Long before they had mutated into those digital, immoderately powerful, GPS-fueled tracking devices that we all carry around in our back pocket, the telephone possessed a remarkable power to limn our hopes and fears. In the realm of cinema alone there was Hitchcock’s ’50s horror classic Dial M for Murder, the early-’70s phone-surveillance thriller The Conversation, and the ’90s Scream franchise, not to mention all of the bizarre phone calls in David Lynch’s films, and also The Matrix, which turns it into a conduit between competing human realities. In the literary realm we might briefly recall Philip K. Dick’s famous line — “There will come a time when it isn’t ‘They’re spying on me through my phone’ anymore. Eventually, it will be ‘My phone is spying on me’ ” — which now seems to have eerily foreshadowed the bouts of phone hysteria we regularly experience whenever there’s a new story about mass government surveillance, Russian hackers, or the unsettling experience of your phone showing you an ad for a product you were just talking about with your friend.
So it’s hardly a surprise that the British author Will Self, whose work has long displayed its affiliation with such giants of techno-modernism as J. G. Ballard, William Burroughs, and Franz Kafka, would get around to tackling this ubiquitous element of post-industrial technology. His new novel, simply titled Phone, is the much-heralded conclusion to his so-called neo-modernist trilogy, following 2012’s Umbrella and 2014’s Shark.
This 600-page, single-paragraph stream-of-ranting begins with some of this reviewer’s favorite writing of the entire novel, a dozen pages of impressionistic, only fleetingly connected phrasal riffs, each separated by a mysterious ” . . . . !” It later becomes evident that this is, apparently, the mind of Self’s recurring character Zachary Busner in the midst of an Alzheimer’s-inflicted episode of senility. When Busner comes to, we (and he) realize that he wears only a blazer and has his genitals laid out on the buffet of a swank hotel. As security begins its inevitable task of apprehending and escorting him off the premises, Self does a rather beautiful job of sketching in the details of precisely who Busner is, how he came to be here, and where he’s headed next.
Busner, we learn, is the aging patriarch of a sprawling family, as well as a wealthy, if somewhat eccentric innovator in the field of psychiatry (a role that Self has explored in several of Busner’s prior appearances in his work). This early stretch features some of Phone‘s most affecting and penetrating writing: Busner’s dismay and embarrassment as he discovers what Alzheimer’s has made of him (for starters, he and the security men discover that his hotel room is smeared with his own feces); Busner’s loneliness amid his bickering family, who have long since grown disconnected from and impatient with their odd and increasingly disruptive patriarch; and his own fears about his impending mortality and doubts about what he has done with his life.
It’s all rather rich and full of potential, but then, out of nowhere and without even so much as a paragraph break, we are rocketed into a parallel life — that of the aptly named Jonathan De’Ath, a.k.a. the Butcher, a closeted British MI6 agent who, among other strange affectations, endearingly carries on a running conversation with his lisping penis, whom he’s named Squilly. When we catch up with him, the Butcher is setting out to quarry a gorgeous, somewhat naïve member of the armed forces, ostensibly straight but in whom the Butcher senses a definite kink. Self rather gleefully narrates De’Ath’s militarily precise, boa constrictor–tight operation.
At this point the Butcher and his new lover, the somewhat excessively named Gawain, become Phone‘s core, as Self opens up their world while exploring their passionate, and completely secret, relationship. De’Ath is an entertaining, if absurdly macho and generally juvenile mind to hang around with, and through his involvement in every government conspiracy this side of Margaret Thatcher, Self takes the opportunity to traipse through many of the signal events of post-1989 world history. De’Ath’s back-story — involving his homophobic parents and the challenges of being closeted while pursuing a military and espionage career– is intriguing enough, but it lacks the urgency and emotional depth of Busner’s story.
Worse, it never feels as though the Butcher is going anywhere. Although Self grants De’Ath an almost unbelievably privileged position (at one point Tony Blair makes a cameo and sucks up to the Butcher about his tailored shirt), his thoughts about society are generally uninteresting. In essence, anyone who isn’t as brilliant and as macho as he is gets dismissed as a “sheeple,” and his reflections on ethics and morality tend to manifest around briefly celebrating his lost innocence, before thanking God that he’s eliminated his sentimental attachment to the perfectibility of man. But perhaps the biggest disappointment is Self’s failure to delve into the Butcher’s much-bandied “data set” — apparently the Butcher’s genetically abnormal, encyclopedic, and drug-addled mind has the ability to crunch an impossibly immense array of sociopolitical information to divine secret truths about the world, but we never learn more about this remarkable capacity or its implications.
All throughout the escapades of Busner and De’Ath, Self shows a thoroughly modernistic lack of interest in developing his plot — there are sizable chunks of back-story, and absolute deluges of raw information, but neither are caught up in anything close to a compelling narrative fix. Self does get some mileage out of the Butcher’s guilty vacillations over coming out, and he draws some interesting parallels between the clandestine lives of spies and those of closeted gay men, but it never feels like very much to hang your hat on, certainly not enough to propel one through hundreds of densely packed pages.
And then there’s Camilla, who feels a little bit like an afterthought that somebody forced Self to toss in. Daughter-in-law to Busner, mother of an autistic son, wife to a schizophrenic husband, she’s the book’s only real female presence. It must be said that rarely is absolute human misery so completely evoked in a work of fiction as it is during Camilla’s brief appearance in Phone. That’s no small achievement, but it also relegates Camilla to stoically enduring everything from her child’s stony distance to condescending doctors to menstrual cramps. One can’t help but notice the short shrift and relative lack of agency that Self grants her, particularly when Busner and the Butcher merrily go about their maximalist masculine mischief with such enviable freedom.
A lack of plot need not be an impediment to the success of a novel — see Joyce, Woolf, Beckett, Bernhard, etc., etc. — but something has to develop over the course of a work, or else one has stasis, and this is an issue with Phone. As the images and quips pile up, one is alternatively wowed by the author’s linguistic virtuosity and increasingly desperate for something in this cathedral of cleverness to spring into life. At length, the feeling of being inside of this book comes to resemble being forced to listen to one gargantuan hip-hop freestyle: the sheer tonnage of puns, coinages, one-liners, jargon, and alliteration is undeniably impressive — and for a while entertaining — but eventually one succumbs to dullness: the rhythms never change, the tone is ever posted at a fever pitch, and it more and more feels that less and less is at stake.
This stylistic excess would be more forgivable if Phone didn’t feel like a novel fruitlessly in search of ideas. Everything from the last quarter century that you could ever want is here, from the second Iraq war and the Balkan conflagration to autism (cue references to the MMR vaccine hysteria), terrorism, the evolution of queer culture, the rise of the Internet, and, of course, the massive revolution in telecommunications. All of these things, plus about 100 more — not to mention plenty of allusions to heroes of literary modernism — are carefully woven into Self’s furious flow of data. Self seems to be fascinated by the way that our increasingly technological civilization has granted outliers — be they geniuses, drug junkies, suffers of autism, or just long-tail bloggers with bizarre theories about the world — greater and greater inroads to society at large, but it all never collects into anything more than snapshots of various eras (which, for what it’s worth, are quite gorgeously done). One reads through this novel titled Phone and littered with communication devices of every kind — from humble tin cans tied with string to high- and low-tech spy devices to the newest, most powerful iPhone — without coming away with anything close to a new way of seeing the glowing tablets we’re now trying not to be addicted to, or the web of connections that gives them their increasing power.
The result is an energetic ride that offers a lot of fun and erudition — probably for many readers that will be enough. Phone presents a thoroughly domesticated, tamed version of modernism, akin to some enormous, armor-plated rhinoceros that’s been so subdued by the forces of civilization that you can walk right up to it and hop on its back. Taming such a creature might well be admired as a feat: but it leaves us wanting a confrontation with something wilder.