Just as this strand of narrative gets going, it shifts abruptly and mid-sentence to another Manchester hotel room, 20 years earlier, in which Jonathan “The Butcher” De’Ath, a suave, manipulative MI6 operative and closeted homosexual, is limbering up for a night of debauch by chatting to the aforementioned Squilly (you know when it’s the penis talking because it speaks in parentheses). De’Ath drugs and seduces Gawain Thomas, a seemingly straight soldier, and the two begin a clandestine affair. Keeping their story secret in a world of eroding privacy is the meat of the novel. Which, in a strange kind of way, makes this novel a love story.
Story is, though, secondary to style in Phone. And what a style, fired as it is by an antic relentlessness: there is the deliberate disorientation of the reader, the relish in puerility, the ventriloquism, the black humour more witty than funny, the capacious frame of reference that can encompass Bach’s Hunting Cantata and Shabba Ranks. As author, Self is in total control; and the reader-victim is left with a form of Stockholm syndrome.
Reading the hundreds of unbroken pages of Phone demands a physical commitment, the literary equivalent of mountaineering. But after all that, the summit brings a kind of elation. Sure, that elation is partly about knowing that the hard scrabble is over. Sure, it is partly also down to the smug knowledge that so few others will climb this peak. And, sure, it might at root be nostalgia for a kind of book that can no longer survive. But it is elation nonetheless.