Darkly comic spy satire: Phone by Will Self
Phone is the witty and fast paced new novel from Will Self, a side-eyed look at the modern worlds of intelligence, warfare, and technology. The main focus is on Jonathan De’Ath, a spy known as ‘The Butcher’ to all who and know him, and his secret longterm lover, tank commander Gawain Thomas. The other thread of the narrative follows recurring Will Self character Zach Busner, an aging psychiatrist, and his family, particularly his daughter-in-law Camilla and autistic grandson Ben. Self creates a riot of a ride, darkly comic and reference-heavy, in this novel about technology and life in the twenty first century.
The narrative hurtles full throttle in one direction, narrated by one character without room for pause, then screeches suddenly into a new point of view. This style – not unexpected to anyone aware of Self’s work – is unlikely to be to everyone’s taste, but it creates an obsessively-echoing and detailed novel full of parroting phrases and cultural references. Acronyms are written phonetically, making the proliferation of them in the modern day very apparent. The Butcher is a fantastic creation, a meticulous and twisted spook who ends up with a glaringly obvious Achilles’ heel, and his sections make for the most exciting reading. How his story has any connection to Busner, Camilla, and Ben is not apparent for much of the novel, but becomes apparent by the end in a satisfyingly fitting yet somewhat ambiguous way.
Phone will not appeal to everybody. However, its blend of exposing military and intelligence cover-ups, political and societal satire, dark comedy, and strangely intriguing characters is a success, leaving a novel that is an intense and unrelenting read, one that pulls the reader into its style and idiosyncrasies. Despite being a spook adept at hiding, Jonathan De’Ath is not easy to forget.