Umbrella by Will Self (Bloomsbury - August 2012)
Talitha Stevenson’s recent review of Will Self’s Umbrella forms an interesting—although not altogether original—riposte to those who bemoan the contemporary British novel’s general turning-away from Modernism. Those familiar with the recent pronouncements of Gabriel Josipovici and of Tom McCarthy will be fully up-to-speed with this line of thinking, which, boiled down, suggest that the path of experimentation beaten by Proust, Joyce, Beckett and Faulkner et al is out of favour in our brave new world of twee historical romances and mannered Booker-winning narrative fiction. McCarthy’s 2010 novel C seemed to presage a welcome sea-change—a non-linear novel on the Booker shortlist. And now Self has come into the fray with the very Joycean Umbrella, formed (more-or-less) of a single paragraph, eschewing speech-marks and flitting, unheralded, between character points-of-view, frequently within a single sentence. Self has talked at length, in interviews to promote the book, of his growing disaffiliation with the lack of veridity achieved in conventional narrative fiction, and his need to find a more authentic form, but in Umbrella he delivers a novel whose textual innovation is more than matched by its emotional heft.
Umbrella, concerning itself as it does with time and memory, presents a narrative that twists and turns its way around three discrete time periods—1918, when Audrey Death falls victim to encephalitis lethargica, or sleeping sickness epidemic, which raged across Europe after WW1; 1971, when she is resident in Friern Mental Hospital and is being treated by Self-regular the psychiatrist Dr Zack Busner; and in 2010 when Busner, now long-since retired, traverses North London in search of the truth about what happened to his former patients. Although the text wears its modernist ambitions prominently on its sleeve—at one point Busner is attributed the following: ‘He knows—and understands also that using net curtains to guard your privacy is as futile, surely, as employing tenses to divide time’—this is a novel rich in historical detail and moving in its depiction of character. The Pynchon-esque scenes concerning Audrey’s early life working in the munitions factory at Woolwich Arsenal in particular are to be savoured; and the descriptions of contemporary London continue where The Book of Dave left off, a text that marked Self out as the greatest living chronicler of the city after Martin Amis and Iain Sinclair. Given the nature of the illness described, and its seeming embodiment of inter-conscious connectedness (as described in the work of Oliver Sacks, the tics and jerks of Audrey and the other patients are shown to, in a sense, anticipate or mirror the whirring and clicking of the machine age) Self’s use of stream-of-consciousness is apposite. That said, this is not an easy read (although on the literary difficulty league table Umbrella comes in somewhere below Joyce, Pynchon, Gaddis and David Foster Wallace, probably ranking around Woolf). Self breaks every rule in the book, and in particular the one about not slipping between points of view without clear signposting. Umbrella can be disorientating, but given that its subject is mental disorientation then this is more than justified, and readers can be assured that their close attention will be rewarded. In his most ambitious novel to date, Self has demonstrated that experimentation can enhance a story’s humanity rather than detract from it.
For Stevenson, though, the book falls down because of its experimentation: for her, ‘it’s precisely Umbrella’s modernism that makes it old-fashioned.’ The suggestion is that the text strays into pastiche—its presentation ‘an act of nostalgia.’ Her main gripe with this, it would seem, is that readers these days, with ‘minds calibrated to ad-breaks and wi-fi’ will be too frazzled to ‘take any pleasure in the island paradises of Self’s figurative language.’ This of course, is a familiar trope. In this world of social-networking and text messages, the kids simply don’t have the staying power for A la Recherche du Temps Perdu anymore, and as for Ulysses—forget it. Now, this may or may not be the case, but when Stevenson berates Self for ‘choosing not to compose in a tempo suggestive of current mental life’ then alarm bells start ringing. It is hardly fair to downgrade Self’s achievement on the basis that some readers may not be able to stay the course. And anyway, would Stevenson prefer that from here on in all novels were written in text-speak to better reflect this supposed modern tempo? That would be a disaster—not merely aesthetically, but for the simple fact that it would not be based in truth. Our inner life is not composed of Tweets but of consciousness, and the novel still has a useful job to do in reflecting it. There should be a middle way. It is true that the experiments of modernism have been largely overlooked by the literary establishment, just as it is also true that technology has changed the way we live since 1922. What we urgently require is a literature that builds on the (largely) abandoned experimentation of the past in a manner sympathetic to the texture of our digital age. Umbrella acknowledges this and for that if nothing else it should be applauded.