Thursday, June 11, 2015
It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2012, Will Self's first nomination.
The stream-of-consciousness novel tells the story of a psychiatrist Zack Busner and his treatment of a patient at Friern Hospital in 1971 who has encephalitis lethargica and has been in a vegetative state since 1918, when she was a munitions worker. The patient, Audrey Death, has two brothers whose activities before and during the First World War are interwoven into her own story. Busner brings her back to consciousness using a new drug (L-Dopa, which was used for the same purpose by Oliver Sacks in the 1970s). In the final element of the story, in 2010 the asylum is no longer in existence and the recently retired Busner travels across north London trying to find the truth about his experience with his patient.
The novel is written in a flowing fashion without chapters and very few paragraph breaks between scenes. It intercuts between different time periods and is composed of interlaced narratives. In some senses its structuring can be likened to free jazz.
Self has indicated that the book will be the first part of a trilogy, against his own initial expectations. The second part of the trilogy is Shark published in 2014.
In 1971, Audrey Death has spent half a century catatonic in Friern mental hospital. Zack Busner – a radical psychiatrist just recovering from coming under the influence of RD Laing – has an idea. He recognises that she and several of the hospital's other long-term patients may not be mad, but are actually suffering from the 1920s sleeping sickness encephalitis lethargica. Oliver Sacks-style, and somewhat outside the formal channels, he tries treating them with L-dopa. They start waking up.
Meanwhile, if that's the word, we go back to Audrey's wartime past as a munitions worker in the Woolwich arsenal, and those of her older brother, Albert, a war office civil servant with an eidetic memory (like Zack Busner, another old Self theme), and her younger brother, Stanley, who goes off to fight in the war. A third strand of the story shows us Busner, in old age, shambling around north London and looking back on his life – a journey that is to culminate in a visit to the now-decommissioned mental hospital.
Umbrella is not, be warned, altogether easy going: 400 pages of unbroken stream-of-consciousness dotted across three time frames, leaping jaggedly between four points of view, and with barely a paragraph break, let alone a chapter heading. I started out wondering whether, as a prank, Self had decided to write the novel that Richard Tull, the unpopular writer in Martin Amis's The Information, is working on. Self's sentences themselves sometimes resemble Victorian lunatic asylums refitted for 1970s use: ugly, overstuffed, clattering with the moans of lunatics and bristling with redundant gothic spires. The antic gurgles of laughter you find in Self's earlier work are few and far between. In their place, though, is a sustained depth and seriousness, and an ambition of technique that I haven't seen in him before.
I don't mean to put you off. Umbrella is old-school modernism. It isn't supposed to be a breeze. But it is, to use the literary critical term of art, kind of amazing. To frame it in terms of the film Gremlins, if you fed Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child after midnight, it might come out looking a bit like Umbrella. Both share the historical range, the multiplication of perspectives, the interest in architecture and memory, and the central preoccupation with time. But where Hollinghurst's mode is fastidiously naturalistic, Self's is the exact opposite. Hollinghurst is interested in time's arrow; Self presents time as a dangerously faulty artillery shell.