Tue, Jan 08, 2013 - Page 12 News List

Book review: Umbrella

The reformed enfant terrible’s novel revises modernist experimental techniques and touches on war, psychiatric clinics and drugs

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Elsewhere Self displays an enthusiasm for evoking (and placing in italics) cliched expressions such as “might and main,” “putting one’s oar in,” “from top to toe,” “none too clear” and “in no particular order,” rather in the way James Joyce deployed tired sentimental phrases in the Gerty McDowell episode in Ulysses.

And the parallel isn’t surprising. Ulysses was the high-water mark of modernism, and it’s impossible to try to continue in the same vein without resorting to some of Joyce’s techniques. Indeed, the flow of garrulous text interspersed with jokes such as is found here has its roots in Ulysses, if not Finnegans Wake.

But this book is an easier read than Ulysses. I began by thinking I’d never get through it, but was surprised how quickly I became hooked. Maybe Umbrella is best compared with the Anthony Burgess of A Clockwork Orange — it certainly has all the linguistic legerdemain of that book, and the fact that Burgess was a major Joyce enthusiast and expounder makes the comparison all the more apposite.

Umbrella, though, is as much surrealist as it’s modernist, and surrealism and drugs have often gone hand in hand. Self may nowadays be a relatively domesticated figure (though his teeth have not been drawn), but old habits die hard. Psychiatric hospitals have always horrified drug-users — and, it could be argued, those with a drug-using past — and the picture in this novel of such a hospital as being a worse nightmare than any its inmates experience is certainly par for the course.

But it’s the book’s technique that’s really fascinating. The text could easily have been written (or dictated) in three mammoth sections which were then cut up and shuffled. “Cut-up” was a modernist technique favored by, among others, William Burroughs, another writer to whom this novel owes more than a little.

Hostility to war can be argued to be the most valuable legacy of the psychedelic era, and Self’s anti-war stance is evident on every page. At one point he asserts that research has suggested that nine out of ten combatants in World War I fired their rifles aiming to miss.

Nowadays Self walks 50km a day without thinking anything of it. If you too feel in the mood for the long haul you might give Umbrella a try. Apparently it’s going to be the first volume of a trilogy, the second part of which is to be called “Shark.” It certainly would have been an appropriate winner of the 2012 Man Booker, and a more interesting choice than Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies [reviewed Dec 25], the novel that eventually won.

Despite both writers being engaged on historical trilogies, they could hardly be more different — Mantel so well-mannered, Self so lugubrious and transgressive. But maybe a future installment will finally win Self — a master of comic verbal pyrotechnics, and a lot else besides — this particular crown.

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