Phone by Will Self - review by James Purdon

James Purdon

Ringing Off



Viking 618pp £18.99

Phone, the final part in a trilogy, follows two predecessors each composed under the sign of a different icon of modernity. Umbrella – mass-manufactured object, phallic fetish, civil servant’s companion – was about the mutually reinforcing relationship between the 20th century’s new forms of mechanical production and its new forms of mechanised and rationalised violence. It saw Will Self’s recurring maverick 1970s psychiatrist, Dr Zack Busner, pioneering a cure for encephalitis lethargica, a machine-age epidemic that, after the First World War, left its sufferers frozen in time: motionlessly comatose or caught in compulsive loops of repetitive movement.

Psychopathologies of this sort are the manifestation of what Umbrella, in a lucid moment, describes as ‘the stop/start, the on/off, the 0/1, of a two-step with technology’. That ongoing danse macabre between psychosis and technological modernity can be thought of as the trilogy’s guiding principle. Umbrella’s sequel, Shark (2014), both

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