Will Self's ninth novel, Umbrella, follows a female munitions worker in London who is struck down by a mysterious disease. The novel is on Man Booker shortlist this year.
Umbrella is Will Self's most ambitious work to date
The inclusion of Will Self's ninth novel on this year's Man Booker shortlist should elicit applause from those who condemned last year's judges' emphasis on "readability". Umbrella is, according to the bold claims made on its cover, Self's "most ambitious" novel yet; one in which he "takes up the challenge of Modernism and demonstrates how it - and it alone - can unravel new and unsettling truths about our world and how it came to be". Following in the footsteps of both James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, the former's quip that "a brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella" introduces the novel, and Self's ageing protagonist's bus journeys around North London are haunted by the image of Woolf mapping the city in Mrs Dalloway. Self fully embraces the fragmented and elliptical form with all its clutter and confusion, depth and dexterity. "Readable" it both is and isn't. Some passages trip off the tongue with a speed and ease that delights; others jar the senses, taxing one's concentration and comprehension.
As with all good Modernist novels, Umbrella is epic in its scope. Self's story spans almost a century, beginning in the First World War and ending in 2010. Its heroine (if so straightforward a term can be used) is Audrey Death. Born in Fulham in 1890, Audrey - defined by the conventions of her age as a woman of "loose" morals (a feminist) and "extreme" politics (a socialist) - is a munitions worker at Woolwich Arsenal; a "cog, so to speak, in the machine" of armament during the Great War.
In 1918 she is struck down by the encephalitis lethargica (sleepy sickness) epidemic that swept the world, and, in 1922, after a complete collapse, she is committed to a psychiatric hospital in North London. Here, among a small group of fellow sufferers, she resides in a state of catatonia interspersed with episodes of hyperkinetic behaviour ("they yawn, they sniff, they gasp and pant like worn-out dogs") for 50 years, like "a moth - not dead but hibernating and growing ever more desiccated". In 1971 the psychiatrist Dr Zack Busner (a recurring character in Self's fiction, found in his novels Great Apes, The Book of Dave and some of his short stories) charges in on his hypodermic steed and wakes these Rip Van Winkles from their sleep with an L-DOPA chemical kiss. Almost 40 years later, the now aged and retired Busner makes a pilgrimage from his grotty flat in Tufnell Park to the site of his once great experiment, hoping to lay old ghosts to rest.
Their symptoms and their illness misunderstood for years - Audrey's diagnosis changes with the arrival of every new doctor at the hospital, ranging from primary dementia ("whatever that was", muses Busner when he takes over her case), through premature dementia and schizophrenia, until the first sign of light appears with a "tentatively" pencilled "Parkinsonian?" in her chart, Self is not the first to be captivated by the reanimation of these "living statues". In 1973, neurologist and psychologist Oliver Sacks published Awakenings, his real-life account of his experiments waking post-encephalitic patients in New York's Beth Abraham Hospital. This was turned into a film of the same name in 1990 starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, and inspired the playwright Harold Pinter to pen his own fictional account of a woman woken after a 30-year coma, A Kind of Alaska, in 1982. But, as anyone who's seen or read Awakenings knows, L-DOPA didn't provide the fairy-tale ending everyone had been hoping for.
Whether Self's use of the Modernist stream-of-consciousness technique can be traced back to the mechanics of the disease he's writing about, or this is just the style through which he makes sense of the story, is hard to fathom.
He begins Kafka's Wound (his digital literary essay commissioned by the London Review of Books and recently made available on The Space website), with the admission that he's guilty of an association of ideas: "I cannot prevent myself from linking one idea with another purely on the basis of their contiguity, in time, in place, in my own mind."
His reference in the essay to David Hume's assertion that the imagination is best conceived as a "combinatorial faculty" can, I think, also be put to good reference when it comes to deciphering the way he's chosen to present Umbrella.
Naturally, a sense of coherent chronology is non-existent in Self's pages, time period intersects time period with steady irregularity; often the switch is made mid-sentence with only the clue of an interlinking image to alert the reader to the change, or one character's reminiscences about another signalling a change in consciousness. Coupled with this are the multiple plot lines: Busner's experiments in 1971; his lonely retirement in 2010; Audrey's memories of life as a munitionette during the war (her post-encephalitic tics eventually being deciphered as a muscle-memory of operating the turret lathe she was in charge of); snippets of memory before and after this period; and the stories of her brothers, Albert and Stanley.
Like the leitmotif of the umbrella that threads through the novel, the word or image reappearing in a multitude of different scenarios and with different meanings, so too Audrey's brothers become more and more central to the narrative. The retired Busner wonders at what point the umbrella "first became an article to be routinely forgotten rather than assiduously remembered? Surely, to begin with, they would've been expensive items, invested with strong affect and not to be casually abandoned … as nowadays, given their cheapness and ubiquity". Appropriately, one of these brothers is indeed dropped as easily as a mass-produced umbrella - the siblings held together by nothing more than the "accident" of their parentage - while the other is cherished and clung to through the years.
The question still remains, though, does the style suit the subject? Modernism always awakens the problem of intellectual insecurity - it's easy to either dismiss its regurgitation as "not as good as the original", or, for fear of being exposed as not understanding what you're reading, to praise its reincarnation as a brave and uniquely rendered project.
In full awareness that I'm rather unsatisfactorily sitting on the fence, I would argue that Umbrella falls into both those categories. At points I longed to be reading Joyce or Woolf, while at other times revelled in the flow of Self's language: the "swipeeping" of Busner's bus pass as he begins a journey on public transport, the description of a recognisable figure from the newly-woken Audrey's past as "a time chamber within which [she] can rest a while as she's decompressed by his chat", or a brain free-floating inside a skull until it's "touched down by a dusty heap of muesli".
Self's use of Modernism comes into its own in the book's final pages, where Busner's hypothesis views Audrey's "frenzied" activity as "a preview of what was to come: the binary blizzard that would blow through humanity's consciousness". Here he reminds us just how very modern Modernism actually was.
Lucy Scholes is a freelance journalist who lives in London.