquies and descriptions of luxury lifestyle goods. But by that point, it’s hard to care.
Self’s novels have never worn their learning lightly, but his earlier novels had an eye for the perverse, and a gleeful sense of fun. Reading Phone, though, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Self is trying more to push a style to its conclusion than he is to write a novel. And that style belongs more to James Joyce than it does anyone else. Self tries to emulate Ulysses’ verbal pyrotechnics — Phone is littered with Joycean puns and leaps of dream-logic — but the novel never catches light. Phone is an unabashedly modernist work that forgets that modernism is in the past now. Phone creaks under its own weight: it’s hard enough to follow one of the novel’s narrators, let alone work out whose meandering monologue, peppered with digressions and absolutely littered with gratuitous italics, you’re reading — they all sound exactly alike. Which is to say, they sound like Will Self.
Viking kindly furnished me with a review copy of Phone.