By Richard Fleury
After a nostalgic school dinners-style buffet dining experience at Shep’s in-house venue The Old Brewery Store, author Will Self gangles onstage and cordially invites us to switch off our mobile devices for the duration of his talk.
Obligingly the audience stows away its ‘£500 worry beads’, as he describes the modern portable telephone in his most recent novel Phone. Which is a shame, because for those of us not blessed with a vocabulary the size of Jupiter, a good dictionary app might have come in handy over the next hour or so.
A notorious ‘sesquipedalian’ – a writer reluctant to use a concise word when he can employ one a foot and a half long – Self doesn’t skimp on the syllables when he speaks either. Listening to him is a brain-melting, vocab-expanding education in itself.
His lexically flamboyant style isn’t for everyone. Some find it pretentious, self-indulgent or showy. But Self doesn’t claim to write for anyone but himself and there’s no denying the fascinating mind driving his work. A high-functioning cultural magpie, he flits between lowbrow, highbrow and all the brows between, appropriating a bit of Bill Hicks or RD Laing here or Joyce or TS Eliot there as he goes.
Phone was published in 2017, the third book in an ambitious trilogy already widely touted as an important modernist literary experiment. Riddled with references from Ulysses to Ballard it unspools over more than 620 pages without a single paragraph break, shifting fluidly between multiple consciousnesses and time zones. It concerns, among other things, the sexual relationship between an M16 spook known as ‘The Butcher’ and a closeted army officer, the Iraq war, the decline of a rogue psychiatrist with dementia and the impact of information technology on the human race, all shot through with Self’s trademark black humour and sardonic voice.
Doesn’t sound like a light holiday read, does it? To reassure potential readers that Phone isn’t as the impenetrable linguistic thicket its cover blurb and his reputation might suggest, Self cites a Daily Mail review that compares reading his novel with ‘sliding into a warm bath’.
To underline his point, reads an entertaining, though rather lengthy, passage from the book followed ‘as a treat’ by a vivid, if slightly improbable, gay sex scene set in the public lavatories of a London park involving a secret services operative, a uniformed guardsman and a hole in a cubicle wall.
Then we’re into a Q&A session with the audience. Witty and engaging, he talks candidly about his family and its secrets and shares the sad tale of the disappearance and presumed suicide of one of his foreign translators. He opens up about the novelist’s balancing act between research and imagination (he interviewed Iraq veterans and met intelligence officers for Phone) and pats himself on the back for his ability to write convincing female characters. Technology and its dismal implications the future of the novel is next on the agenda as Self, speaking from experience as Professor of Contemporary Thought at Brunel University, bemoans millennials’ lack of interest in his chosen form.
There’s more than a bit of the performer about Will Self. You get the sense he enjoys being up there in the spotlight, that he’s not averse to the sound of his own musings. I could have listened for a lot longer. But, as if he might turn to dust if not back in London by midnight, he disappears off to Faversham station and the train home.