Back to the Modern

Will Self, Umbrella

Bloomsbury, 416pp, £18.99, ISBN 9781408820148

reviewed by Luke Neima

James Joyce smiled when he told Max Eastman, 'The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works,' and then he paused, and smiled and said the same thing again. The two were discussing the difficulty of Finnegan's Wake, Joyce's last and most opaque work, which was part of the inspiration for Eastman's article on 'The Cult of Unintelligibility' where he decried the modernist excesses of Joyce along with EE Cummings, Gertrude Stein, Edith Sitwell and many others. Eastman accused modernist writers of creating a self-indulgent, 'private literature' that catered to an 'intra-cerebral' elite.

The place of accessibility in qualitative assessments of literature is as prominent now as it was when Eastman was writing in the 1920s and 30s. Just last year, the Man Booker Prize's judges publicly announced that they were looking for 'readability' over 'quality'. Such was the outcry of the literary public that this year's chair, Sir Peter Stothard, felt compelled to issue a qualification: he declared he would be looking for books that are 'not immediately easy to read'. Accessibility, or the lack thereof, still threatens to overshadow quality.

Will Self's latest novel, Umbrella, is the farthest thing from an easy read on this year's list of titles short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, which is part of the reason why it is a heavy favourite to win. Self's novel is based around Oliver Sacks' Awakenings, a non-fiction account of the author's experience treating patients of encephalitis lethargica in the late 1960s. The disease, which broke out shortly after the First World War, left a third of those infected comatose; Sacks developed a treatment that succeeded in reviving his patients, for a time. Self takes Sacks' account of comatose patients awakening after a fifty-year hiatus as the narrative ferrule around which he opens an amply stylised umbrella of narrative.

Self sets out to describe 'the binary blizzard that would blow through humanity's consciousness' as the 20th century progressed, charting the impact that technology has had on the body and the mind from the early 1900s to the modern day. The theme of technological disorientation, explored in densely populated industrial cityscapes, the front line during the First World War and the ticking and spasming that is symptomatic of sufferers of encephalitis, underlies a dense and often confusing employment of Modernist stylistics.

Umbrella is narrated in the continuous present, and vacillates between free indirect discourse and stream of consciousness. The book slips between several different voices and temporalities: it follows Dr Zack Busner in 1971 as he revives his patients, and again in 2010 as he walks through the streets of North London; it flashes back to the youth of one of his patients, Audrey Death, tracing her Cockney upbringing through her experiences as a socialist, a suffragette and munitionette; and also examines Audrey's brothers Stanley Death, who falls for a woman above his station and then fights at the front, and Albert De'Ath, a brilliant statistician who uses the war to raise his station.

The expanse of narrative implied is presented only in fragments: Self tries to reproduce the broad movement of his characters and of history by focusing on particulars. Shortly after Audrey recovers from encephalitis lethargica, she turns to Busner and says 'perhaps I will have the opportunity to tell you quite how extraordinary it has been for me.’ Unfortunately, she never does. Though Self designs his narrative around the compelling question of what awakening in a post-industrial world might entail, the topic gets only a cursory treatment.

The novel is, as Self puts it, 'not plot-driven'. Instead, Umbrella creates a descriptive vivisection of London at various stages of its growth - and this is where Self is at his best. The depth of contextual detail he employs is nothing less than stupefying, and 1900s London comes alive in his hands, convincingly sordid, filthy and chaotic. His account of a walk Audrey takes through London, if more Bloom or Dalloway than Death, is nonetheless one of the most evocative portions of the novel:

‘Here, more than in Foulham, the city is beset by its own contrariety: the smooth and stony Portland faces of the buildings along Victoria Streak are streaked with smutty tears, the alleys that crack the mirroring windows of the smart shops are choked with costers' carts piled with fruit an' veg' already on the turn.

When Self gets going, each noun tends to be sandwiched between a parade of adjectives and a triplet of corresponding adverbial clauses. Nonetheless, his sense of London across the ranges and changes of the 20th century is superb.

The problem with the novel is that it has as little concern for character as it does for plot. Self tells Jacques Tescard that in Umbrella he's 'not attempting to say things about individual psychopathology; [he's] attempting to say something about social psychopathology.' What this means in a long novel, though, is incessant, in-depth anthropological descriptions that are only tenuously held together by slivers of character and narrative. The weight of the novel rests on the pillars of description and style alone - Self sets the bar high, and then limbos nimbly underneath it.

One of the chief stylistic features of the novel is its use of italics, which define themselves early on as 'the me-voice, the voice about me, in me, that's me-ier than me ... so real, ab-so-lute-ly, that might not self-consciousness itself be only a withering away of full-blown psychosis?' But the italics soon descend into an aleatoric emphasis on almost any literary passage. Self's impressive grasp of the vernacular is often but not always italicise, as is his use of the first-person - no real order or pattern emerges. All of the italicised passages could, with some charity, be attributed to a specific character's voice, but so could any passage of a book written in free indirect discourse.

Self's use of the stream of consciousness is equally problematic, as the narrative voice never manages to evade the continuous, and at times overbearing, literary persona that designs it. This is not to say that Self entirely fails to single out the voices of his characters. Though he fails to create a distinct stylisation for his character's voices, he does produce specific vocabularies and contextually determined observation for the presence of each - the doctor Zack Busner's observations are the most obvious, as he can't evade medical terminology, even when he is in having sex:

'she bites his ear and he diagnoses her mobile spasm as athetosis, her jerkings as myoclonic. To beat off these medical terms he looks at her face, only to find her bright blue eyes compelled by something behind and to the left of her -- an oculogyric crisis!'

The ramifications of Busner's obsession with his career are left in the background. His marriage fails, his brother is institutionalised - these are side-notes to Self's monomaniacal depiction of the Friern mental hospital in which Busner works. Throughout the novel it's the nature of detail surrounding one point of view that distinguishes a character from another - what they see, rather than how they see it.

These details, however, are vital. When the novel shifts between character and perspective it always occurs mid-sentence, perhaps in order to emphasise the thematic of disorientation. Eliding two character's perspectives in a single sentence inevitably makes a statement - it indicates psychological continuity, movements of the mind repeated across time and persona. When Self's narration skips from one voice and time to another only confusion is elicited, and the opportunity to explore the commonalities of his characters is lost. After a dozen jumps the effect is disappointing and annoying in equal measures.

Audrey Death makes grottos - monuments to nothing - out of season, a practice her mother rebukes her for. Audrey asks herself, 'How can anything be beautiful or noble or romantic when it's the same?' The scene is a foil for the novel itself - a modernist work written long out of season, the purpose of which seems to be nothing more than the creation of something ornate. Character was what made the Modernists’ use of disorientating techniques interesting and important - their experiments with narrative voice resulted in distinct mental landscapes. Umbrella, though, falls far short of meriting its over-cultivated difficulty.

Self invites the danger of being compared to the Modernists, because even if the judgment is unflattering his book still gets to punch above its weight. If you were to stage the boxing match that that cliché gestures towards, Umbrella would get knocked out pretty early into the first round. The most compelling part of Self's novel is not that it outwrites (or even pretends to parallel) the High Modernists, but that it has the nerve to state that contemporary writers can still aspire to compete.