Umbrella by Will Self

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Umbrella by Will Self

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 2.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: If the phrase 'non-linear stream of consciousness modernistic approach' doesn't fill you with dread, then maybe you will agree with the Booker judges on this book's merits, but it's a frustrating and confusing read that is, for me, style over substance. One to avoid.
Buy? No Borrow? No
Pages: 416 Date: August 2012
Publisher: Bloomsbury
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781408820148

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Will Self's Umbrella spans a century taking three interwoven strands. One features Audrey Dearth, who in 1918 is a munitions worker who falls ill with encephalitis lethargica, a brain disease that spread over Europe after the Great War rendering many of its victims speechless and motionless. She is incarcerated in Friern hospital where, in the early 1970s a psychiatrist, Zach Busner wakes her from her stupor using a new drug. In the final thread, in 2010 the asylum has closed and the now retired Busner travels across north London seeking the truth about his encounter with his former patient. While that sounds like a fascinating story in its own right, be warned. Self's approach is ambitiously modernistic making this a very heavy going tome even by Self's standards.

It's tempting to suggest that Self doesn't really like his readers all that much or at the very least doesn't care about their reading experience. The narrative is a stream of consciousness epic that doesn't break for silly ideas like chapters, or even many paragraphs, most of which last for two or three pages each. Similarly there is no chronological development or discernable structure and time frames and points of view are spliced together, often within the same paragraph. Most of us don't have the luxury of endless hours in which to read and have to fit reading in around life, necessitating putting a book down at some point. Quite where you are supposed to do this in Umbrella is a bit of a mystery. Even if you are enjoying it, it's a book that is so dense you will need to put it down.

Add to that Self's penchant for odd voices, which while easier to follow than in say The Book of Dave still feature oddities such as using a 'v' as a substitute for 'th' in what is broadly a cockney dialect, but still distract from the flow, particularly as the utterances are often quite random. Of course, this being a modernistic style, useful indicators such as quotation marks are completely old hat, although he does allow the luxury of italics that sometimes but not always show speech.

Your views on what is an undeniably ambitious novel will depend on your tolerance for this modernistic approach. The title is from a James Joyce quotation and the inference is that this is a modern day Ulysses. To some, the approach may be intriguing and the connections brought out by the style, but to me it detracted from what might have been an interesting look at psychiatry and the treatment of illness and the changes to that over the last hundred years. I'm all for a radical approach if it sheds new light on these things, but not if it merely obfuscates any message or point as this did for me.

The non-linear and jumpy narrative is like being locked in the mind of someone who clearly is in need of psychiatric help if not medication, and yet where you get glimpses of the story line, the message seems to be about the limitations of this and the problems it causes. This is what is so frustrating. For a few pages at a time, the story line sometimes follows something that you can follow, but then Self seems to think the reader has had enough of that luxury and whips it away before you can say 'this is getting good now'. It seems to want to say something interesting about mental turmoil and modern day life but is so confusing that this is just lost in the flood.

The experience is rather like listening to a badly tuned short wave radio that keeps jumping between different stations. There's no doubting Self's huge intellect but there is none of his sly humour here that can be so illuminating. I cannot help but wonder if a writer without Self's credentials presented this to their publisher, would it really have been published? I'm not so sure. He is, in my view, a fine journalist and commentator but I'm increasingly of the view that giving him a novel to write is like giving a six year old a catapult.

Of course, I could be quite misguided and just didn't 'get it'. Such a radical approach to fiction will always divide opinion. Certainly the Booker Prize panel disagree with me and have long listed it. The judges have noted that this year the focus is on books that reveal more on second reading, and this is probably true of Umbrella - but I won't be in any hurry to find out. One thing is for certain, if last year's judges who emphasised 'readability' were still in place, this wouldn't have got a look in.

Our thanks to the people at Bloomsbury for sending us this book.

For a less 'modernistic' approach to mental health issues, then Before I Go To Sleep by S J Watson is a very good read, although it does use horribly old fashioned concepts like character and plot development. It'll never catch on ... For a more readable modernistic approach where the structure does add to the message, try Absolution by Patrick Flanery.

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Booklists.jpg Umbrella by Will Self is in the Man Booker Prize 2012.


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