All novels have their own internal metonyms. In Phone, the conclusion of Will Self’s trilogy that began with Umbrella and continued with Shark, it is the moment when one character, ear glued to the “five-hundred-quid worry bead”, says: “You’re breaking up.” Phone is about the intersection of technology and psychosis, of the amatory and the military.
Phone starts with that Self stalwart, Dr Zachary Busner, now showing the signs of incipient Alzheimer’s, who has been given a mobile phone by his Asperger’s grandson Ben as a kind of external memory. It tells him where he has to be and what he should be doing. It doesn’t remind him to wear his underpants and trousers when he is staying at a corporate Mancunian hotel. As with Umbrella and Shark, the narrative bleeds between different consciousnesses: as Zachary ponders his phone and the inexplicable koan “No Caller ID”, we move into the life of Jonathan De’Ath, aka “the Butcher”, the grandchild of the arithmomaniac and hypermnesiac Sir Albert from Umbrella, and an MI6 spook whose own phones carry secret messages from his lover, Gawain Thomas, a tank commander who over the course of the novel will be stationed in Kosovo and Iraq. Gawain, Ben’s damaged mother and Ben himself will pick up, as it were, the narrative focus.
A thesis might be written on the opening words of this novel; precisely because they aren’t words at all: “. . . . . . . . ! and again . . . . . . . . ! two groups of four . . . . . . . . ! on it goes . . . . . . . . ! insistently persistently . . . . . . . . !” The ellipses are both pause and interruption, silence and clamour. The novel is braided through with literary references: W H Auden’s “Stop all the clocks” is referenced frequently – with the second phrase, “cut off the telephone”, cleverly obfuscated; the ellipses have the tang of Louis-Ferdinand Céline; there’s a hint, sarcastically, of E M Forster and the mantra “only connect”. There is a wink at Joyce with an unstageable play that features a talking copy of a J K Rowling novel. But primarily this is Self’s King Lear. Busner is the ageing and deranging monarch of his extended family, trying to divide his kingdom, with Ben’s mother as the violated Cordelia and Ben as the Fool who knows more than any of them.
In the plot around Jonathan and Gawain, Self makes a daring parallel – one might even say it was from the John le Carré playbook – between repressed homosexuality and being a spy. Both have to conceal and seduce, both have to hide and decode signs. The scenes of Gawain and Jonathan together are deeply touching, but laced with a kind of vanity and a hint of smug control.
By the end of the book, we are gifted a counterfactual account of how their lives might have been, had things been different. It is both elegiac and profoundly angry. Zachary could have been attempting to become the Buddha in another self-regarding imitation of himself, travelling to Holy Island off the west coast of Scotland (“Is it, he wonders, the mobile phone that’s brought him here by occult means?”), while Jonathan could be content with a B&B in Lincolnshire, rather than pulling the hidden strings of the state.
Of the three books, Phone is the most ostensibly political, and makes no concessions to “TeeBee”, as Tony Blair is referred to throughout. But it also encompasses the seepage of data through WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, the way in which the “data set” is always compromised and leaks are not the aberration but the norm. It explains why Self has decided to render every acronym as a phonetic version of itself: “DeeTeeEff”, “Ess-EyeEss” – there is more meaning and more chaos when the letters are unpacked. They are both understandable and inscrutable.
The triumph of this trilogy has been to marry the personal to the political:
Arguably, the naming of our distressed parts is all psychiatry consists of nowadays – that, and doling out the drugs which allegedly alleviate these symptoms . . . Anyway, every fresh malady comes flanked by its own team of would-be experts.
Self applies this to the spheres beyond personal grief, and analyses a pathological politick where “intervention” is always the first option.
This trilogy will, I believe, be seen in years to come as one of the most significant literary works of our century, books that reflect and refract the hideousness of our times and that attempt to move the novel beyond the Robinson Crusoe paradigm of an Enlightened man and his singular thoughts. Over and above the intellectual sprezzatura of the work, there is, at its heart, an emotional core, a profound sense of grief. That the last words are “he’s aware as we all are, all the time, of death” seems to be the uroboros of Self’s career. I for one would be more than joyful to have Busner back.
Viking, 617pp, £18.99
This article appears in the 31 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning