by Will Self
Grove Press, 2018
Will Self doesn't exactly entrap readers in his mammoth new book Phone, the concluding volume in his modernist trilogy (following Umbrella and Shark). He doesn't lure them in with conventional plot and character before yanking the carpet out from under their feet – say what you might about his regard for his own book sales in the short- or long-run, but he lets readers know immediately what he's up to. Inimitably, Phone opens like this:
…. ….! and again …. ….! Two groups of four …. ….! One it goes …. ….! 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 …. ….! poorly lit by tall, narrow windows …. ….! many little stained pains …. ….! altogether depicting a square-jawed medieval knight and his equally mannish lady …. ….! sword and spear …. ….! spindle and distaff …. ….! relentlessly …. ….! groups of four …. ….! on it goes …. ….! relentlessly …. ….! Can we make anything mysto-mathematico-significant out of this? No, probably …. ….! not – if it were …. and then …....! possibly, for the converse would be the six-five special coming down the line …... ….. and here he comes …. ….!
It's the bullying muted quack of an old rotary phone like the one that sits, toadlike and smug, on the cover of Self's book: ….! – in its own way a brilliantly permissive illustration of what that now-vanished sound was like, and some very accurate advertising for the 600 pages that follow. On one level – a subterranean level, not easily accessed – this book is about an unconventional psychiatrist named Zack Busner, whose world is rapidly being pulled apart under the conflicting gravitational pulls of psychosis and incipient dementia. It's also about Jonathan De'Ath, an MI6 operative known (to both friend and foe, tellingly) as “the Butcher,” a man so deeply encrypted that he's an unguessable mystery even to himself and particularly to his lover, Colonel Gawain Thomas. And there are smaller characters orbiting these two, most intriguingly Busner's grandson Ben, who gives him a cellphone and whose story, much quieter than the main ones, might under normal circumstances have warranted a novel of his own.
Instead, true to its title, this is not a quiet book. It's insistent, untidy, and enormously personal. Self works swingingly right in the middle of his chosen modernist territory: his book is a relentless torrent pouring over the reader without any break – no pauses, no paragraphs, no chapters, scarcely an in-drawn breath for its entire length, always with loudly insistent thoughts roaring under the thin attempts at thin surface narration. The effect is to invite – to challenge – the reader to prise Busner's story out of the increasing chaos of Busner himself:
The Quantity Theory of Insanity may have made the names of Zachary M. Busner and his young colleagues … a reputation I squandered soon enough, but, while blinkered by my own paradigm, he hadn't doubted the purely circumstantial character of Mark's distress … there simply wasn't enough sanity to go around. As the years passed and hospital admissions or arrests followed high-street fracas with … unflagging regularity, so Zach had … despaired ...what'd I done? Oh, good kind God – what'd I done? My poor baby … Schizophrenia – if that's what ailed him – had made of Busner's bright darling prattling boy … a dull and unlovable man.
Such a novel as Phone requires an extensive, almost punitive amount of work from its readers. But even more so than its two predecessors, Phone is worth the struggle. The book is, in addition to all its stylistic pyrotechnics, a magnificent portrait of fragility, the best thing Will Self has ever written.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com