Leaving the readers to fend for themselves
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