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Umbrella Hardcover – January 8, 2013


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press (January 8, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802120725
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802120724
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.1 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #512,697 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* This demanding but rewarding latest effort from Self takes place in an English mental hospital in 1971 and, through a longtime and nearly catatonic patient there, in the WWI era of her youth. The shifting perspectives are those of psychiatrist Zachary Busner, a recurring character in Self’s fiction—who may remind the reader (perhaps too much) of the Oliver Sacks of Awakenings or of R. D. Laing—and patient Audrey Dearth (or De’ath, or Death). Newly arrived at the facility, Busner rejects the facile diagnosis of mental illness that generations of professionals have attached to patients, including Dearth, whose physical symptoms he believes may be manifestations of a treatable medical condition rather than psychiatric in origin. The misdiagnoses of his predecessors have had profound consequences; Dearth has been institutionalized for a half-century. As she responds to medication, it becomes clear that she has been conscious and aware much of that time, and, now again articulate, she reveals a horrific family drama dating back to The Great War. Joycean in its rhythm and style, Umbrella lacks chapter breaks, and its paragraphs frequently run to several pages. This is not an easy read, but it is a major and unforgettable one. The English edition was short-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, and, with it, the prolific maverick Self may have written his best book yet and may gain well-merited recognition. --Mark Levine

Review

SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2012 MAN BOOKER PRIZE

“A work of throwback modernism . . . an erudite yet barking mad novel about barking madness. . . . You give yourself over to Umbrella in flashes, as if it were a radio station you’re unable to tune in that you suspect is playing the most beautiful song you will ever hear. . . this novel locks into moments of ungodly beauty and radiant moral sympathy. . . . a bitter critique of how society has viewed (and cared for) those with mental illnesses. It’s about myriad other things too: class, the changing nature of British society, trench warfare in World War I, how technology can be counted on to upend everything. At heart it’s a novel about seeing. . . . Mr. Self often enough writes with such vividness it’s as if he is the first person to see anything at all.”—The New York Times

“A savage and deeply humane novel. . . . . Umbrella is an old-fashioned modernist tale with retrofitted ambitions to boot. . . . Self has always been a fabulous writer. . . . The result is page after page of gorgeously musical prose. Self’s sentences bounce and weave, and like poetry, they refract. The result is mesmerizing. . . . In its best moments, Umbrella compels a reader to the heights of vertigo Woolf excelled at creating.. . . . a triumph of form. With this magnificent novel Will Self reminds that he is Britain’s reigning poet of the night.”—Boston Globe

“A virtuosic performance . . . narrated in the allusive, sensory-overloaded style associated with Joyce’s Ulysses. . . . A heady mixture of closely observed (and deeply researched) period details, colorful imagery, surrealistic juxtapositions, and italicized interjections . . . Self’s wildly nonlinear narrative offers other delights: richly detailed settings that bring the Edwardian era and mental hospitals sensuously alive, kaleidoscopic patterns of symbolism (umbrellas assume all sorts of forms and functions), and loads of mordant satire.”—The Washington Post

“Self’s novel is an epic, but also a love story, and even a kind of fairytale. . . . it unfurls in anarchic flux, like an old-school experimental video. There are no chapters and few paragraph breaks. Scenes dissolve in midsentence. Phrases burst suddenly into italics. . . . it holds you fast with a weird charm.”—The New York Times Book Review

“A brilliant, beautiful, hypnotic, and haunting novel. . . begins as hard-bitten satire but gradually achieves an even harder-won humane tenderness. . . . Self discovers a poetic vibrancy and an emotional conviction that far surpass anything in his previous work. . . . Umbrella is not just a revisiting of modernism—it is a reflection on the modern condition itself. . . . [it] shuffles past and present with such mesmerizing rhythm that the distinction between them ceases to matter. Memory acquires the force of reality. The world inside Audrey’s head becomes immensely precious, restoring to her life the richness and dignity it had been so cruelly denied. Writers, too, as Self so wonderfully proves, can awaken the half-dead and reanimate that which has been sunk in oblivion.”—The New York Review of Books

"In these culturally straitened times few writers would have the artistic effrontery to offer us a novel as daring, exuberant and richly dense as Umbrella. Will Self has carried the Modernist challenge into the twenty-first century, and worked a wonder."—John Banville

"Umbrella is his best book yet. . . . It makes new for today the lessons taught by the morals of Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Tin Drum, also García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold."—Alasdair Gray

“Self’s latest novel. . . is a strange and sprawling modernist experiment that takes the human mind as its subject and, like the human mind, is infinitely capacious, wretchedly petty and ultimately magnificent. . . . It may not be beautiful, but it is extraordinary.”—NPR Books

“Written in a style reanimated from another era, Umbrella is a carefully sequenced fugue on the theme of being out-of-sequence. It’s often beautiful. . . Mr. Self’s perceptions are original (“a faint applause of pigeons”), and he is Ronald Firbank-like in his ability to shape poetry from prattle. . . Nostalgic in its literary mechanics, Umbrella identifies forgetfulness as the grammar of power, the blindness bred by its routinization. It is a difficult but profound idea. Mr. Self has dusted off these old devices to do an interesting new thing with his talent.”—New York Observer

“A hefty, challenging stream-of-consciousness story whose engagement with modernist themes and techniques is announced in its epigraph from Joyce’s Ulysses.”—New Yorker.com

“A fascinating read, and Self’s prose is so beautiful and assured that it feels authentic even as it renders confusion. It’s a funny, sad, surreal novel that aims high and reaches most of its lofty goals. Modernism fans will be glad to see a current author who so strongly captures the form pioneered by Proust, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner, and Umbrella only falls short by comparison with those classics.”—A. V. Club

“In prose uninterrupted by chapters or line breaks, a twisted version of the 20th century is woven and unpicked again. It is a postmodern vivisection of Modernism, analyzing the dream and the machine, war as the old lie and a new liberation, and rituals sacred, profane and banal. . . . a linguistically adept, emotionally subtle and ethically complex novel.”—The Guardian

“An ambitiously conceived and brilliantly executed novel in the high modernist tradition of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf . . . Its scope is dazzling . . . The switches between perspective and chronology are demanding (there are no chapters), but Self handles them with bravura skill, setting up imagery and phrases that echo suggestively between different episodes . . . Umbrella is an immense achievement.”—Financial Times

“Entertaining and enthralling. . . extensively researched. . . . An experimental novel that is also a compassionate and thrilling book—and one that, despite its difficulty, deserves to be read.”—The Economist

“Will Self’s Joycean tribute is a stream of consciousness tour de force. . . . [It] builds into a heartbreaking mosaic, a sardonic critique of the woefully misdirected treatment of the mentally ill and the futility of war and, above all, a summation of the human condition. Despite the bleakness of the message, by the end you are filled with elation at the author’s exuberant ambition and the swaggering way he carries it all off, and then a huge sense of deflation at the realization that whatever book you read next, it won’t be anything like this.”—Daily Mail

Umbrella is old-school modernism. It isn’t supposed to be a breeze. But it is, to use the literary critical term of art, kind of amazing … It may not be his easiest, but I think this may be Will Self’s best book.”—The Observer (London)

Umbrella is not easily forgotten. . . . a brave piece of work.”—Buffalo News

“A story too clawing to avoid.”—Foreword

Umbrella is the result of Self’s surge in ambition.”—The Millions

“A virtuoso performance. . . . Self weaves together disparate voices so seamlessly . . . but there’s more going on here than a display of formal dexterity. . . . [Umbrella] disorients the reader, who experiences identity as porous and permeable, the individual fractured and reconstituted in the twin forges of industrialization and institutionalization.”—The Globe and Mail

“Defies convention and digs deep into the social issues plaguing the 20th century. . . . loaded with heavy critiques of war and mental health treatment. . . . Leaves the reader wondering if the future will indeed repeat the past or if we will finally learn the hard lessons from what we have already painfully known”—ZYZZYVA

“A fascinating read. . . Self’s prose is so beautiful and assured that it feels authentic even as it renders confusion. It’s a funny, sad, surreal novel that aims high and reaches most of its lofty goals. Modernism fans will be glad to see a current author who so strongly captures the form pioneered by Proust, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner, and Umbrella only falls short by comparison with those classics.”—Onion-AV Club

“Brainy and outlandish, though still in the mainstream of modernist fiction, this book captures a number of eccentric voices and sends the reader running to the dictionary. . . . There’s a lyrical, rhapsodic element that continually pulls one into and through the narrative.”—Kirkus Reviews

Umbrella is a magnificent celebration of modernist prose, an epic account of the first world war, a frightening investigation into the pathology of mental illness, and the first true occasion when Self’s ambition and talent have produced something of real cultural significance. . . . [Umbrella] must be recognized as, above all, a virtuoso triumph of emotional and creative intelligence.”—The Spectator

“There is a contemplative quality to the prose that feels new . . . but the content remains familiar: a Swiftian disgust with the body; a fastidious queru...

Customer Reviews

The Kindle version (as of today) just doesn't cut it.
Caddis Nymph
This is a remarkable, albeit challenging novel from a genuine literary talent.
Steiner
Quite where you are supposed to do this in "Umbrella" is a bit of a mystery.
Ripple

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

59 of 62 people found the following review helpful By Ripple on October 4, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition
Will Self's "Umbrella" spans a century taking three interwoven strands. One features Audrey Dearth, who in 1918 is a munitions worker who falls ill with encephalitis lethargica, a brain disease that spread over Europe after the Great War rendering many of its victims speechless and motionless. She is incarcerated in Friern hospital where, in the early 1970s a psychiatrist, Zach Busner wakes her from her stupor using a new drug. In the final thread, in 2010 the asylum has closed and the now retired Busner travels across north London seeking the truth about his encounter with his former patient. While that sounds like a fascinating story in its own right, be warned. Self's approach is ambitiously modernistic making this a very heavy going tome even by Self's standards.

Stream of consciousness books can be challenging but good, non-linear books can be confusing but illuminating. Taken together though they are a mess that no amount of clever word play can rescue.

The narrative is a stream of consciousness epic that doesn't break for silly ideas like chapters, or even many paragraphs, most of which last for two or three pages each. Similarly there is no chronological development or discernable structure and time frames and points of view are spliced together, often within the same paragraph. Most of us don't have the luxury of endless hours in which to read and have to fit reading in around life, necessitating putting a book down at some point. Quite where you are supposed to do this in "Umbrella" is a bit of a mystery. Although picking the book up again was more of a challenge than putting it down.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Jenny on May 21, 2013
Format: Hardcover
I slogged through this in order to say I had read all of the Booker shortlist before the award was announced, for once. Let's make one thing clear - without that compelling reason, I would not have kept with it.

There is a difference between difficult writing and good writing. I personally think Will Self careens toward difficult without giving a thought to the reader. Oh, I'm not just complaining because this is hard to read. I get many of the references and imitations, I just didn't think they were necessary to do all at once. As Self himself said on page 86, "simply wishing the madness away won't make anyone regain their sanity."

First of all, you have the obvious comparison to Ulysses by James Joyce. In fact, just in case you dared to miss the comparison, he starts with a quotation from Ulysses - "A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella." This quotation comes back to haunt the reader towards the end of the story, but I won't ruin that particularly moment for the two other readers who will make it that far.

Ulysses has something very important that Umbrella does not - variety. It morphs between storytelling styles and points of view, with a rise and fall that keeps the reader interested. Umbrella goes FULL SPEED AHEAD with no chapters, no paragraphs (maybe a few indented starts), no dialogue signs, no breaks. Characters have dialogue and internal thoughts in the same breath, and italicized words aren't one or the other but are frequent throughout the book. There are three time periods covered by the novel but you never know where you are. Is an event being remembered or narrated? Are we moving linearly or going back and forth? Who are all these people? Ha.
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25 of 32 people found the following review helpful By B. C. Milsom on September 21, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
An amazing novel from this quirky and brilliantly able writer, Will Self.Surely the winner of this years Man Booker 2012.
It is a challenging read from beginning to end ,having no chapters, but emerging in a constant stream of consciousness. Like a dance it weaves characters, time,places ,prose and song into a strange ,yet compelling tale.
I advise reading a book review first maybe, to get some idea of the story line before you start. Unless, that is , you enjoy an intellectual challenge .Also, keep at hand a medical dictionary to help with the psychiatric terminology.Even my kindle dictionary balked at some words.
Busner,a psychiatrist ,newly arrived at Friern mental asylum in North London,a rambling victorian monstrosity, comes across a patient called Audrey Death.Born in the 1890's, she fell victim to the 'sleeping sickness'- encephalitis lethargica at the end of the first world war.Discovering other such cases within the hospital, Busner attempts to bring them back from their catatonic state.In doing so , we are swept back to the first world war into the experiences of Audrey and her two brothers Stanley and Albert. The story is expressed through the eyes of these main characters .It swings without warning from one to the other ,and spans 50 years. an amazing writing feat. wonderful in its comlexity. masterfully done.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Laurie MacDiarmid on February 28, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I have no problem with a modernist narrative in the style of Joyce's Ulysses. But Joyce's narrative seemed to follow more recognizable rules or patterns, allowing a reader to figure out more quickly the "rules" of the game. This reading experience is made even more maddening, in my experience, by what seems to be frequent textual mistakes (missing letters, strange symbols inserted instead of letter combinations -- ff becoming, for instance, [). At first I thought this was part of Self's game, but later began to suspect that this layer of difficulty had somehow been added during the Kindleizing process. So far, I can't track down the source of the problem, other than the schizophrenic nature of the narrative, to the software on my various machines (iPad, Kindle, computer, Amazon cloud, etc.). Instead, I can only complain about it here, and suggest that it is par for the garbled course of this perceptive nightmare.
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