‘Umbrella,’ Will Self
This was not the first Will Self book I’d read, but it may be the last for a while: widely praised for being one of the most original and ‘challenging’ books of last year and short-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, I was exhausted by the time I finished ‘Umbrella‘ in a way I imagine I would be if I ever finished ‘Ulysses,’ (the only book I have ever begun and not finished).
Known for being experimental, playful, and ‘difficult,’ I had previously most enjoyed his clever post-apocalyptic critique of organised religion, ‘The Book Of Dave,‘ and ‘Great Apes,’ and had often read his essays and journalism in various forums, where he often produces such bons mots as the following, found scattered throughout this tome:
“…his long face a fraction: eyes divided by moustache into mouth…”
“There was the faint applause of pigeons from outside the window….”
(gorgeous use of alliteration, fricatives and plosives as well as imagery there, if my university language courses serve me rightly), although there was also a considerable amount of the following:
“…the vermiculated quoins were, Busner remembers, only on the gateposts of that eastern wing…”
(Even my auto-spell doesn’t recognise vermiculated as a real word! Although apparently, it is).
Self doesn’t want to reach Dan Brown readers or create beach novels: he wants to challenge and broaden, although at times it is difficult to tell the difference between these goals and simply showing off. I found myself proud of picking up obscure allusions every seventh line, (some lines continuing for pages, paragraphs being almost optional in a Saramago-esque way: there were moments throughout the book when you would end a sentence and realise that you were now hearing the thoughts of a totally different character in a total different year and location, and it was often practically impossible to spot the segue-way), but the overall effect of the dense prose was less rewarding than, as previously mentioned, both exhausting and a little off-putting.
Content-wise, ‘Umbrella‘ deals with a psychiatrist in England trying to cure encephalitis lethargica in patients, (an illness better known as sleeping sickness and made famous by Oliver Sacks‘ ‘Awakenings,’ the Robert DeNiro/Robin Williams movie of the same name, and the first instalment of the stunning ‘Sandman‘ graphic novel series by Neil Gaiman).
As already mentioned, the novel darts from era to era, covering almost a hundred years, and from protagonist to protagonist, the most interesting for me being when he veers away from the intricacies of 1970’s psychiatry and into the beautifully portrayed England of 1918, (although I find that 2012 was the year in which, having previously never heard of him, I became frequently acquainted with the radical counter-cultural Scottish psychiatrist, R.D.Laing, whose spirit permeates ‘Umbrella,’ and who I see now shared my birthday).
It’s natural that a wordsmith like Self would take full advantage of the chance to play with the shifting semantics of the century: after learning that ‘computer’ was originally a job title given to people whose role was to make calculations, one of the main characters offers this description of herself which I found enchanting:
“I’m a typewriter: I make words…”
Puns are also a common theme, although they can be so subtle at times, I wondered sometimes if they really were puns, or if I was just imagining them…and how many I have missed throughout the book, (although I don’t think ‘Umbrella‘ is the kind of book I could ever re-read):
“Whitcomb smells…Brutal – he must be sporty, so slaps it all over to mask the sweat…”
A strange review for me to write, then, since I realise I generally only write glowing, positive blogs on books I have really enjoyed, yet I can’t think of too many people I would recommend this to: but I can at least leave you with the type of quote which, as well as being well-crafted, represents a sentiment I have long felt but never been able to put into words properly:
“Marcus is, he reflects, the sort of man who, tiring of civilisation and all its discontents, wants to be alone – yet insists on someone else being alone with him…”