Opaque and frustrating and bloated and yet, for brief moments, utterly brilliant. A book that actively disengages from the reader – you either accept what Will Self is doing or you walk away. I should have walked away.
Because I love the Goldsmith Prize and because I read all the nominated novels I’m, for the first time ever, exposing myself (not in a rude way) to the work of Will Self. I actually own a number of his novels and for years have been meaning to crack the cover on at least one of them but, for whatever reason, it’s never happened. And yet here we all are, Will Self and I, about to embark on the most glorious adventure, our first ever dance.
Except… in Phone I couldn’t have picked a worse book (not in terms of the quality because I haven’t actually read it yet), 600 pages long, the third novel in a trilogy and, because it’s a Goldsmith book, pushing the boundaries in terms of structure and form. I mean just look at the first page:
So… yeah… this should be fun.
No really, it better be fun because I ain’t scared to put this one aside if I find it all too quirky.
Which proved to be bullshit because I read to the bitter end even when I knew it wasn’t for me. As I note below it wasn’t completely a lost cause, but still not worth five days of my time either.
Having read the first 50 or so pages of Phone I can’t say with any confidence that I know what’s going on.
The book begins with this nostalgic ramble about old-fashioned phones – which I suppose is fair given the title – and then introduces us to Zack Busner, an octogenarian and psychiatrist (retired) who, while stumbling through a hotel dining room, half naked, plops his cock down next to a plate of sausages. This does not go down well with the hotel manager or the guests. As Zack is dragged back to his room, penis all a dangle, the fragments he calls his memory drift back to his children, the consensus that he was a bad father, their anger at him for bringing home people off the street and their suggestion he be put in a home.
So am I liking it? Not really. But I’m not hating it either and there is a rhythm to the stream of consciousness style that’s keeping me… not engaged… but curious to see where this is going. Assuming it’s going anywhere.
And just as I’m getting a handle on the novel and the character of Zack Busner – a handle that I acknowledge would have been firmer if I’d read the first two books in the trilogy – Self introduces “The Butcher”, and suddenly I’m back to not knowing what the bejesus is going on. The Butcher seems to be a killer with a split personality and a fascination for stroking his cock…
Because I often miss the obvious I didn’t join the dots, until I saw it referenced in a Goodreads’ review, that the split personality and the cock were linked. Yes, The Butcher spends a great deal of his novel chatting to his dick. But then, name a man who doesn’t.
… but what this has to do with Busner is, at the moment, a bewildering mystery.
I suppose this is a spoiler but it takes until the last 50 pages for Self to reveal the relationship between The Butcher and Busner. If I hadn’t finished the book I wouldn’t have known. To be fair, it’s a mystery I could have lived with.
I haven’t featured any excerpts to this point because it’s not easy to provide a quote that captures the essence of the book. This chunk of prose, though, told from the perspective of Jonathan De’Ath, the Butcher’s real name, and who also happens to be gay and an MI6 agent, highlights Self’s cynical and sardonic tone:
At the halfway mark through Phone and I still, find it all a little perplexing.
That might be because I’m reading the third book in a trilogy, although I’m going to take a punt and say that other than Zack Busner, the other characters didn’t feature in the previous novels…
And I’d be correct, in as much as The Butcher and his lover Gawain are new characters.
… and given that Busner vanishes after the first 100 pages, I believe my confusion has less to do with me jumping in cold and more to do with the opaque nature of Self’s writing.
The scenes dealing with Jonathan De’Ath and his lover Gawain (a tank commander in the British Army who also happens to be married) appear to be set in the mid-90s and early noughts based on references to Bosnia and the first Iraq war. In these scenes, splitting the perspective between Jonathan and Gawain, it’s not clear to me whether Self is critiquing/exposing what it meant to be gay during this point in the history of the British Army or whether Self wanted to write a novel about two men who, in secret, enjoy fucking each other. Maybe both.
On reflection Self is also attacking, with great lashings of satire and cynicism, the ineptiude of the British Army and the Government (Tony Blair… or as he’s named in the novel “TeeBee”) for their handling of the first Iraq War, leading to our current situation in the Middle East. As I point out in the next paragraph, this aspect of the book produces some of the novel’s strongest moments, but it also gets lost in all the modernistic jiggery-pokery… the acronyms and abrupts shifts in point of view and Self’s obssession with the penis.
The most powerful scene in the novel, by a country fucking mile, takes place in Iraq where British soldiers are interrogating one of the locals (he, or one of his friends, not only fatally wounded a soldier but they also killed the camp’s interpreter). At one point during the inept interrogation the Iraqi man starts talking to himself. It’s the most brilliant of soliloquies, of which here is a portion:
The Gist of It
With Phone it’s pretty clear that Will Self isn’t trying to engage the reader. It’s a risky strategy but he’s Will Self and frankly, I don’t think he gives a shit. If you’re willing to consume what he’s serving, great, if you’re not, there are a bazillion other books out there you can read.
Or at least that’s what I assume is going on here because I can’t believe anyone would write a novel like Phone (and I assume Umbrella and Shark before it) and think it’s going to be digestible for a general readership. As much as it’s a book about men’s obsessions with their dicks, and sodomy, and the horrors or should I say… incompetence… of the Iraq War, and mental health, and autism and the fragmentary nature of memory, it’s also a novel about communication (the clue is in the title). And because communication nowadays is so wrapped up in our phones, so wrapped up in shortcuts and abbreviations and emojis Will Self has written a book that forces the reader to stop and concentrate and maintain their attention span beyond the thirty seconds we often give things these days. He does this by also introducing his own set of irritating acronyms and shortcuts as if he’s shouting to the Millenials for their unwillingness to spell things out
Did the book need to be 600 pages long? Did it need to be filled with italics, ellipses, point of view shifts in the middle of a sentence and any number of other literary quirks? No. Not really. But it is. And you either take the book on its merit or you put it down and move on. I should have put it down because while I can intellectualise what Self is doing any admiration I might have had was obscured but how often I found myself irritated with the novel. Interspersed amongst the tricks and quirks are some magnificent passages, slivers of writing that show heart and compassion. Camilla (who I haven’t mentioned at all… this is a male dominated novel) is the most real and well-drawn character in the book. Her willingness to care for her autistic son and her schizophrenic husband is sad enough, but coupled together with her aspirations to be a great writer (she’s not very good) is heartbreaking. But she’s only a small portion of a very long, very frustrating and often opaque novel.