Book review: Umbrella by Will Self
Will Self’s latest novel unfurls spectacularly across a whole century.
by Will Self
Bloomsbury, 397pp, £18.99
This is by far Will Self’s best novel; clever, intense, ambitious and risky. It is a novel so arch that it bends over backwards, joining together its own extremities of kindness and indifference, wit and banality, of forgetting and remembering, love and loathing, first page, last page.
This novel drips with arcane vocabulary – inutile, selenian, paregoric, resipiscence, oleum – leaving readers to scurry to the dictionary. Self makes us toil for our reward.
It helps if your reading matches his, which is both capacious and eclectic scattering references mercilessly to the panoply of 20th century Anglo-American culture, (“sans brow-distinction” as he might put it), meeting Tom Mix and Freddie Ayer in the space of three sentences. Noted popular psychiatrist RD Laing, who has, it turns out, a seminal role in the fate of the novel’s principal character, is referred to simply as Ronnie. Pop rhetoric shivers like tinsel along the book’s ever-blurring timeline, winking, deceiving.
Psychiatrist Zack Busner, a regular in Self’s fiction, appears before the story takes flight, hitting the page rapt, his mind a-jingle with the words of the pop-hit Apeman: “I’m an ape man… oh, I’m an ape man…” before unspooling into a tangle of knots and kinks and sly allusions.
Self, in passing, inserts a homage to James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, as Zack, (Jewish, like Joyce’s foil, Leopold Bloom) makes stuttering progress into the passageways of unreliable memory, towards a miracle of triumphant, lucid narrative culmination after 400 uphill pages.
James Joyce provides title and epigraph: “A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella”. Why? Well, brollies keep popping up – “transparent-plastic”, black, blown-askew, hand-held, or as metaphors: “The day is an elegant parasol tasselled with clouds, the night an umbrella with starry holes…” writes Self. This description comes from the battlefield of Ypres, where Stanley Death, salt of the earth and beloved brother of one of the novel’s other principals, momentarily has escaped the tunnelled blackness through which he digs daily, making warrens beneath the abattoir of war.
If not forgotten, Stanley, a working boy from Fulham, has been shunned by his brother Bert – Sir Albert De’Ath as he comes to style himself many years later – a pompous snob, in charge of munitions production. The Death boys’ sister, Audrey, known for her “scandalous amours and incendiary opinions” (her own proud description) is the force that joins their lives. As the novel opens, she like Stanley, is forgotten, a long-term patient at Friern Barnet, admitted in 1922, aged 32, exhibiting symptoms of catatonia. Amongst Zack’s group of “living-death” sufferers, Audrey is favoured, but Busner has problems of his own: a moribund marriage, neglected sons, a schizoid brother whose illness Busner feels both burdened by and responsible for. Brother Henry becomes Zack’s Joycean umbrella, mislaid, overlooked.
Audrey and Zack provide the novel with its access to swathes of history. Audrey’s salad days in Edwardian working-class London, become by osmosis absorbed into scenes of Stanley’s endurance and Albert’s glories, weaving forward, from Edwardian times, and the suffragette age, to the jet age, when Audrey’s mistreatment for encephalitis lethargica – not at all a mental illness – becomes revolutionised by Zack, who administers dopamine (L-Dopa), thus delivering her from her paralysed world of muteness into miraculous lucidity, alert.
The powerful poignancy of Audrey’s transformation is made the more potent by its temporary nature. It is that tragedy that drives Zack, still with Apeman in his head, to return, now retired in the 21st century, to the scenes of his bitter-sweet triumph. The old hospital, sold and transformed into luxury flats, awaits his inspection, its ghosts coursing powerfully through his mind, as do memories of the marriage he failed to sustain, “the crimes of forgetting he had committed”.
Self’s re-creation of the asylum’s dire neglect, of the Great War’s mess, of Edwardian ferment and of the jangle of modern life, are all distinct, yet powerfully fused, a mesh of consciousness (without chapter breaks) which, despite its being continuous forces the reader to make a jolting, fastidious progress, worth persevering with as the characters’ complexities are confessed.
The wrongs of collective cruelty (Audrey’s plight of incarceration), the grand curse of war, or of social injustice, are here juxtaposed with terrible slights and tiny horrors, those that estrange us one from the other, the failure of love between a couple, the loss of connection of father and son, losing a child like a tattered umbrella misplaced in the hope of sunnier days.
Self’s stealthy brilliance makes resounding the terrible loneliness. Zack Busner becomes by the end an outstanding creation, torn and pathetic. “I have walked away from everything in my life,” he thinks. “Marriages, jobs, colleagues, commitments, patients – I forgot them all… The world is ours to tear apart. But what if it’s too late to start again? And it is too late.”
Into this bleakness, tragi-comedy raises its howl. Umbrella unfurled, Self clicks his heels, to perform the occasional blithe pirouette, parading comic versatility, the lightest of soft-shoe shuffles. He writes with sureness of touch. And he keeps the dictionary riffled.
• Will Self is at the Edinburgh book festival on 25 August
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