“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”
me, my dog n bone and i
In Phone our perennial protagonist, Zechariah Busner — who has spent half a century investigating the minds of others — is starting to lose his own marbles. Previously he ran a mental-health commune in Shark and managed to wake a sleeping-sickness patient from a 50-year coma in Umbrella but by the naughty nihilistic noughties he is, as Tim Martin of The Spectator so eloquently and succinctly paraphrases it: “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.’”
As stated, Self’s labyrinthine trilogy covers the modern ways of madness, love and death (the personal psyche) alongside how we are governed and controlled by big tech and self-help gurus and their paid-for solutions to the problems they themselves have conjured up and tell us, via surreptitious social media feeds, we are ailed with — but me, me, I’m fucking depressed in the very realist of senses and I know well the reason for why — you, you my dear one&only — and no mindfulness mumbo jumbo is gunna fix that (the political). Like the actual umbrella, and like the physical sharks of the seven seas, the phone becomes the medium — figuratively, literally and metaphorically — in which all of the characters in the last of the trilogy’s instalments play out their deepest desires, erotic fantasies and heartfelt hatreds.
J. P. O’malley, of The Independent, writes that characters in the trilogy often blend and merge into and out of one another and while it is all fictional after a fashion it is — like in reality — hard to distinguish between fantasy, madness and drug-induced hallucinations 😜 👻. Self isn’t inventing the wheel but simply borrowing from his cultural heroes: Joyce and R. D. Laing. The latter, in his time, challenged the militant orthodoxy of psychiatry and rejected labels such as mad/sane and normal/abnormal. As Self, himself says, anybody who’s lucid can apprehend that the world we live in is a large-scale and inherently chaotic system in all sorts of ways. In particular it is the consequence of technology on society writ large that is the constant motif of these three novels.
On the subject of technology and the mediums for reading prose, it makes me laugh a bit because Self himself is adamant that the codex — from the Latin, ‘caudex’ meaning the trunk of a tree or a block of wood or indeed a book constructed of a number of sheets of paper, vellum, papyrus, or similar materials — is dead but who really can imagine that many a millennial (or younger) picking up a trio of books and reading them? Okay, so they’ll read Will’s work online, but come on! Online reading is hampered by tab/app switching. Nevertheless (or should I say Notwithstanding?) it is — as some might say — what it is. Some of us youngsters do read actual books in between wanking and worrying oh and some of us oldies do too, again, in between worrying and wanking. And what the bloody hell do I mean by saying “it is what it is” because I’m not comfortable with the demise of the art of reading nor the closure of library after library nor the contention that we no longer need to learn how to use a pencil because all we’ll ever do in the future is touch type on ultra thin film Active Matrix Organic Light-Emitting Diode screens.
Anyway, according to Jon Day of The Guardian, Self is mostly interested in the ways we have come to be constrained by the technologies that once promised to free us. This is, he writes, evident in Self’s “Kittlerian trilogy” * which ultimately is a commentary on the interplay between minds, madness and technology across the 20th c. As overaching protagonist Zechariah Busner muses, the problem with modernity is that we are all “attempting to make our way across this new wasteland using the same old ways.”
Umbrella — 1 of 3.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2012 this work is a so called ‘stream-of-consciousness’ novel; written in a flowing fashion without chapters and very few paragraph breaks between scenes. Umbrella tells the story of a psychiatrist Zack Busner and his treatment of a patient at Friern Hospital in 1971 who has encephalitis lethargica and has been in a vegetative state since 1918. The patient, Audrey Death, has two brothers whose activities before and during WWI are interwoven into her own story. Busner brings her back to consciousness using a new drug called, L-Dopa. In the final element of the story, in 2010 the asylum is no longer in existence and the recently retired Busner travels across north London trying to find the truth about his experience with his patient.
Shark — 2 of 3.
This book turns upon an actual incident in WWII — mentioned in the film Jaws * — when the ship which had delivered the fissile material to the south Pacific to be dropped on Hiroshima was subsequently sunk by a Japanese submarine with the loss of 900 men, including 200 killed in the largest shark attack ever recorded. When the Creep, an American resident in the 1970s at the therapeutic community in north London supervised by our dear maverick Zack, starts to tell rambling stories of thrashing about in the water while under attack from sharks, Zack has to decide whether they are schizoid delusions or some sort of reality.
Phone — 3 of 3.
Much of Phone takes place during the premiership of the “Narcissist-in-Chief”, TeeBee A’s Will puts it and Tony B.lair as my woman likes to call him. All of the books key characters have had maverick careers in hierarchical institutions such as the EffSeeOh, and the EmmOhDee (translations: FCO [The U.K.’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office] MOD [The U.K.’s Ministry of Defence]). For the four protagonists at the heart of Phone, the £500 worry bead in their pocket is both a blessing and a curse. For our now elderly but still dear Zac it is a mysterious object – ‘NO CALLER ID’ – How should this be interpreted? Is it that the caller is devoid of an identity due to some psychological or physical trauma?’ – but also it’s his life line to his autistic grandson Ben, whose own connection with technology is, in turn, a vital one. For Jonathan De’Ath, a.k.a., ‘the Butcher’, MI6 agent, the phone may reveal his best kept secret of all: that Colonel Gawain Thomas, husband, father, and highly-trained tank commander – is Jonathan ‘s long time lover. And when technology, love and violence finally converge in the wreckage of postwar Iraq, the Colonel and the Spy’s dalliance will determine the destiny of nations.
As O’malley says, almost every second sentence in this book is a double entente, where the Freudian metaphor is never far away. The phone could and in certain contexts and quintessential quarters does represent a myriad of different things: a penis, the military industrial complex, or a symptom of a violent-dysfunctional-collective-psychosis in contemporary western culture. Self goes well beyond personal grief, and analyses a pathological politick where “intervention” is now the default first option — strike fast, think later.
As Stuart Kelly of the New Statesman sees it, Phone is yes about the intersection of technology and psychosis but also too about the intersection of the amatory * and the military industrial complex. As Self himself obsesses about, the naming of our distressed parts is all psychiatry consists of nowadays – that, and doling out the drugs which allegedly alleviate these symptoms. In other words, every freshly manufactured malady comes flanked with a team of would-be experts at the ready, pumped n primed to fleece you of your Euros and Riyals, they accept PayPal and occupy daytime TV and those tailored adds that troll your every move on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. (Tailored, not off-the-peg, oh they see and treat us as individuals…)
Uniting our most urgent contemporary concerns: from the ubiquitous mobile phone to a family in chaos; from the horror of modern war, to the end of privacy, Phone is, according to Penguin, “Self’s most important and compelling novel to date.” Notwithstanding such accolades, and while Phone may well constitute a glorious trove of sinister marvels, it might nevertheless send the incautious reader slightly mad — just like the world wide web accessed via that gleaming data-rocket in your pocket probably will do too. Mark my words.
Will Self has actually written a load more books in addition to the trio of novels just discussed, I’ll mention one more here, Dorian. It is is a tainted love story and a stated ‘imitation’ of Picture of Dorian Gray, by the vainglorious (?) Oscar Wilde. According to the blurb on the back-cover:
Via French from the Old Norse verb flana “to wander with no purpose,” flâneur means, stroller, lounger or loafer. And, flânerie is the act of strolling — walking slowly — with all of its accompanying flâneur associations (the female equivalent to the flâneur). It was Walter Benjamin, drawing on the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, who made the notion of Flânerie the object of scholarly interest. A near-synonym is: ‘boulevardier.’ A boulevardier is an ambivalent person who seeks to detach themselves from society in order to be an acute observer of society.
Relating to or induced by sexual love or desire. — “John’s amatory exploits put me on cloud nine well over that pale lunar moon.”
Friedrich A. Kittler (1943–2011) was a literary scholar and focused mostly on the media, and technology.
Self, W. (2009). Dorian. London: Penguin.
Self, W. (2009). Dr Mukti and Other Tales of Woe. London: Penguin.
Self, W. (2009). How the Dead Live. London: Penguin.
Self, W. (2009). Liver (And Other Stories). London: Penguin.
Self, W. (2012). Umbrella. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Self, W. (2014). Shark. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Self, W. (2017). Phone. London: Viking.
a letter, unread:
There’s one thing I know for sure, there’s nothing I fear more than losing you.
I’ve just woken up from a nightmare (covered in a cold sweat etc.). In the nightmare (I remember it vividly because I woke with a jolt), I had done something to annoy you and, as a consequence, you had blocked me. I was desperately trying to contact you, but each time I did you’d read what I had to say then blocked that communication channel. Finally, every avenue was blocked so I kept on going to your house (this was a dream and your house and family were here in Holland). Each time I’d go to your house (which was a different one each time) a member of your family would tell me you no longer lived there but I could hear you dancing, or singing, or talking or even playing tennis… I kept trying to get into these different houses to see you, to apologise, to explain myself but on each occasion I found myself trapped in a bathroom, a bathroom from my childhood, a bathroom with carpet on the floor; a bathroom that kept turning into a padded cell of a lunatic asylum.
Anyway, that was a nightmare, nothing more — I’m remembering now that book, Why we Dream. I don’t believe that nightmares are anything other than our brains sorting out and processing information. Nevertheless, as that book kind of suggests, we can somehow take guidance from these dreams/nightmares and that I plan to do. I will be thankful for every day I have you with me as a soulmate, I will work hard to understand each and every one of your personality traits in order for me to treat you right. You have given me so much, you continue to give me so much and, to me, you are the elixir of life; the epitome of my happiness; ‘the’ reason to celebrate and cherish being alive.
It was just a dream, just a dream.
Yours in life & in love,
Heaven — is with you
Hell — is without
Welcome to the twenties! They say to be happy, inter alia, we should (a) go to bed early and (b) embrace boredom. I can see the logic behind such advice but am I likely to follow it? I think not. I am a hedonistic human being and this is something that I cannot escape. Oh! The (futile & fruitless) Pursuit of Happiness.
The book mentioned — Why We Dream: The Transformative Power of Our Nightly Journey — is written by Alice Robb and is reviewed in this post: Dream on
A magical or medicinal potion. — “The seller of snake oil promised Oliver an elixir guaranteed to induce love.”
A person or thing that is a perfect example of a particular quality or type. — “He looked the epitome of elegance and good taste.”
To be engaged in the pursuit of pleasure; sensuous and self-indulgent. — “Julie dreamed of a hedonistic existence of sex, drugs, and hardcore house music but in reality moped around in her dressing gown in her suburban living room.”
A psychiatric hospital.
A room in a psychiatric hospital with padding on the walls to prevent violent patients from injuring themselves.
a marooned schooner,
I was way down, deep deep down below the decks and it’s unbattened hatches, scouring and lurking around like a stowaway seeking succour. It seemed as if there was no tonic to be found; no medicine to mend, for a time, my moribund mood — all the hammocks were of hemlock, no harbour on the chart could afford me birth to lay low in and ease, for a while, my knotted mind — but then, a hint of respite, the faintest of breezes did blow and the sagging sail taunted ever so slightly, I happened upon the following line, penned by one Scott Jeffrey: “There are three main ways to learn about human psychology: read Greek mythology, read Carl Jung, observe others.” He went on to say that while observing others was the most powerful, reading about the psyche helps inform such observations. As currently I’m at sea, I’ve few, and ‘no ‘ new humans to observe, I thus decided to hold course and scrolled down to see which books he’d recommend — this, the going off on absentminded digital tangents, the seeking out of uncharted waters, is what I’m now driven to do — my one&only has abandoned ship and thus, locked shut the open book that we would deviously delve into on a near nightly basis; these nightly trists did span for more than the proverbial one thousand and one nights (they lasted just shy of 6 whole years, 6 deliciously delectable but deeply destabilising years) — but anyway, nevermind (well obviously I do deeply mind but this is my burden to battle with, not one that tonight at least, I’m able to thrash out and fathom in the public arena: Oh! Ladies of Rome, lend me your ear for I’ve a tale to tell of yesteryear) — of Jeffrey’s recommendations was Victor Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning. I didn’t realise what it was about but it is, I learnt, well received and has obvious pulling power. Upon the embarkation of my investigations into Frankl, I stumbled upon Lapham’s Quarterly – a magazine that (and I here quote verbatim), “embodies the belief that history is the root of all education.” To which I say, “here here to all of that.” You see, the magazine’s editors juxtaposed an excerpt from Frankl’s book, in a feature section called ‘Conversations,’ against a passage extracted from Leviathan (Thomas Hobbes, 1651). You tell me. You tell me because, after that, I then ‘stumbled’ upon some eerily touching poetry it seemed to be speaking directly to me. It is alas the sort that’s uploaded on social media platforms as images and thus not easily sharable (of course and probably, that’s the point). I feel I’m going mad (maybe) because I feel it is being written in an indirect but explicit way for me to see and read. I was compelled to ask myself if I’ve now become the Captain of that fabled becalmed clipper ship, doubting my sanity and questioning my very existence but think — I reason to myself — of the Midnight stalker, the Mute troll; I mean, I’m saying, was I not prowling known hangouts? Was I not trawling about in places where I should/shouldn’t be? Where I was/wasn’t assumed to be cruising about in? Maybe I’m not as delusional after all. It is as if my departed other half is pouring out their soul to a receptive receiver who in turn is converting these pains into poetic form and posting them online. But it can’t be, can it? Well, technically it could be. It really speaks to me and the trials that I imagine my absconded soulmate to be going through seem to be those that I read and the imagery of scars could at a push be those that I may be considered to carry… it was said, was it not, that you could have (had) it all…
Yeah, they’ve cut and run, left me high and dry to cry out and die a thousand deaths but it was i. It was me. It was i who’d made them walk the plank a hundred or more times, knowing full well they were no good with convoluting currents. It was i that unleashed my vile cat-o-nine-tailed tongue and delivered vitriolic diatribes of great length (with her highness Hindsight these were a consequence of my guilt on the one hand and my anger at not being able to be with my one & only day and night — context, culture and circumstance did forbid that from ever realistically coming to fruition during those turbulent times). And maybe the lost love i read about in those jay-peg image poems is between another pair of nature’s most mentally troubled creatures. We can all of us read into something whatever the fuck we want to read into it; some like the sea of tranquility, others of us prefer the fire and the fury.
her siren call rings still —
(1) I’ve been trapped for days
(2) Summer heat does blaze
(3) Enrapt by her gaze
(4) I’m in a deep daze
(5) I’m into her ways
(6) I love all she says
A violent windy storm: “a raging tempest.”
written in red and underlined twice for emphasis
"One hundred words, one hundred words." He played those words again and again; six only but, all voiced by his incarnation of Mrs Robinson (her tone, and oh how he wanted to believe, her sultry undertone) He spent the night with paper and pen. It was, when all was said and done, futile, for too fixated he'd become with seeking to create a 'hidden' vertical passage. It ended up with: thirty two times "I really want you." The following morning he fully intended to deliver it but, ended up transferring from English Lit to Civil Engineering.