Saturday, 15 December 2012

Umbrella, by Will Self

I started reading Umbrella by Will Self a few months ago, but only managed 50 pages or so before I had to take to back to the library. Granted, it was a pretty busy time for me, and due to its popularity I only could borrow it for two weeks, but I struggled through those 50 pages. Not quite willing to give up on it though, I requested it again, this time finishing the book. It is an audacious, exhausting and eventually compelling read.

Umbrella follows a few characters over different periods of time. Dr Zack Busner is a psychiatrist working in post-World War II London, and an elderly man in contemporary London. Audrey Death is a working class girl in London’s east end, who becomes a munitions worker in World War I, and eventually one of Dr Busner’s patients. Her brother Stanley Death enlists as a soldier in World War I, and is sent to the front as a gunner. Audrey has languished, in a catatonic state, in psychiatric hospitals for decades before Dr Busner suspects some of the patients are misdiagnosed encephalitis lethargica sufferers and treats with them with new medications - bringing them back to awareness. This is based on real life events familiar to many through Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings.

Self’s novel meanders around this backbone of character and plot. It is a stream of consciousness novel, told in third person and present tense with no chapters. The focus of the novel can shift even mid-sentence, from Audrey to Stanley or so-on. It is at times maddening, one cannot mindlessly drift through the pages. It is a remarkable achievement though that you are always clear whose thoughts you are following. Throughout the text are italicised words or phrases; these seem to represent conscious thought on behalf of the characters, the words they are hearing within their own head. Self’s style is particularly effective in the blurring of Stanley’s own mind between his wartime experience and ‘normal’ life.
We’ll have to reposition! He orders the section at the end of a long burst - and Adeline abandons the cover of the low wall to go forward and reconnoitre. Look at Her! Her skirts dragging through the muck, her proudly hatless head held high….Stanley rises and floats back to the madness of the tea party.
I did think that the sections on Stanley later on in the war were, well odd. They weren’t badly written - in fact they were clever and even amusing in their own right - but I wasn’t sure what they meant. Whether they were real or not. Whether it was even Stanley telling us this story. Against the intense realism of the rest of the novel they just didn’t seem to fit.

At times you could almost imagine Self had just spewed ideas out onto his typewriter. It is a very deliberate novel though: while it seems to be overflowing with ideas, towards the end everything begins to come together. The encephalitic patients have ’tics’ or regular repetitive movements. In Audrey’s case she is repeating the movements she made as a factory worker; in a sense her tics become emblematic of the mechanisation of our world that has occurred since her birth. Family breakdown, women’s lib, the blurring of the class system, it all adds up to a summation of the 21st century. Reading Umbrella can be compared to reading a puzzle: at first it seems like a big pile of thoughts, random and messy, but slowly a shape begins to form and everything finds a place until you are left with a complete picture.

Will Self was widely tipped to win the Booker prize that went to Hilary Mantell’s Bring Up The Bodies. I’m sure he was disappointed not to, as this is a brilliant novel. Had he published it the year before I doubt it would have made the shortlist with the controversial focus on ‘readability’ the Booker panel emphasised that year. I had to make an effort to read it at first, but my persistence paid off.

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