Sunday 25 February 2018

Finding meaning in chaos of modernism

Fiction: Phone, Will Self, Viking, hdbk, 617 pages, €21.99

Will Self: one of the most experimental writers of his generation
Will Self: one of the most experimental writers of his generation
Phone by Will Self

JP O'malley

The final instalment in Will Self's epic trilogy is tamer and less chaotic than his first two Joycean novels, and poorer for it.

Will Self came late in life to modernism. The sea change began following a rediscovery of James Joyce: who showed the London writer that the novel could be used in weird and wonderful ways to think about the complexity of human experience.

Umbrella (2012), and then its follow-up Shark (2014), explored how state-sponsored violence and capitalism have been bedfellows over the 20th century. Both eschewed the usual paraphernalia that comes with most novels: standard punctuation, line breaks, paragraphs, chapters, or headings. Characters in both books often dissolved into one another and it became hard to distinguish between fantasy, madness and drug-induced hallucinations.

Self isn't reinventing the wheel here, merely borrowing from his cultural heroes. There is, of course, Joyce. And then there is RD Laing: a Scottish psychiatrist who became a cult hero to the acid-taking 1960s counterculture.

Laing - using drug-taking medical experiments as a guide - challenged the militant orthodoxy of psychiatry at the time; defying labels like madness, sane, normal or abnormal.

It's no coincidence that there is a quote from Laing's 1967 cult-classic The Politics of Experience in the inlay of Phone - the final book in Self's epic trilogy - hinting at the notion that reality is not what you think it is.

Not surprisingly so, almost every second sentence here is a double entente, where the Freudian metaphor is never far away.

Like the umbrella, and like the figure of the shark, the phone thus becomes the medium - figuratively, metaphorically and literally - in which all of the characters play out their deepest desires, hatreds and erotic fantasies.

The phone could represent a myriad of meaning: a penis, the military industrial complex, or a symptom of a violent-dysfunctional-collective-psychosis in western culture.

To speak of plot here is to presuppose that there is some kind of order in Self's books. There isn't.

What Self gives us instead is snapshots into the synapses of individuals' brains: all that dark stuff that's kept for the narratives of nightmares and Freudian repression.

Still, existential tone notwithstanding, a story, of sorts, does emerge.

The novel begins with 78-year-old Dr Zach Busner in the lobby of a Manchester hotel, gripping his phone, while drifting back into "the wormhole of memory".

We have met Busner in the other two books of this trilogy. And he cameos in a host of Self's other fictional works, too. Busner can be seen almost like a spiritual or artistic recreation of RD Laing himself.

But what exactly is he doing in Manchester: a city he has no association with? He is, after all, a north London cockney. We also learn that Ben - Busner's 27-year-old autistic grandson - has given 'Gramps' this new mobile phone; with specific instructions on what to do for key events that are about to follow.

This becomes important for a significant development that happens later in the novel.

About a 100 pages after we have been swimming around the amusing mind of Busner- mid-sentence and unannounced- we then meet Jonathan De'Ath (note the surname, everything with Self is metaphor and symbolism), aka 'the Butcher': an M16 agent who is always on the lookout for a solid fuck, or a bag of brown if it can come his way.

The Butcher also happens to be the grandson of Albert De'Ath: the Ministry of Defence bureaucrat whom we first met in Umbrella, and who oversaw the manufacture of artillery shells in Woolwich Arsenal during World War I. Albert is the brother of Audrey, whom Busner re-awoke from a five-decade catatonic slumber in that same novel, too.

The Butcher, we learn, is the long-time lover of Colonel Gawain Thomas, a highly trained tank commander in the British army. The secret affair between these two closet homosexuals becomes the novel's dominating story. It's far from convincing though.

Oh, and there is also another narrative, too. It concerns Zach's daughter-in-law, Camilla - Ben's mother - who spends her days driving around north London wondering how a rape that happened to her in a field, many years ago, has brought her to a current state of perpetual anxiety.

In both Umbrella and Shark, Self's unconventional style was never really a huge concern to the reader because the language was so rich, musical, fitting, and precise for the subject matter it was dealing with: neurosis, schizophrenia, psychosis, anxiety and the violent maelstrom that is 20th-century history.

The mapping out of London, too - as Joyce does with Dublin in Ulysses - in a splendid real-time psychogeography-flâneur-style - gave both these books a very distinct milieu. Here, Self seemed to be strangely in control of a narrative style that closely resembled a moving lunatic asylum that was about to explode like an atomic bomb any minute; while always testing language to its limits, too.

Phone does offer, momentarily, writing that is on a par with this. But it doesn't give us enough to keep our interest holding. The book wanders for more than 600 pages.

In parts, the prose is flaccid and sloppy and it almost feels as if Self is stalling the reader until he finally figures out where he's going to glean his next epiphany from. The trouble is, he never quite stumbles upon one.

Stylistically, Phone is actually a tad tamer, and less chaotic, than Umbrella or Shark. That may actually be its problem.

We travel between London, Manchester, Iraq, Kuwait, among a plethora of other places and time zones. That's not to mention the great host of characters that come and go; who, in the end, we really feel little empathy or connection with.

Except, of course, for the lovable Busner: who Self really should have given more time to here. He's of far more interest than the other characters we meet.

As the book concludes, most readers will feel, I suspect, that they are just glad this particular project has finally been put to bed.

Still, Self should not be criticised too harshly. As one of the most daring and experimental writers of his generation, the odd failing project here and there is a risk worth taking for the artistic heights he has achieved in his career: most notably with the first two books in this trilogy.

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