Will Self's novel "Phone" is a charming, slapstick techno-thriller

And with it, Self guns for literary immortality
June 21, 2017

Phone by Will Self (Viking, £18.99)

“Modern authorship,” according to William Hazlitt in his Lectures on the Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth, “is become a species of stenography: we continue even to read by proxy. We skim the cream of prose without any trouble; we get at the quintessence of poetry without loss of time. The staple commodity, the coarse, heavy, dirty, unwieldy bullion of books is driven out of the market of learning, and the intercourse of the literary world is carried on, and the credit of the great capitalists sustained by the flimsy circulating medium of magazines.” Hazlitt was writing a long time ago, and of course we’re all proxy cream-skimmers now, but if you’re in the mood for the coarse, the heavy, the dirty and unwieldy—if you’re a true seeker after the bullion, then go straight to Will Self. He’s like Goethe’s dog: he eats glass and shits diamonds.

Self has been a central-marginal figure in English literary and cultural life for more than a quarter of a century. For all his insistent high-and-mightiness, he has in that time done more than his fair share of low-maintenance dictation, knocking out opinion pieces and articles on everything from Peperami and Pizza Express for the New Statesman, to puff-pieces for in-flight magazines and musings on the meaning of love for these fine pages. He is endlessly popping up on good, bad—though never indifferent—television. (Go to YouTube and warm your cockles watching Self merrily mocking and lambasting the left, right and centre on Question Time, Newsnight and Channel 4 News, a six foot five giant, a Gulliver—or at least a Bernard Bresslaw lookalike—pissing all over the niceties and nonentities of cultural programming and current affairs.)

Self’s massive expressive power is necessarily a massive excessive power and his entire career may sometimes seem like an ill-conceived attempt to seize cultural authority by any means possible. (He was even at one time a team captain on Vic and Bob’s Shooting Stars.) Like Boris Johnson and Katie Hopkins—undoubtedly weird, really quite posh, possessed of the powers of spontaneous eloquence and with a tendency to appear on Have I Got News For You—he seemed for a time a figure condemned merely to perform himself for the entertainment of an easily distracted audience. He was a terrible show-off, but at least he was our terrible show-off.

In the past few years, though, Self seems to have fixed his eyes once again on the far-distant horizon of literary immortality and raised himself to his full and proper height, not just on television but also in his books, which have become vast cumbrous self-referencing compendiums—but which are also utterly quaint and charming delights. He has long since managed to shed his reputation as a cult author—who the hell wants to be a cult author?—and achieved the status of a true classic. He now writes books that no one else could possibly write and which everyone admires. The thinking man’s Paul O’Grady, he is in danger of becoming a national treasure. These days he even gets rave reviews in the Daily Mail. Go on, Will, say something polysyllabic, we love it when you talk dirty.

His new novel Phone begins, as it surely must:

…. ….! and again …. ….! two groups of four …. ….! on it goes …. ….! insistently persistently …. ….! not that one hears it quite so much nowadays …. ….! If one does it’s a fake—a recording of an old phone …. ….! done with a lot of echo …. ….! so’s to suggest it’s ringing in a largish, darkish hall …. ….! poorly lit by tall, narrow windows …. ….! many little stained panes …. ….! altogether depicting a square-jawed medieval knight and his equally mannish lady …. ….! sword and spear …. ….! spindle and distaff …. ….! two groups of four …. ….! on it goes …. ….! relentlessly …. ….!

Brrrinnng Brrrinnng! Most of the content of the novel—which is itself an echo chamber of little stained panes—can be adduced from these few opening lines. It’s not my idea of fun to spoil the fun and make all the connections for you, but suffice it to say that the book does indeed depict a square-jawed medieval knight and his equally mannish lady.
"Self now writes books that no one else could possibly write and that everyone admires. He is in danger of becoming a national treasure"
Announced as the third part of a trilogy—which began with Umbrella (2012) and continued with Shark (2014)—Phone reads like a techno-thriller written by Virginia Woolf. The story begins with our old friend Zack Busner—Self’s psychiatrist Everyman, who was there at the beginning in his 1991 story collection The Quantity Theory of Insanity, who has been there somewhere in almost every book ever since, and who will doubtless be there through every iteration of what is in effect Self’s one long-playing borderless book.

Busner is staying at the Hilton Deansgate in Manchester, one of Self’s beloved transitional or non-places, where he is busy observing his fellow guests at breakfast. “There they are: queuing up in front of a wooden bench piled high with croissants and those muff-things, while their seriously overweight wives saw at the greasy meat on their plates with serrated knives.” Unfortunately, Busner has forgotten to get dressed and so his poor fellow guests are treated to an unexpected sausage on the buffet table. If this seems like ridiculous slapstick, so it is. Much of Self’s work is often ludicrous and vulgar, and concerns itself with the messily corporeal in exactly the way in which, say, the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin would have approved and Mary Whitehouse would not. “To degrade also means to concern oneself with the lower stratum of the body,” proclaimed Bakhtin in Rabelais and His World, “the life of the belly and the reproductive organs; it therefore relates to acts of defecation and copulation, conception, pregnancy, and birth. Degradation digs a bodily grave for a new birth; it has not only a destructive, negative aspect, but also a regenerating one […] Grotesque realism knows no other level; it is the fruitful earth and the womb. It is always conceiving.” Like a lot of the best comedians, Self is not a comedian at all, he’s a Bakhtinian. People call him a modernist, a surrealist, an absurdist, a nihilist. He is in fact a grotesque realist.

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For those who just don’t get Self, Bakhtin probably explains a lot. “I find three basic characteristics that fundamentally distinguish the novel in principle from other genres: (i) its stylistic three-dimensionality, which is linked with the multi-languaged consciousness realised in the novel; (ii) the radical change it effects in the temporal coordinates of the literary image; (iii) the new zone opened by the novel for structuring literary images, namely, the zone of maximal contact with the present (with contemporary reality) in all its openendedness.”

Bakhtin’s swivel-eyed vision of the possibilities afforded by the novel certainly goes a long way towards explaining Self’s parenthetic style, for example, which enables and encourages his obsessive contemplation of the world and everything in it. Like any obsessive he tends to seize on small, apparently insignificant details and will belabour them until he’s made his point—which is why he’s so good in debate and presumably an absolute nightmare at home. Sometimes his maximal contact with reality makes him sound like a know-it-all pub philosopher: “The past, Busner thinks, is an international hotel chain: it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, the corridor looks exactly the same—simply consult the little card-folder your key card’s in to find out which room you were allocated.” And at other times all the endless free-associating sounds like so much endless free-associating: “turns towards his glass-topped coffee table …. …. ! his black leatherette sectional sofa …. ….! his stainless steel hatstand …. ….! Stainless-steel hatstand!—always ahead of the pack, Maurice …. ….! Remember him coming back from Heal’s with one like that during …. ….! the Malayan Emergency …. ….! Here he comes now, rounding the metallic Horn at a steady clip …. ….! He’s heeling.” Like a lot of great books—Ulysses, Moby-DickPhone was probably even more fun to write than it is to read.
"He seizes on small details and belabours them—which is why he's so good in debate and presumably an absolute nightmare at home"
There are many other aspects of Self’s work—his project—which are equally Bakhtinian. His chosen weapons of attack are usually exaggeration and hyperbole, and when combined with his fascination with certain aspects of the body, and in particular those bits that dangle or protrude or that can be entered, or which are dominated by the primary human needs—eating, drinking, defecating—he always manages to produce a certain frisson.

The prose may sometimes seem odd but the method is simple. Thus, in Phone, after the introductory Busner business in the Hilton, the novel proper gets going with the story of Jonathan De’Ath, aka “The Butcher,” a “snobbish, repressed homosexual spy with a taste in fine wines and silks,” who has spent time in Northern Ireland, Sarajevo and Iraq, and who is busy in another hotel room addressing his “silky shaft” which he calls, affectionately, Squilly. “His penis audily whirrs, a rotor, slicing the flock wallpaper and the Manhattan skyline to shreds… The Butcher sees bollocky bags full of dead bodies lifting off from a dull and dusty plaza.” The Butcher is a kind of polyamorous, strung-out, PTSDed James Bond; and you don’t have to be Mikhail Bakhtin, or indeed Sigmund Freud, to realise that what’s going on in the Butcher’s burblings is language functioning as the site of the struggle between fantasies of sex, death and violence.

All the potentially confusing slips and elisions between the speakers in the novel are just discourses functioning as a part of other discourses. The narrative may not always be divisible into discrete episodes and utterances, but just as human beings collide and converge and converse with one another, so the many plots and themes and people of Phone inevitably collide and converge and converse. Sex. Drugs. War. Blair. Mental health. Telecommunications. Brrrinnng Brrrinnng! Brrrinnng Brrrinnng! It all connects. Putting you through, caller. In the end—if they get to the end—readers of Umbrella and Shark will be delighted with the simple way in which Self in Phone finally brings the Busners and the De’Ath back together.

Enthralling and exasperating in equal measure, Self’s corpus resembles not the little figurines of English so-called literary fiction but the big flash foreign models—the Cocteaus, the Houellebecqs, the Célines, the absolute shockers. For all that the extravagance of his style can sometimes appear self-serving and self-defeating, you’d have to be pretty bloody-minded and blinkered not to recognise that the books are radically funny raucous romps, understandable and enjoyable by just about anyone and everyone if they’re so minded (though alas one suspects his readership is restricted almost entirely to ageing pipe-smoking, typewriter-touting Self-wannabes in his own invented London suburb of “Dulston’” from How the Dead Live).

“My job as Will’s assistant requires a relentless willingness to participate in the unusual,” recalled Matthew De Abaitua in an essay, “Self and I,” published some years ago, recalling his time spent as an assistant—or “live-in amanuensis”—to the novelist back in the 1990s. Participating in the unusual is what Self’s readers are always required to do. It is much preferable to the alternative.