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

Tue, Jan 08, 2013 - Page 12

Half surreal joker, half radical crusader, Will Self is the reformed bad boy of English fiction. Injecting heroin at 18, he went on to use drugs until the age of 38, even getting work as a freelance journalist on account of his outrageous lifestyle, or so he’s claimed. Then in 1999 he had an epiphany in a church in Germany where an educational project identified the houses in the town from which Jews had been transported to the death camps (Self’s mother was Jewish). Shortly afterwards he gave up all drugs — and alcohol — for good. Reality proved to be the only escape-route.

But he’d never abandoned his academic roots. An Oxford graduate despite the drugs, he’s provided learned introductions to many a classic text, and last year was appointed Professor of Contemporary Thought (a chair created specifically for him) at the UK’s Brunel University. His books have always been taken seriously by the critics, and this year Umbrella was short-listed for, and was the favorite to win, the Man Booker Prize.

These same critics are calling this novel “modernist.” Historical modernism involved the abandonment of traditional forms in favor of experimentation — Cubism and abstraction in painting, 12-tone forays without melody, harmony or much rhythm in music, poetry that didn’t rhyme or scan, and novels where character and plot were less important than experimental prose styles.

But eventually the fashion passed, probably because readers and audiences found it was too baffling and gave little pleasure. What has followed has been a return to older, more conservative forms. Umbrella, however, represents a stand against this trend, an assertion that there was a point to modernism, and further work in that line is still worth attempting.

It’s a continuous text with no chapter divisions and no help to the reader in unraveling what’s going on. But a note on the inside of the front cover, possibly insisted on by the publisher, identifies three dates for the action — 1918, when a young girl, Audrey Death, is working in a London munitions factory and contracts encephalitis lethargica (an epidemic of which five million people were affected worldwide); 1971, when Audrey is still lying comatose in a London psychiatric hospital and is attended by Dr. Zack Busner, a character who’s appeared in other Self fictions; and 2010, when a now retired Busner speculates on what happened when he gave his encephalitis lethargica patients, including Audrey Death, the drug L-DOPA.

The sensational effects of L-DOPA in bringing patients who’d been comatose since World War I back to active life, albeit with the mind-set of 40 years earlier, were described in 1973 in a hugely successful book, Awakenings, by the doctor and author Oliver Sacks (it was filmed with Robin Williams and Robert De Niro in 1990). It’s slightly strange to find Self tackling such a well-worn-subject, but Umbrella is not a plot-driven novel, and the transformation of the patients doesn’t figure very prominently. Instead, there are extended comparisons of golf and warfare, sex and warfare, and (implicitly and throughout) language and national identity and history.

Whole swathes of period expressions from UK English are on display, from “flappers,” “elbow grease,” “swallow collars,” “tuppence,” “having a gander,” “coppers (in two senses),” “chit of a girl,” “bright spark,” “nobs,” “go for a dekko” and “spiffed up” to “half blotto,” “helpmeet” and “catching a packet.”

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.