Phone by Will Self
In 2012, Will Self published Umbrella, an under-read masterwork of Joycean proportions that was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Umbrella reads as if Self found a loose thread in the conceptual stitching of literature and yanked the entire thing apart: the book is composed entirely of intertwined stream-of-consciousness storylines set in different timelines, lacks paragraph breaks, and frequently shifts in mid-sentence from one character’s track to another. It’s more of a scroll than a book; to read Umbrella is to surrender to its fragmentary blips of memory and wait for a story to show itself from the static.
A story does emerge about Zack Busner, a non-traditional psychiatrist who, in the early seventies, experimented with the brains of his comatose patients. Busner recalls, “swimming up to him…from the emulsification of memory” “that brilliant summer, during the era of the moon landings, when he’d awakened the post-encephalitics from their marmoreal half-century-long slumbers — and begun to see symptoms of their malady everywhere…” While Busner readies his treatment Self dives headlong into the swirling memories of one of his patients, Audrey Death, and her time in World War I. The book gels into a mesmerizing investigation about memory and experience, shared consciousness and the recurring motifs that make up human history.
In 2014, Self did the unthinkable and pulled apart another novel with the same non-traditional methods. Written in an identical stream-of-consciousness scroll, Shark returns to the characters of Umbrella: Busner remains central to the story but it’s the mid-seventies now, and he’s living at a psychiatric co-op with a number of emotionally fragile World War II vets. Like Umbrella, Self bounces around the minds of his characters, formlessly circling past traumas.
Self’s new novel, Phone, concludes this spellbinding experimental trilogy and brings Busner and the Death family to the 21st century. Similar to its previous installments, Phone follows Busner and a descendent of Audrey Death and spirals among the shadows of major war. Jonathan Death is a MI6 agent having a clandestine affair with a male soldier embroiled in the Iraq War. Meanwhile, an aged Busner is in the throes of Alzheimer’s, and he’s just been given a new iPhone by his family in an effort to keep him at least digitally tethered to the people who care about him. “The phone’s really only an aide memoire,” Busner considers. “A sort of auxiliary memory because, I must confess, I’m finding it a little difficult to remember things.”
Busner’s technological step forward was coordinated by his autistic, “neuro-atypical” computer-whiz of a grandson, Ben. Ben’s inclusion in this trilogy is a remarkable one: not only does he continue Self’s ideas of (sub-)consciousness descending down generations, Ben signifies the curious state of our present-day mentality and the data overload that we all suffer from. In one scene, Ben’s mother finds an “Anonymous” mask among his things, which brings the novel to some Wikileaks-related digressions. While Phone is a slow and exceptionally difficult novel, it eventually takes the form of a stunning polemic against modern communication. We no longer simply have our memories and those beautiful moments when they occasionally overlap with others; in the data-dump age of Wikileaks, NSA surveillance and the Internet of Everything, we hypothetically have access to all memories, histories, and mindsets of everyone, whether they know it our not.
Phone does not shift its tracks with as much maddening frequency as Umbrella and Shark, which makes for a somewhat more palatable but less exciting read. The middle three-hundred pages thud onto Jonathan Death’s affair, which is exhaustingly drawn out with lover’s trysts, recollections of his family, and scenes of his lover Gawain making some intense decisions in the Middle East. Jonathan is a priapic jerk known as “The Butcher”, and has an ongoing internal dialogue with his genitals (this makes for a particularly tough read without paragraph breaks). Gawain is married to a woman, but his affair with Jonathan persists.
This section of Phone is long and slow, but that’s the point: in an attempt to channel the same experience of enduring a 1,000-page document leak, Self is excruciatingly (and purposely) thorough in recounting their experiences and internal memories. Jonathan and Gawain’s story does eventually coincide with Busner’s, but while this eventual overlap forgives Phone’s pacing issue it does not manage to resolve the novel’s main flaw, that Jonathan and Gawain’s love is not convincing, nor is it compelling.
Perhaps Phone is a fitting ending for this trilogy because it reveals the one thing that Self cannot write with his “neuro-atypical,” brain-wave prose: love. Jonathan and Gawain’s affair is scattered across memory shards and Self is unable find a way for genuine feelings to resonate through his novel’s experimental form. Sure, “the Butcher remembers the blond’s woolly leg thrown across his own, under the duvet, beneath the eaves of the old cottage in Bardney where we spent so many happy hours,” but readers need more than the occasional snapshot to really feel whatever passions these characters feel for each other. Although formally outstanding, Phone comes up emotionally short.
Meanwhile, Busner’s iPhone keeps ringing from a blocked ID. The recurring ringtone recalls a line from Jonathan’s story: “Waiting for a lover, an agent, an asset — a phone call. They’re all, he thinks, fundamentally the same: situations in which you’re compelled to be embodied, to consider the world through the media of sweat, hair and keratin, to feel the slack strings of your temporarily unused and fleshly… marionette.” Whereas in Shark and Umbrella, Self found a unique vitality in the rare connections between people, Phone flips this around: today we seek life in an overabundance of connectivity, in the “invisible digital threads binding together these shining screens,” and it’s unclear if we’ll ever find anything genuine within that network.