Will Self’s eleventh novel Phone is the final installment of the trilogy that begun with Umbrella and Shark, following the life of psychiatrist Zack Busner. Phone is most decidedly a “modernist stream of consciousness” novel like it’s earlier counterparts, but it must be said that someone new to Self’s narrative technique might find themselves a tad flummoxed when reading the opening paragraph:
… …! and again… …! two groups of four… …! on it goes… …1 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… …!
When I first read this on my Kindle app, I truly believed I had received a damaged file, one with a demented amount of exclamation points. I quickly emailed the publicity team at Grove Atlantic to request a hardcover because my e-galley was no good. I even sent a screenshot upon request, only to receive the embarrassing reply that this was indeed the format of the novel, and that the exclamation points would go away after a few pages.
It’s not a stretch to imagine that quite a few laughs were shared at my expense. But moving on.
Psychiatrist Zach Busner, whom we already met in Self’s previous novels, is now in the age of smart phones and social media, suffering from increasing dementia. His professional life guards secrets related to LSD experimentation with patients suffering from PTSD. Now, Busner finds himself increasingly lost in his retreating memories with only a phone gifted to him by his autistic grandson, Ben. Busner’s children are also in a tug-of-war over declaring him mentally unfit and eventually confined to a nursing home which Busner cannot possibly fathom as the way his life is going to end.
Parallel to Busner’s, is the story of Jonathan De’Ath known as “The Butcher,” an MI6 operative whose secret life is a mystery to everyone from his mother to his various lovers. There is only one person who perhaps knows the true face behind The Butcher, and that is his longtime lover, Colonel Gawain Thomas, a married man with children who keeps his true self under a tight lid, including the biggest secret of all, a passionate sexual and emotional relationship with a man.
The element that connects Busner and The Butcher is the eventual fading of the control they have always exerted over their lives and the people around them. Through lack of dialogue, Self makes their thoughts interconnected, to the point where it’s almost impossible to discern where Busner begins and The Butcher ends.
But it isn’t just their narrative we are privy to because Self incorporates in the sticky mess of private reflections the points of view of Ben, Busner’s grandson, his daughter-in-law, and one of his sons. Jonathan’s married lover also interrupts the story with musings of his own.
If you believe this story sounds disastrous, in a way you’re right. It’s difficult to keep track of when Self changes POV’s and we’re listening to a different character, making it exhausting to keep up, not to mention the lack of empathy and charisma of either Busner or The Butcher. It can’t certainly be read as a standalone, since it’s already challenging to follow the plot even if you previously read the other two novels in the trilogy.
Self’s stream of consciousness isn’t for example like Eimear McBride’s, whose novels A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and The Lesser Bohemians can be taxing in the their own right, but certainly not comprehensible. Phone is dense and thick, like fog that sticks to the skin and robs you of any visibility. This sense of heaviness makes it harder to like or even enjoy the book, but if one manages to power though, it becomes almost a requiem for a life, or in this case, the lives of two very different men and the people who surround them, not ever knowing who they truly are, but coming to terms with their imperfections and past sins.
Phone is only a good novel if one has the time to carefully mull over it and masticate it with care. If not, it just becomes one of those cumbersome rotary phones from the past, the ones with a screaming ring that many might want to ignore.