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.
The narrative is littered with italicised phrases mingled with the roman, giving the sense of several novels attempting to burst through the page and fight for supremacy. In a sense, that is exactly what is happening, as Self eschews the traditional approach of dividing his three timelines into separate sections but instead mingles them together, the past, the even further past and the present, so that each is a part of Busner’s constant thoughts.
Such a modernist approach could not work with another three-tiered, war-related novel, such as Ian McEwan’s Atonement, but then McEwan seeks to engage with the reader while Self seems indifferent to whether the reader engages or not.
On almost every page, however, there are delightful tricks of language and linguistic acrobatics that take the reader by surprise: “The Palace of Pain and the Palace of Pleasure facing one another across the slough of suburban despond”; “The sewers are a place in their own right, not juss the love tunnels of rats an’ turds, but the bowels of the very metropolis, and as such necessary to the functioning of its monumental body”.
There are words that leave one reaching for the dictionary: dopaminergic, enkies, dyspnoea. From his earliest work, Self has played with the elasticity of language and never more than here. Rather than appearing self-consciously ornamented or erudite, however, these are some of the great delights of the text. Narrative voices that recall The Waste Land; allusion to other texts that are the hallmarks of modernist expressionism. To paraphrase the old workplace joke, you don’t have to be smart to read Umbrella but it helps.
The difficulty of the novel, however, lies in the manner in which it sets out to exclude the reader. Endless pages of almost unbroken text, no paragraph breaks, no inversion for speech; such stylistic peculiarities make for difficult reading and one longs for some relief from the rigidity of the novel’s structure. There’s a deliberate aggression to this type of writing; it’s as if Umbrella wants to reject us before we can reject it, which is incredibly frustrating when Self’s story is so intriguing, his characters so complex, and his control over the form so solid.
What is gained by placing the text on the page in this way is hard to divine; it doesn’t add to the power of the novel at all, but it certainly detracts from its pleasures.
Captivating, confusing, bewildering, tortuous, fascinating and compulsive: any of these adjectives might be applied to Umbrella. Should it win the Booker prize and become the go-to Christmas present for hundreds of thousands of casual readers this year, there will be a lot of shellshocked people sitting in their armchairs on December 26th. But then Will Self is not someone who writes for casual readers; one gets the sense that he rather despises them.
John Boyne’s 10th novel, The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket, is published by Doubleday