Phone by Will Self review – a triumph of joined-up thinking
Self’s modernist trilogy concludes with typical panache and wit
Who remembers the Mutoscope? What about the Poulsen Telegraphone? Technologies that seemed for a brief moment to be the only games in town are now as obsolete as Betamax. Some media die, but others go on haunting the culture. Think of the icon of the floppy disk that adorns your taskbar, symbolising “save”, even though no one born after about 1990 will remember the object it represents.
For a long time now Will Self has been interested in the ways we have come to be constrained by the technologies that once promised to free us. His last three novels – Umbrella (2012), Shark (2014) and now Phone – form a Kittlerian trilogy, telling a story about the interplay between minds, madness and technology across the 20th century. As Zack Busner (the Leopold Bloom-like psychiatrist everyman who has been our guide through much of Self’s fiction) thinks in Phone, the problem with modernity is that we are all “attempting to make our way across this new wasteland using the same old ways”.
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Phone is the final instalment in what has shown itself to be one of the most ambitious and important literary projects of the 21st century. Its style, as well as many of its characters, will be familiar to Selfians. The novel opens with Busner (now 78, and faintly baffled by a world “where there could be such a procedure as anal bleaching”) mid-breakdown in a hotel restaurant. He’s suffering from the early stages of dementia, but doesn’t think himself unwell: “Whatever they say, there’s not much wrong with my memory – its only that I have to … sort of … download things,” he thinks. Besides “Alzheimer’s itself may be a form of good mental heath – after all, what could be saner in a world in which every last particle of trivia is retained on some computer than to … forget everything.”
In Umbrella we learned how Busner had woken comatose encephalitis lethargica sufferers using the drug L-Dopa. In Shark we followed him into the “Concept House”, an anti-psychiatric commune he founded in Willesden in the 1970s, where he joined the patients on liberatory LSD trips. Phone presents us with late-style Busner: a wandering Brahmin armed with a staff and the dream of spiritual enlightenment (he considers buying an artisanal begging bowl from Heals, but is shocked at the price). His children and grandchildren, of which he has many, argue about his care, inheritance, and parental legacy. In despair, he goes for a walk amid the cruisers of Parliament Hill – a Lear on the blasted wastes of Hampstead Heath – accompanied by his clown, Simon, a mentally ill waif he’s adopted. “You’re like all the others,” Simon says, “Jimmy and Rolf, Max and the It’s-a-Knockout geezer – ’stead of growing older and wiser, you’ve stayed stupidly the same while yer knackers’ve gone … south!”
We are also reintroduced to Jonathan “The Butcher” De’Ath, a savant – like his grandfather Sir Albert De’ath, whom we met in Umbrella – with an “enormous Mycroftian mind”. The Butcher is a spook and a dandyish, though closeted, homosexual. Both are activities which, he thinks “depended on good tradecraft”. Jonathan’s father, Peter “Kins” De’Ath, also familiar to readers of Shark, was a disappointed academic and bullying homophobe. (It doesn’t take a Freudian to detect some father-slaying going on here: Self’s brother is named Jonathan and, like Kins, his dad was an academic.)
Jonathan is having an affair with Gawain Thomas, an unhappily married soldier who, during the second Iraq war, is put in charge of a regiment whose members commit an atrocity. Things come together when Busner’s autistic grandson Ben, a conspiracy-minded hacker, uncovers some of Jonathan’s secrets.
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Will Self deals bitingly with miscellaneous modern horrors – but there's true feeling in this stream of consciousness, writes Sam Leith
There’s been a revival of interest in literary modernism in recent years. With their psychological fragmentation and determined subjectivity, Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing and Mike McCormack’s The Solar Bones showed one way of engaging with the legacies of modernism. But over his last three novels it’s become apparent that Self’s method is different. Phone isn’t an attempt to inhabit the language of modernism but an attempt to exhaust a style. There’s still plenty of fun to be had spotting references to Self’s lodestars, Joyce and Eliot, in Phone: Molly Bloom’s “met him pike hoses” becomes Busner’s “metempcuntosis”; Kins, like John Henry Menton in Ulysses, has “oyster eyes”; commuters cross Vauxhall Bridge “Ready to undo so many deaths”; Busner shores some “eggshell fragments” against his ruin. But these moments aren’t mere allusions. Instead, they show how we live in modernism’s wake, how we’ve internalised its languages and styles so that we can’t think outside of it even if, like Busner, we’ve never read a line of Joyce. Phone will be a challenge to those whose minds have been eroded by the permanent present of the smartphone. It’ll take you a couple of weeks to read all three novels properly. But I can’t think of a better way to spend your time. Self’s message is a perennially important one, brilliantly expressed: only connect.
Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier by Jon Day is published by Notting Hill Editions (£8.99).