Zack Busner returns, and, “tired and confused,” he’s melting away into air as the world goes mad in Self’s (Shark, 2014, etc.) magnum opus.
Zack, who has appeared in many of Self’s stories and novels, including Great Apes and Umbrella, is losing his mooring to the world, so much so that his withdrawn grandson has given him a cellphone so he can keep in touch. “You don’t gotta have an abstract sorta noise-thingy,” explains the grandson of the ringtone. “You can download a tune, or even someone singing an old pop song.” The cellphone is endlessly noisy. After a stream-of-consciousness opening, Self locates kindred phones in the hands and pockets of other players, notably recurrent character Jonathan De’Ath, an intelligence agent known as “the Butcher,” who ponders the whole business of “waiting for a lover, an agent, an asset—a phone call.” He’s not so bad, protests De’Ath; it’s his closeted, hidden boyfriend, Gawain Thomas, a military officer who has served around the world and seen combat in plenty of unhappy places, who’s done the real misdeeds. Zack, who has done specialized work in healing the psychic wounds of war veterans, is heading down the road of dementia; he still has the presence of mind, though, to puzzle over things like autism (“a canary of the coalmine of the human condition”) and the mysteries of memory (“dreams and emotions all deformed by the decades they’d spent buried deep in the system”). Meanwhile, De’Ath and Thomas wrestle with demons of their own in Self’s onrushing narrative, more than 600 pages without a paragraph break, inside which nothing much happens but a lot gets talked and thought about. Self makes subtle nods to modernist classics such as Ulysses along the way, unironically making Zack a kind of Leopold Bloom, though in his anxieties and preoccupations he could be someone from the pages of Howard Jacobson.
A multilayered, multivocal, and long-awaited pleasure for the Self-absorbed.