Book Review: 2012 Long Listed: Will Self’s Umbrella

UmbrellaRating: 3.5
Umbrella
A Novel by Will Self
2012 / 416 Pages

The Setup: A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella. James Joyce, Ulysses

Recently having abandoned his RD Laing-influenced experiment in running a therapeutic community – the so-called Concept House in Willesden – maverick psychiatrist Zack Busner arrives at Friern Hospital, a vast Victorian mental asylum in North London, under a professional and a marital cloud. He has every intention of avoiding controversy, but then he encounters Audrey Dearth, a working-class girl from Fulham born in 1890 who has been immured in Friern for decades.

A socialist, a feminist and a munitions worker at the Woolwich Arsenal, Audrey fell victim to the encephalitis lethargica sleeping sickness epidemic at the end of the First World War and, like one of the subjects in Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings, has been in a coma ever since. Realising that Audrey is just one of a number of post-encephalitics scattered throughout the asylum, Busner becomes involved in an attempt to bring them back to life – with wholly unforeseen consequences.

Is Audrey’s diseased brain in its nightmarish compulsion a microcosm of the technological revolutions of the twentieth century? And if Audrey is ill at all – perhaps her illness is only modernity itself? And what of Audrey’s two brothers, Stanley and Albert: at the time she fell ill, Stanley was missing presumed dead on the Western Front, while Albert was in charge of the Arsenal itself, a coming man in the Imperial Civil Service. Now, fifty years later, when Audrey awakes from her pathological swoon, which of the two is it who remains alive?

Radical in its conception, uncompromising in its style, Umbrella is Will Self’s most extravagant and imaginative exercise in speculative fiction to date. (From the hardcover edition)


This review was simultaneously published on Opinionless on 08/09/2012

Before reading this novel whenever I thought of umbrellas my brain immediately conjured up images related to the three R’s: rain, Rihanna, and Raccoon City. After reading it I can’t shake the graphic images of the appalling conditions patients were forced to endure in the asylums that supposedly existed for the sole purpose of caring for them. I’m also left with a massive headache and the unenviable task of making the novel adhere to a rigid rating structure in order to compare it side by side with its fellow long listed nominees when it clearly wants to defy all normal convention and categorization.

Author Will Self proudly proclaims that “I don’t really write for readers” which at first blush is a perplexing statement for a writer to make, but I do understand where he’s coming from. When you work as a novelist your first responsibility has to be to yourself. You can’t write with the audience constantly in the forefront of your mind. Instead you need to write something that you enjoy and when it’s finally all said in done cross your fingers and hope that the masses embrace it as the piece of literary genius you believe it to be, regardless of its readability or the complexity of its subject matter.

There’s nothing wrong with a novel being challenging, in fact I welcome that. In the case of Umbrella though, the question is one of where to draw the line. At what point does an author realize that they’re writing a challenging novel solely for the sake of it being difficult for readers to easily digest and not because it’s the best way with which to get their points across? Make no mistake about it, there’s a fabulous story at the heart of Umbrella just waiting to burst through and Self is a master wordsmith, but his perplexing decision to structure the story in such a way that makes it so off-putting is baffling. I can only imagine what his publisher thought when they first took delivery of the novel.

Umbrella is a one chapter, 416 page stream of conscious type story that transitions between observing the lives of several different characters at different points in time over a ninety plus year period. There’s very little in way of paragraphs or standard formatting to be found, but boy oh boy are there are plenty of italics. If this year’s Booker committee really is focused on stories that reveal more each time they are read this one does seem like a perfect fit, but I have to ask the question: would anyone honestly take the time to read this particular story multiple times? Even though parts of it are clearly brilliant I know that personally I won’t ever return to it.

Zach Busner is a psychiatrist who’s having a difficult go of it with his wife and children. As the novel opens he’s accepted a new position at Friern Hospital, a large institution located in northern London. Busner’s had some troubles in the past for his unorthodox approaches to treatment. He’s a man who believes that mental illness can somehow, one way or the other, eventually be cured. Almost as soon as he arrives at Friern he becomes obsessed with a patient with the peculiar name of Aubrey Death and a handful of others that he realizes have been lying in a state of virtual comatose for nearly thirty years. He believes they are suffering from encephalitis lethargica, an acute inflammation of the brain that leaves its victims motionless and unable to communicate. He takes steps to have all of these “enkies” moved to one ward and then immediately begins experimenting on them with all manner of drugs in an effort to bring them back into the waking world.

Zach’s story is interspersed with those of the Death family, most notably Aubrey and her two brothers, and the work they performed during the war. The historical pieces are stunning in their attention to detail, but aren’t nearly as gripping as Zach’s tale. However in the end the plot lines do converge in unexpected, but wholly satisfying ways, making the effort of plodding through some of them worth the time spent.

I look at the ratings that I’ve given to other books recently and I’m stumped as to how to properly and fairly give this title the stars that it deserves. It’s certainly a challenging read, a fact that will no doubt make many readers give up on it before the ebb and flow of the novel’s structure can properly grab hold of them. Still, this shouldn’t be about readability, it should be about merit, and at the end of the day Umbrella is a worthy, interesting contender for the Man Booker, even if it is severely lacking in the accessibility department.

Sometimes the most rewarding reads are the ones that make you work hard for the results they offer up.

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