Will Self’s new novel Umbrella, long listed for the Man Booker prize, is a serious challenge.
It starts at the midpoint of the narrative, is densely written with a word-by-word precision, has no chapters or breaks and switches point of view frequently, sometimes in the middle of a sentence. But stick with it, and it proves to be full of life.
The narrative concerns Audrey Death, an Edwardian working class woman struck down by encephalitis lethargica, the epidemic that killed and hospitalised millions after the First World War. Audrey, previously a munitions worker concerned with socialism and free love, is left in a state of catatonia, interrupted by tics and spasmodic eruptions. We also follow her brothers, Albert - a gifted but cold civil servant -and Stanley, fighting in the Somme. There are frequent set pieces; most memorable is Audrey’s slow and winding travel with her father through central London, a detailed sights-and-smells voyage that makes this historical cityscape seem tantalisingly close. In the 1970s, Jewish psychiatrist Zack Busner discovers Audrey in a North London psychiatric hospital. Busner gives Audrey and others like her L-dopa, causing the patients to regain full consciousness. Decades later, in 2010, a retired Busner attempts to find out what happened to his patients.
Umbrella is both ‘new’ and ‘old’. It self-consciously engages with 1920s Modernism, particularly recalling James Joyce’s Ulysses. Self pays homage to Joyce, taking the phrase “a brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella” as his novel’s epigram. Audrey, her brothers and Busner are Leopold Bloom’s literary relations. Self enjoys himself immensely wearing a Modernist coat. The paradox of the novel is that 1920s avant-gardism is now almost 100 years old. Umbrella is a new attempt at an old experiment: how to render consciousness accurately through the artifice of words. To write a Modernist novel in the early 2010s may seem quixotic. Regardless of the motivation, however, Umbrella’s effect is to highlight the power, intricacy and strangeness of the written word measured against human consciousness. That’s worth a prize.