This 600-page, single-paragraph novel shuttles back and forth across time between the perspectives of an elderly and confused psychiatrist, a tank commander in Iraq, an autistic computer genius, the autistic computer genius’s mother and a closeted MI6 spy who thinks his cock is talking to him — which, for this stage in Will Self’s writing career, is pretty much situation normal.
Readers of Umbrella (2012) and Shark (2014) will know the score already, as this is the third instalment in a loose trilogy following Self’s recurring psychotherapist Zack Busner as well as several generations of a family called Death (De’Ath for the posh ones). They will also know that these neo-modernist novelistic tirades, with their spliced sentences, their rambling flow and their mid-line shifts between characters and historical periods, sound like much rougher going than they actually are. Once you jump in, it’s hard to get lost.
In the new novel Zack Busner, who has spent half a century investigating the minds of others, is starting to lose his own. Previous instalments in this trilogy have showed us Busner running a mental-health commune in 1970s Willesden (Shark) and waking sleeping-sickness patients from a 50-year coma (Umbrella); when Phone catches up with him, he is standing in the breakfast bar of a Manchester hotel without any trousers on, comparing his penis to an ‘oiled and wooden-looking’ sausage. ‘I’ve no desires to speak of — not any more,’ he tells the security guard. ‘I’ve attained Sannyasa, y’see — the life-stage of renunciation.’
It transpires that Busner has recently done a King Lear, walking out of the huge London house he owns (‘No, really — a cool eight point five million quid!’) and bequeathing it to his brood of squabbling adult children. Now he wanders up and down Britain, with a homeless ex-squaddie called Simon as his Fool, while his brain wanders back and forth in time. In his pocket there’s a phone, provided by his autistic grandson Ben, which tracks Zack’s movements, updates his to-do lists, steers and monitors him by remote and feeds everything back ‘to the big executive brain for which all foolish data is… but a toy’.
Working in counterpoint to Busner’s fraying memory, in a narrative fascinated by parallelism and splitting, is the ‘enormous Mycroftian mind’ of the novel’s second main character. Known as the Butcher, Jonathan De’Ath is a spy with a photographic memory who leads more than one double life: he runs intelligence assets and consults on the invasion of Iraq with ‘TeeBee’ (and exploded initials, abbreviations and acronyms are everywhere here: SeeEx, EffSeeOh, EnSeeOh), but he expends at least as much energy on living as a closeted gay man. While using a succession of hopeful fortysomething women as ‘beards’, he conducts a years-long affair with the unhappily married tank commander Gawain Thomas, which Self’s text follows from a Manchester club in the 1990s via years of B&B assignations in the British countryside to a squad hut in Iraq during the invasion.
The narration in these episodes, which sinks the reader in the embattled perspective of these characters, snags occasionally on a grim irony: that most people around Jonathan know he’s gay anyway, and several of Gawain’s colleagues have long suspected. This edges their obsessively detailed sexual tradecraft and uneasy macho posturing towards the broader interests of the novel, which are (as so often in Self’s fiction) delusional constructions, malfunctioning intelligence and paranoid states of mind.
The novel slips in and out of these little bubbles of consciousness, each one apparently cogent from within. Zack thinks he’s wandering, but his movements are tabulated and tracked. His son Mark thinks he’s an alien spymaster, but he’s a mental patient requiring near-constant care. Zack’s daughter-in-law Camilla thinks she’s having an epistolary courtship with a famous writer, but she’s really cyber-stalking him. The Brits think they have a read on what’s happening in Iraq but, of course, the truth is otherwise. The one person who may really know what’s going on is Zack’s autistic grandson Ben, whose bedroom workstation extends into an online realm where ‘the covert intelligence gathering programmes of the major Western powers, taken in sum, constitute a map of the entire collective human being’ — but he may also be a paranoid keyboard warrior, an Anonymite shut-in with a second-hand axe to grind. In any case, it’s his involvement that brings this rambling, ambitious, century-spanning trilogy of novels to a strikingly neat and delicate close.