WHETHER or not he goes on to win this year’s Man Booker Prize is in a sense slightly irrelevant. Will Self’s Umbrella is an astonishing achievement, a novel of exhilarating linguistic invention and high moral seriousness.
Certainly, he deserves to win the prize; but more significantly, this is a novel which will be read and re-read, as much for its emotional weight as its technical virtuosity.
Umbrella opens in the mind of Zack Busner, whom regular readers of Self’s work will recollect from his previous novels. It is the early 1970s, and Busner is working at Friern Hospital. The “stream of consciousness” is a difficult technique: it is a strict limitation on the narrative perspective, but Self handles it with assurance. Different forms of language are braided through Busner’s thoughts; he clocks the “banquette covered with dried-egg vinyl”, sees patients with “eyes cartooned by the wonky frames of their National Health glasses – for whom a corridor is a destination”, catches a memory of an old tutor discussing “general paralysis of the insane, or even dementia praecox”.
Busner is particularly intrigued by the patients suffering from encephalitis lethargica, a condition which leaves victims in a form of conscious coma, repeating actions and vocal tics.
At this point something remarkable happens. The stream of consciousness switches into the mind and memories of one of the patients, Audrey Death, now in her eighties but recollecting her childhood and with snatches of her time as a munitions worker in the First World War. And it switches again, into Busner in 2010, thinking that “to incontinently recall these, the lyrical leftovers and junked jingles of seven decades, would be an affliction… timeitus, he smirks”.
The modern day Busner is making a sort of pilgrimage, back to the Friern Hospital where almost 40 years ago he cured patients with an incurable condition by using L-DOPA, used to increase dopamine levels, and wondering if he did the right thing.
Sections of the novel in Audrey’s mind segue into reminiscence about her brothers: Albert “Datas” Death, whose heartless “prodigious calculating ability” will take him to the heart of the establishment, and the more heartful Stanley, whose entanglement with some comically earnest Fabians cannot prevent him being embroiled in the battlefields of France.
Like Tom McCarthy’s C, with which is shares some intellectual affinities, Umbrella is a postmodern novel about Modernism itself. It not only deals with the key Modernist concerns – alienation, warfare as strange opportunity as well as generational trauma, the fragmenting self, the shattering legacy of those great “de-centrings” of Darwin, Marx and Freud – it also does so through Modernist literary methods. As well as ventriloquising both Busners and Audrey, Self seems to channel the Modernist greats.
Some of the scenes between Stanley and the freethinking Adeline are written in the key of DH Lawrence; a disturbing scene involving a pornographer’s photographic studio has the timbre of the Joseph Conrad of The Secret Agent. There are echoes of Woolf, and the spirit of James Joyce hovers like a wry and beneficent guardian angel over the whole glorious endeavour .
Like Joyce, Self is a canny neologist, either coining new words or wrenching them into new grammatical modes. On the first few pages, we have Busner’s “splayed shoes crêping along the floor”, the “milky fartysteam” memory of his premature ejaculation, “marblewhirl”, “loonystuff” and a “smooch of yellow smoke”. There is an intense tactility to these constructions. Self assiduously avoids the epic simile in favour of a gnarly, contorted actuality. The making-up of words is politically nuanced, since the business of diagnosis has been so frequently misled by thinking that naming a phenomenon is the same as understanding it, let alone curing it: neologism, in its own way, has stranded Audrey in Friern Hospital.
Joyce provides the epigraph – “a brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella” – and lost and forgotten siblings link Busner with Audrey. But they are bound together in subtler ways as well. Umbrella is about forgotten idealisms and lost chances.
Much though I have enjoyed many – perhaps even all – of Self’s previous novels, Umbrella marks a radical shift. The Book Of Dave, or The Butt, or his ferociously imaginative non-fiction Walking To Hollywood, all had a vein of satire. Umbrella is not a satirical book.
There is one section, a kind of fantasia about troglodytic tunnel-dwellers stuck in no-man’s land from either side of the war, who form a weird, homosexual utopia, but it is not satire in the style of Swift, or even early Self. Yet if Self has set aside his satirical bite, it is not because he has mellowed. Umbrella is every bit as angry as previous Self works, but this is an anger challenged and challenging. A satirist always runs the risk of being dismissed as the court jester.
With this book, Self cannot be dismissed as either the shockmeister journalist who took drugs on the Prime Minister’s plane, or his later incarnation as the thinking person’s Stephen Fry, to whom audiences on Question Time and Grumpy Old Men will applaud. With this book he reveals himself as the most determinedly and delightfully literary novelist of his generation.
• Edinburgh International Book Festival, Saturday. www.edbookfest.co.uk