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31 October 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 4:52pm

Will Self: The nostalgia of the “heritage novel” leaves me reaching for my gun

Will Self on his Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted novel Phone, his love of ellipses – and the Downton Abbey effect on literature. 

By Stuart Kelly

This is the first in a series of interviews with the writers shortlisted for the 2017 Goldsmiths Prize, run in association with the New Statesman.

Will Self is an increasingly complicated writer – he is thought of as difficult, and bemused by that response. His trilogy of novels, Umbrella, Shark and most recently, Phone, shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize, are like the lancing of the boil that was the 20th and 21st centuries.

Like many avant-garde writers his seriousness and his humour are equally underrated. When I interviewed him about the first of these novels, I asked how much he had been informed by Ford Madox Ford – and his themes of war, arithmomania, modernism as response to and grief for the war – and with typical insouciance, he replied, “Never read him”.

It was as if, like a spiritualist, he could channel the concerns merely by looking closely: the same result from the same data. He described himself as an antenna picking up the static. Self’s work strikes me as one of the important edges of literature, where the form strains and buckles and is remade at the same time. He is a thorn in the side of the possible.

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize? Shouldn’t every prize reward innovation?

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Well, most literary prizes simply don’t award innovation – they tend to be compromises, because of the way jury members make trade-offs with each other, discarding those books which arouse strong ambivalence, which are usually the most innovative ones; so, yes, I think there is a need for a prize that explicitly awards innovation in the novel form.

The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. What can an “innovative” approach offer the reader (and writer) that a more conventional novel might not?

I think the 20th century saw tremendous advances in the novel form; in particular the suite of techniques – stream-of-consciousness, privileging the mimetic over the diegetic, the “Uncle Charles” principle, the incorporation of film-editing techniques, the use of non-locatable allusion – that we characterise as “modernism”.

There has been a wholesale retreat from these innovations, in my view, into a kind of “heritage novel”, if you like, a Downton Abbey, in which writers and readers can take their ease, while pretending – in which life doesn’t take place in the simple past, and there’s no impersonal, godlike narrator to explain what’s going on – isn’t happening.

For those readers brave enough to venture into the texts offered by writers who still believe the form itself (as opposed to its content) has something to say about the zeitgeist, the rewards are considerable – whereas for those who remain in Downton Abbey, there are only the consolations to be offered by douceur de la vie, nostalgia, and the sort of bourgeois conception of “culture” that leaves me – along with Hermann Göring – reaching for my gun. Sorry, I mean “pen”.

Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you in the writing of this book.

As the text of Phone would indicate, there are a myriad of cultural properties lurking behind the surface of its prose. Visual arts and literary allusions are certainly significant – but with this novel, as well as the two preceding it in the trilogy, popular music is probably the most important. I won’t name individual pieces, but the text is imbricated with allusions to the pop songs the characters are hearing, in real time – as well as those ear-worms that continue to vermiculate their memories.

I think the contemporary novel avoids the muzak soundtrack of our lives at its peril – in my view, their silence in this respect reflects their naturalistic failure. All three books have also have a musical motif – akin to Proust’s conception of Vinteuil’s sonata in A la recherche du temps perdu – a fragment of a tune, lodged in a character’s mind, that sums up the overall themes and mood of the novel. In the case of Phone this is “Sheep May Safely Graze”, from Bach’s so-called Hunting Cantata, a piercingly sweet melody, the accompanying lyrics of which set out the central irony of the mystifying ritual we call “representative democracy”.   

When you were writing Umbrella, were the ideas for Shark and Phone already in genesis?

No – I conceived of Umbrella as a stand alone novel. I was puzzled, as I was finishing writing the book, that ideas for subsequent novels weren’t coming to me. They usually do! Then, when I’d finished the novel, a few lines from it kept revolving around my mind:

It’s a conclusion that Busner had arrived at three years before, when, peering horrified into the scrap of mirror above the sink in the poky downstairs lavatory of the Willesden Concept House, he had seen his nose detach from above his lip and commence a halting – but for all that, undeniably real – circuit of his face.

The reference is to his decision no longer to use hallucinogenic drugs in his psychotherapy (a common practice in the 1960s), and of course it implies a prequel to Umbrella – I longed to discover what had led to Busner perceiving his nose as the dorsal fin of a shark. I also – and this was a pure donnée – at that moment realised that the interlinking of human psychopathology, technological innovation, and warfare, which formed the thematic core of Umbrella could be advanced through the 20th century: I’d covered the First War, so now the Second War and the post-9/11 conflicts demanded to be dealt with, each with their own mass hysterias and terrifying new weaponry. After this epiphany, I pretty much knew the main outlines of both Shark and Phone – I don’t think I’ll ever be so blessed again!

Innovation takes many forms: are you more interested in the big ideas or the fine details?

Oh, both – very definitely. I conceived of the novels as replicating in their form – the unbroken “news thread” of the text, without paragraph breaks or chapters, the use in Umbrella of obsolete punctuation, followed by the gathering significance of the machine-like ellipsis, the unscheduled “jumps” from the consciousness of one character to another – the inception of new media technologies throughout the 20th and into the 21st century.

At the same time, at the level of language, I wanted to achieve a much more sympathetic rendering of how we talk and think. The use of phonetic transcription – of dialect, of acronyms, of mis- and overheard fragments – is key to this, as is the use of italics, which represent the point at which imagistic thought surfaces into the linguistic, and we “hear” a voice in our head. (One we willfully conflate with who we are.) So, yes, in terms of innovation I follow Leonardo’s dictum: Ostinato rigore!  

Phone is disruptive at the level of conventional grammar. What led you to the ellipsis as a necessary device?

I can’t remember who said, “I can’t read any novel to which I don’t feel its author has been driven…” but it’s a sentiment with which I heartily concur. One of the most driven (and innovative) of the great writers is L F Céline, whom I had the good fortune to read – albeit in English – in my early twenties, and whose use of the ellipsis had a great influence on me.

I like the suggestion of speed that comes with it… and the evocation of the gaps between everything (to quote Leonard Cohen: that’s how the light gets in…)… I also like the inherent modernity of the ellipsis; as one of the characters in Phone muses: “When had these pesky ellipses become so ubiquitous? They bedizen the windows of the MI6 headquarters on Vauxhall Bridge Road, and turning into Marsham Street he sees them spattered across the windows of Shepherd’s wine bar…” Here they stand proxy for all of what Walter Benjamin termed “vertical type” – the text that bedizens so many surfaces of the built and virtual environment we now inhabit. 

Phone has your recurring character Zack Busner in old age. Do you think literature has dealt adequately and honourably with senescence?

Well, literature has certainly dealt with it in various ways – King Lear lurks behind the opening passages of Phone (and is referenced, as a shadow cast forwards on Busner’s life, in Umbrella). And one thinks, of course, of Swift’s magnificent struldbrugs in Gulliver’s Travels (which influenced the final section of my own Walking to Hollywood), but you have to reckon that since there were proportionally so many fewer senile people in previous eras, depictions of them were bound to be sparse.

Perhaps this alone can be a “growth area” for the increasingly marginalised novel form? One can imagine there being a considerable readership for accounts of senility in the years to come – certainly if the current demographic bouleversement continues – the only problem being that the potential readership will be senile itself.

Do you think that prizes for innovation in storytelling should be restricted to the novel, given the new digital arenas of narration?

I’m not against there being awards for innovation in storytelling – but there’s much more to the novel than mere narrative, and we undoubtedly need awards that are specific to this form, and no others. 

Is Phone the end of this trilogy?

Absolutely – by definition, one might say. Of course, it could simply be the third novel in a tetralogy. Watch this… space.  

What past work deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize? Why?

JG Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition. Ballard – who I had the honour to have as my own literary mentor, and to count as a friend – was, in my view, incomparably the most important English novelist of the postwar period, and The Atrocity Exhibition is his chef d’oeuvre: formally, in terms of content, ambition and reach, it carved out the conceptual territory into which scores – if not hundreds – of other writers have subsequently advanced. Ballard was a flinty-eyed innovator, who in this text, took the techniques pioneered by Tristan Tzara and Alfred Jarry to another revelatory level.  

“Phone” by Will Self is published by Viking

The winner of the 2017 Goldsmiths Prize will be announced on November 15

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