Will Self’s latest novel, the Booker prize nominated Umbrella, is an attempt at writing a novel in the modernist style. Before evaluating the success of Self’s endeavour I feel it might be useful to briefly look at what we mean when we use the term ‘modernism’ in relation to literature. While the aims of modernism were, much like any movement, complex and manifold, the stylistic thrust of them involved eschewing traditional modes of representation in art, replacing them with ones more suited to the modern age.
Within literature this manifested itself in a departure from established devices, such as the omniscient narrator, or the clockwork like mechanics of conventional plot progression, where events tick along in a carefully managed logical order, each plot point leading neatly to the next. Rejecting such methods which they viewed to be artificial and far removed from the realities and complexities of everyday life, modernists sought to approximate something closer to the rhythms of everyday life and individual thought, deploying techniques such as stream of consciousness, novel uses of punctuation and rejection of traditional chapter structures.
Opening with an epigraph from Joyce, “A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella,” Self signals his modernist intent from the get go. The epigraph is also used to establish the umbrella of the title as a recurring motif throughout the novel, the history of the object and its relationship to its owners, from indispensable to disposable, being shaped over time by the social and industrial upheavals which occurred from pre-world war one to the present day.
The story begins from the perspective of Doctor Zack Busner, a disillusioned retired psychiatrist recalling his career, as he walks the streets of London retracing the physical and psychological geography of his past. A one-time idealist and associate of maverick RD Laing, the aged Busner is filled with ambivalence towards his former profession due to the barbaric practices, such as electro convulsive therapy or lobotomies, which occurred during its formation, and present dubious practices, such as medicating difficult personalities into states of docility.
Of particular interest to Busner in his reminisces is a former patient of his Audrey Death the other primary protagonist of the novel. Death is found by Busner in a state of living coma, like an automaton, her physical actions reduced to little more than physical and verbal tics. As the novel unfolds we experience fragments of Audrey’s life and that of her family, particularly her two brothers whose life trajectories are radically altered by the war. One, a soldier, suffers the depredations of the Somme while the other takes advantage of the social upheaval to pursue some upward social mobility.
We follow Audrey from her childhood dipping in and out her formative experiences, her sexual awakening, her various employment including working in a munitions factory to aid the war effort, and the formation of her feminist politics. I found the scenes set in Audrey’s childhood to be the most compelling part of the novel; specifically a description of a trip Audrey takes around London with her effusive father. Self vividly resurrects a London past to the extent that I felt like a time traveller, savouring the sights, sounds and demotic language of a bygone era. Audrey’s eventual contraction of an unusual strain of encephalitis and descent into catatonic stupor provides the link between her narrative and that of Busner.
Busner and Audrey’s relationship comes about as a result of Busner finding employment in the hospital where she is confined. Chastened after an unsuccessful foray into experimental psychiatry, Busner attempts to keep his head down and get on with his work for the sake of his career, which is on shaky ground as a result of his previous adventures in psychiatry. Shaken by an interaction with Audrey, Busner soon develops a fascination with the post-encephalitic patients scattered about the hospital wards. Unable to ignore these patients Busner pursues experiments which he hopes will benefit those mired in the post-encephalitic state, even though such actions may cost him his career, marriage and perhaps even his own sanity.
The treatment Busner instigates involves the wonder drug l dopa, originally designed to treat Parkinson’s disease. Miraculously these experiments work and the catatonics are roused seemingly whole. Self’s account of the drug and its seemingly miraculous properties have historical provenance and have previously been dramatized by Harold Pinter in his 1982 play, A Kind Of Alaska, and documented by Dr.Oliver Sacks in his fascinating non-fiction account of experiments with l dopa , Awakenings. One can see how the narrative of a wonder drug, which wakes the lost from slumber seems like catnip to writers evoking as it does Snow White and Sleeping Beauty amongst other famous tales, as well as lending itself to all kinds of metaphor. Self’s fictional portrayal differs from the above two accounts in tone by allowing a certain melancholy to prevail, as well as a scepticism about the lasting nature of miracles.
I found Umbrella to be a thoroughly satisfying read. Its deployment of the modernist style is a refreshing rebuke to the staid and often conservative style of much of British, particularly English, fiction. I have dipped in and out of Self’s oeuvre in the past with varying degrees of satisfaction. Often while reading his novels, I had a persistent nagging feeling that I was observing a talented writer who wasn’t really pushing himself to his limits. This concern disappeared as I read Umbrella, here we see a writer at the top of his game. While much will be made of the difficulties of reading a novel written in the modernist style, such concerns are overstated.
While Self does not spoon feed the story to the reader neither does he neglect to tell it. Aspiring to the condition of music, scenes change mid-sentence, and sentences aren’t always clearly attributed in a “he said, she said” manner, time shifts abruptly and without warning from decade to decade. By trusting the author and allowing yourself to partake in the novel’s flow, without anxiety, the experience you have as a reader will be much enhanced. And even if you do find yourself having to flip back a page or two to recap, I feel a little effort on behalf of the reader is not too much for an author to ask when he has crafted such a fine work. I found Umbrella to be brave and memorable novel and Self’s closest approximation of a masterpiece to date.