Will Self’s 2012 novel Umbrella, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize that went to Bring Up The Bodies, is a sexy, war-y, Joycean corker. Leaping back and forth through the twentieth and early twenty first century, it is about a politically-active young woman during the 1910s, her brother sent off to fight in the trenches, the psychiatrist who seeks to bring her back from a 50/60-year catatonic state in the 70s, and the doctor’s reflections on this experiment as a lonely, old, retired man. It is excellent in places, but it really does require a lot of attention.
Benefitting from the internet access I was lacking as I read Ulysses in the summer, I was able to look up those of Self’s famously obtuse words I struggled to guess at, but I really don’t think that warnings of the text’s impenetrability are justified. But, yes, one does have to read every word. Self frequently changes focus, location, character and time in the middle of a sentence – a dash will leap the reader forward forty years, a repeated phrase will take us from a North London mental hospital to a tunnel underneath Ypres’ No Man’s Land, with bigger and more confusing leaps than those throughout. A reader has to be awake. Trying to read the novel on a packed tube yesterday I found myself repeatedly getting confused by this, not noticing the changes, expecting to still be reading about a turn-of-the-century (1900) omnibus ride when all of a sudden there were iPads and mobile phones… But, reading the second half of the book in a couple of sittings in a quieter environment today, there was much less trouble. Also, I had learnt to read the text carefully.
The sections set in the first world war are excellent – meticulous explorations of camaraderie and hatred of the people back home; the psychiatrist’s real want to care for his patients is expressed, yet his flaws are clear, the ease with which he is distracted by the failing marriage he doesn’t care about, the mistress he doesn’t care about, the cigarettes he steals from the porters and the nurses because he wants to smoke but doesn’t want to buy his own… The sections about Audrey, the suffragette, the liberal, the free-lover, the progressive… The section where her brother, Stanley, begins an affair with an MP’s wife is a great triumph for the lower class man, their father, who only appears near the start of the book, is great, a Victorian lad done good with the bus company… It is a richly textured, dense book. Paragraph breaks only every ten pages or so, and often these are enjambement-y continuances of meaning. It works best as a whole. I read 200 pages today, the first half over the week previous (I have a job and an MA to do, thank you very much), and I “got much more” from the book today. In fact, I really liked it, once I was treating it properly.
So, as this may put people off if it comes as a surprise, it is not a casual, easy, read. Yes, it’s easier than Ulysses, it’s less harrowing than Under The Volcano, it has less poets in than The Savage Detectives, it’s shorter than Infinite Jest. Of the experimental novels I’ve read and enjoyed recently, it is certainly comparable, and a good example of a contemporary boundary-pushing text. Not as good as those other examples, in my opinion, but new, exciting, clever, good. Why not?