BOOK REVIEW: Phone by Will Self

Phone. Is this a noun or a verb? Is it labelling what has become a common household object, a daily tool so enmeshed in our lives that we no longer notice its presence? Or is it, rather, giving an imperative? Phone him. Phone her. In the answer to this question may lie much of the meaning of Will Self’s modernist cornucopia. When I first started reading Phone, I found it impenetrable, but as time went on, as I sank deeper and deeper into the grooves of its seemingly disconnected style, I began to see the message, the intention, that beneath Self’s slightly self-indulgent literary density, his academic penchant for obtuse stylings, and his modernist de-constructivism, there was a heart, something felt deeply at the level of the soul. Phone is a rallying cry for our modern age, if not at all times an accessible, intelligible cry. At it’s heart though, I believe, it urges us to connect, just connect with our fellow human beings. And not, for the love of God, through our phones.

I must state it clearly that Phone is not for everyone. It is told through stream-of-consciousness, much like the modernist texts of the 20th Century: Ulysseys, To The Lighthouse, works that are endlessly fawned over by academics but remain completely incomprehensible to the rest of the breathing world. Had I not wanted to give Phone a fair review, I would have put the book down long before the hundredth page, exasperated, brain-afire, confused.

But, I am so glad that I did have to finish it, because as I read through, I underwent a profound transformation.

The story starts with the perspective of Dr Zachary Busner, an ageing, demented psycho-analyst and a re-current character in Self’s novels, is discovered trouser- and pant-less in a hotel breakfast lobby. We follow Busner, and his thoughts, his relationship with previous lovers, his children, his grandchildren (in particular Ben, who becomes extraordinarily significant later on), and those he’s treated in the past. Phone, as with all modernist novels, is introspective, trying to re-create the incredible flow of human thought from one thing to the next. Thoughts are jumbled with fragmentary memories, ideas, images, references and echoes. At first, this seems a disjointed and busy narrative, but over time, you begin to see how it mirrors our world, not just the failing mind of an old man. We are bombarded left right and centre by external voices as well as internal, and perhaps, more than ever, our internal voices are being silenced by external ones. That phone keeps ringing, after all.

My brain began to re-wire as I read Phone, unravelling the style, much like many theatre-goers say happens when they watch Shakespeare for the first time. By page two-hundred, I really felt that I was beginning to grasp what the novel was about, to see themes, and echoes, and symbols. By four-hundred, I was hooked. In fact, I would use the word hypnotised. Will Self, you’d think from reading Phone, must be a relentless coprophile, or at least his narrative is obsessively sexual, detailing acts of penetration, anal-play, shitting and bodily processes with obscenely graphic specificity: ‘he’d seen a sprinkling of pinkly glistening papillomata stippling the roseate ribbing of her vaginal canal…’ (p100)  And while initially this was an irksome, irritable affectation that reminded me why I was so against the modernists in the first place – they were always dragging you down into the mud – as time went on I began to see that it brought a strange richness to the narrative. Whereas so many stories are shiny, polished, and terrified of portraying anything less than a painted beauty, this shows the filth of the world in all its gross glory, and shows that in the muck, pearls can still form, and are all the rarer for it. The above quote is from a scene in which Dr Zachary Busner  elects to examine a prostitute’s inflamed vagina rather than engage in the sexual act. Despite his failing mental faculties, he is able to give a prognosis and help her on her road to recovery. It’s a weirdly touching moment, not only because it shows how people can be kind in the most bizarre circumstances, but also because it shows that even those we dismiss as past-it have so much to offer society.

However, Dr Busner is only part of the picture. At around page one hundred and fifty, we transition (mid-sentence) into the perspective of The Butcher, one Jonanthan De’Ath, a spook for the S.A.S., secretly homosexual, who harbours a Gollum-like alter-ego Squilly (who is a personification of his penis). At this point, the humour and energy of the novel really takes off, and the Butcher’s perspective proves the most entertaining of all the characters in Phone. He is fascinatingly Machiavellian, camp and at the same time terrifyingly proficient, and passionate despite being able to simulate emotions with the ease of a chameleon changing its skin. Many of the passages here are laugh-out-loud as we delve deeper and deeper into who The Butcher is and what he wants, and how, with all his immense intelligence, he cannot see the most simple truths about himself. The Butcher’s antithesis, and lover, is the young Gawain Thomas, nicknamed by his squadies ‘Greeny’ because of the Middle English poem ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, the legend of a knight who endures incredible temptation at the hands of a beautiful mistress. Gawain is, seemingly, simpler than the Butcher, but no less real, and his own bifurcating identity – his exterior as a tough army-man and his interior that inclines towards gentleness  – reflects and matches the polarity of the Butcher. All the characters in Phone seem to be split, as unable to communicate with inner parts of themselves as they are with others.

Behind the humour and gratuity, Will Self writes, at times, with undeniable power. There is a scene in the desert with Gawain that shook me to the bone; in it, he conjures a vision of his lover, who tells him:  ‘It’s all the same bullshit: an entire-bloody-civilisation embarked on a colossal – no, a cosmic – fool’s errand’ (p425). We see, in the conversation between two collapsing lovers, the entirety of Western folly surmised, because one through-line of this novel is the entire fiasco of the Bush-Blair government, the war in Iraq, the nature of Intelligence gathering and how it affects communication, not just at a macro level – societally – but at a micro level, how it might affect two people who want to be together but can’t due to backward military regulation and sociological pressures. We see it again, in the scenes with Dr Busner later in the novel, where in the specific example of one human struggling with memory, we see the entire monstrous issue of modern mental-healthcare encapsulated: ‘Enoch had seen those ticcing, spasming, festinating human machines for what they truly were: unique individuals, with hopes, dreams and emotions all deformed by decades they’d spent buried deep in the system. Deep in there, first drenched in paraldehyde, then slopping Largactil. Deep in there – far, far down that long, long lens of a corridor, the bare fact of their existence transposed on to the buff cardboard of the state and filed away’ (p484).

Phone is not easy to read, nor is it consistent throughout. At times, the experimentation becomes too intellectualised to elicit any real feeling state, or even to be understood. As an example, the first two pages are seemingly random snippets and phrases interspersed by elongated ellipses. This borders on the pretentious and will be off-putting for most readers. Self obviously has an important message at the heart of Phone, and its a shame that decisions like this will block many from hearing it. At the same time, I applaud any author who is prepared to remain true to their own stylings and refuse to conform to the blockbuster formula that so many novels suffer from. Counterbalanced to that, there are a wealth of cultural references many people will get. Tony Blair’s name is hilariously abbreviated to TB, which is, of course, the abbreviation for tuberculosis. James Blunt’s hit song You’re Beautiful is continuously referenced with increasing exasperation. And, as should be expected from a modernist novel, the prose is dense with literary allusions from Keats to Joyce to Shakespeare.

It’s not just the style, however, that’s challenging. There are pacing issues. Many of the desert-scenes with Gawain, which begin approximately three-quarters the way through the novel, I found slow and taxing. The opening is similarly difficult to wade through. Having said this, once I’d crossed the halfway mark, I was fairly riveted and, against all my expectations, rooting for its tragically comical characters. Against what is commonly the essence of modernist novels, there are several key plot twists and the seemingly incongruous threads of Dr Zachary Busner and his family, and Jonathan De’Ath and Gawain, coalesce in a surprising and awesome moment of clarity. Things do come together, we are not left with a floating ambiguity, and the final image is hair-raising.

All in all, Phone is a unique novel, at once self-indulgent and utterly mono-maniacally focused, humorous and tragic, compelling and tedious in equal measures. Just, I suppose, as its characters shift tone, speaking with different voices as they listen to different parts of themselves, because if there’s one universal human truth that emerges from Phone: it’s that we’re all pretty crowded in our heads, and we certainly don’t just have one self.

I wanted to hate Phone. Throughout, I wished I was reading a taut thriller, or a supernatural horror full of mood and emotion, or a dazzling fantasy epic, but, I have to say, having finished it, I feel like Coleridge’s wedding guest. I’ve risen a ‘sadder and a wiser man’, or perhaps the recipient of George Herbert’s ‘Prayer’: something understood. I am just as guilty of this digital detachment, this inability to really physically connect, as Phone’s protagonists.

And that, my friends, is kind of what literature is all about. It’s not always easy or comfortable, it’s not always as efficient as a quick text message or a two-minute phone call: it’s testing, infuriating, but ultimately, rewarding. That’s what makes it worth having.

WILL SELF

Will Self

Will Self is the author of three short-story collections, The Quantity Theory of Insanity (winner of the 1992 Geoffrey Faber award), Grey Area and Tough Tough Toys for Touch Tough Boys; a dyad of novellas, Cock and Bull, and a third novella, The Sweet Smell of Psychosis; and four novels, My Idea of Fun, Great Apes, How the Dead Live (shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel of the Year 2000) and The Book of Dave.

Together with the photographer David Gamble, he produced Perfidious Man, a sideways look at contemporary masculinity. There have been three collections of journalism, Junk Mail, Sore Sites and Feeding Frenzy. Will Self has written for a plethora of publications over the years and is a regular broadcaster on television and radio. His latest work is a collection of pieces entitled Liver: A Fictional Organ with a Surface Anatomy of Four Lobes.

Phone was published by published by Viking on 25th May 2017

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Review by Joseph Sale

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