Leaving the readers to fend for themselves
FICTION:Will Self’s ambitious new novel, a work of ‘audacity, originality and utter perplexity’, has been nominated for the Man Booker Prize even before it hits the shops
Umbrella, By Will Self, Bloomsbury, 397pp. £18.99
OCCASIONALLY A NOVEL is longlisted for the Man Booker Prize weeks in advance of publication. Except for the publisher and the judges, no one has read it yet. If the writer happens to be one who has been publishing for more than 20 years, with more than a dozen works of fiction to his name, not to mention a career as a cultural commentator, journalist and occasional scandal-maker, then the sense might be that his time has finally come.
And so it is with Will Self, whose novel Umbrella, a work of unparalleled audacity, originality and utter perplexity, is almost guaranteed to be an enormous success after finding itself longlisted for Britain’s premier literary prize a month before anyone can get their hands on a copy.
Does it make sense to say that one has admired a novel, been impressed by it, but been relieved to finish it? To have survived it in some way? This is how one feels by the end of Umbrella; as if one has been set a challenge to keep up, to lose focus at one’s own risk.
It’s nothing if not ambitious, tying three separate timelines together in a manner that is difficult to comprehend at first but that eventually, like the clues in a cryptic crossword, begins to make sense. The earliest section begins at the end of the first World War with a young woman, Audrey Dearth, the victim of a paralysing illness, encephalitis lethargica, which renders her unable to speak or move. The second section, set some 50 years later, sees Audrey brought back to life by a psychiatric doctor, who, in the final section, set in 2010, wanders around London considering his relationship with this woman and the actions he took to revive her.
Self chooses to give Dearth a political conscience, with both feminist and socialist ideals; in the wake of the war that voice is silenced for 50 years, missing even the second World War that was to follow a couple of decades later (“the Holocaust she’s slept through”). It is no coincidence that the revival of her voice is concurrent with the revival of those very philosophies.
The story of the effectively comatose patient returning to life after decades of sleep is not an original one: Douglas Coupland used the conceit in Girlfriend in a Coma, for example; Oliver Sacks wrote about it in Awakenings – but Self avoids both the cod philosophy of the former and the emotiveness of the latter by exploring his subject through the use of a compulsive interior monologue which allows the psychiatrist, Dr Busner, to question every aspect of his treatment, the morality of the revival, and the nature of an illness that killed a third of its victims.