Lucy and Todd

Posts Tagged ‘will self’

Will Self — Phone

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 24, 2017 at 9:53 am

PHONE begins, cutely, with the ringing of an old-fashioned telephone. Actually it’s a “retro” ring on a modern mobile, overheard by Dr Zachary Busner, and it starts him down some very long corridors of memory.

A retired psychiatrist who’s becoming senile, at one point he finds himself in a hotel room in Manchester bestrewn with all manner of signs of serious debauchery, and smeared with faeces. This he attempts to explain to the manager of the hotel without wearing any trousers. But haven’t we all had that dream?

Dr Busner also remembers how well-dressed his father was (the reason was partly that he wanted to be taken for English, not Jewish): “He wore tailored English suits and shirts, handmade English shoes, Saint Michael’s not-so-hairy vests, pants and socks – gold cufflinks from Asprey’s, gold fountain pens from Parker, leather wallets, pocketbooks and card cases from Smythson’s … That he sported Italian and French silk ties only confirmed him in his opinion of his own essential Englishness: if the Angels of Death were to come swooping down over Whitestone Pond … if they were to dive, deploying some sort of Semitic-blood-seeking equipment – then they wouldn’t locate Maurice, who’d remain in the drawing room at Redington Road, sipping tea, listening to the Light Programme.”

One thing about this novel that is inarguably good is the author’s ability to encapsulate whole decades, not by describing what happened or who figured in them, but with simply the materials of daily life.

He does the early 1960s with the aroma of Passing Cloud cigarettes; “changing at Motherwell, and waiting by a huge old wall, anthracite-black and rain-dank”; and cameras “of cream Bakelite, Meccano and vulcanised rubber.”

We, however, are bafflingly yanked out of Dr Busner’s somewhat amusing, attractively crumbling little world and sent half way across civilization with a bunch of odious English spies. It’s never clear why. But these jumped-up Whitehall geezers really are the Angels of Death, and they, too, spend a lot of time thinking about male clothing.

From now on we have to listen to spooks and squaddies giving us the real dope on war in the Middle East and global politics, or making jokes about child soldiers, and it’s very hard to care. Of course, Will Self has made something of a speciality of anatomising the male English psyche. The question is: who needs it?

The novel becomes scabrous and never recovers. Thinks a spy known to us as The Butcher: “Both espionage and closeted homosexuality depended on good tradecraft – including cryptanalysis: a mouth slobbering at a crudely hacked hole could mean quite different things … depending on the context.” That, in fact, may be all you need or want to know about this book.

There is some superb Tony Blair-bashing, which is welcome. But do you really want to read a novel that has phrases in it like “instead of the silky Agent Provocateur lingerie he’d been expecting…”? A woman has a “barrage balloon of belly”. And there is a lot of very old-hat novelist-understands-prostitute folderol. You begin to realise that this is not art, and it’s not even satire. It’s just stuff that oozes out of a writer who is floundering in the tar pit of the establishment.

The Butcher uses sex with both women and men to exert the sad, staggering amount of control over everything that he seems to need. Because, one supposes, that he represents the England of today. There’s a sketchy attempt at feminism in Self’s treatment of one female character, to make up for all the maleness. It doesn’t work, partly because there is no variety of voice in this narrative.

Overall, Phone seems a rickety attempt at channelling Joseph Heller, Thornton Wilder and, arrogantly, Louis-Ferdinand Celine. Maybe William Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic. Stream of consciousness? Not really. In consciousness there is variety. Reading this, frankly, just seems like being vomited over by A Guy Who Went To University. There’s a difference.

Puns and clichés abound, and it’s not always clear whether these staggeringly inadequate male characters are giving us what they believe or if their consciousnesses are the narrator’s. “Never shit where you eat.” This is revealed to us by the author as proper, street-smart received wisdom of The Butcher’s. Or maybe he thinks he made it up? Doctor, heal thy self. It’s too late to be “knowing”, it’s too late to be smug, it’s too late to be clever, too late to male, and very, very too late to be an English male novelist. Here is the proof.

 

TMcE

 

This review was first published in the Herald on June 2, 2017

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