on October 4, 2012
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.
Add to that Self's penchant for odd voices, which while easier to follow than in say "The Book of Dave" still feature oddities such as using a "v" as a substitute for "th" in what is broadly a cockney dialect, but still distract from the flow, particularly as the utterances are often quite random. Of course, this being a modernistic style, useful indicators such as quotation marks are completely old hat, although he does allow the luxury of italics what sometimes but not always show speech.
Your views on what is an undeniably ambitious novel will depend on your tolerance for this modernistic approach. The title is from a James Joyce quotation and the inference is that this is a modern day "Ulysses". To some, the approach may be intriguing and the connections brought out by the style, but to me it detracted from what might have been an interesting look at psychiatry and the treatment of illness and the changes to that over the last hundred years. I'm all for a radical approach if it sheds new light on these things, but not if it merely obfuscates any message or point as this did for me.
The non-linear and jumpy narrative is like being locked in the mind of someone who clearly is in need of psychiatric help if not medication, and yet where you get glimpses of the story line, the message seems to be about the limitations of this and the problems it causes. This is what is so frustrating. For a few pages at a time, the story line sometimes follows something that you can follow, but then Self seems to think the reader has had enough of that luxury and whips it away before you can say "this is getting good now". It seems to want to say something interesting about mental turmoil and modern day life but is so confusing that this is just lost in the flood.
The experience is rather like listening to a badly tuned short wave radio that keeps jumping between different stations. There's no doubting Self's huge intellect but there is none of his sly humour here that can be so illuminating. I cannot help but wonder if a writer without Self's credentials presented this to their publisher, would it really have been published? I'm not so sure. He is, in my view, a fine journalist and commentator but I'm increasingly of the view that giving him a novel to write is like giving a six year old a catapult.
Of course, I could be quite misguided and just didn't "get it". Certainly the Booker Prize panel disagree with me and have long listed it. The judges have noted that this year the focus is on books that reveal more on second reading, and this is probably true of "Umbrella" - but I won't be in any hurry to find out. One thing is for certain, if last year's judges who emphasised "readability" were still in place, this wouldn't have got a look in.
on May 21, 2013
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.
Also, if this is Ulysses, this is if Ulysses took place in a mental institution in a Cockney accent. Oh yes. Before I forget, a good portion of the spoken words in this novel are Cockney slang. Good luck.
Let's not forget to mention that Ulysses has an amazing payoff - the soliloquy of Molly Bloom. Reader beware, there is nothing better coming in this book.
Suddenly, I got to page 138. And a character said "We're'erebecausewe're'ere." All in one word, no spaces, and repeatedly, and I thought, "Where have I heard that before?" I thought it was either Lem or Huxley, and guessed right by rereading my review of Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, where one of my favorite bits was people chanting or singing "We're HERE because we're HERE because we're HERE because we're HERE!" Woah. Okay. So a reference to Lem, interesting. So it must be okay that I don't know where I am and nothing makes sense.
I do think it would have been nicer to hide in a bathtub than to force myself to finish.
I took to a deep skim of the rest. If you try to pick out the important bits, you uncover a story that isn't that different from Awakenings, where a psychiatrist treats a patient with Postencephalitic parkinsonism. Audrey Death, the patient, appears throughout the novel in her youth, in her mental hospital self, and everything in between. As far as I can tell the characters DO things but don't feel anything. It is impossible to connect with anyone when you're being bombarded with the songs they have in their head.
I sound impatient. I feel impatient. I read some lovely books this year that were nominated for the Booker. I'm worried the judges will select this one because they don't understand it, because it intimidates them, and therefore it must be good. I hold that this technique itself is not a bad idea, but would be far more interesting in smaller doses.
on September 21, 2012
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.
on February 8, 2013
Don't know what it was but this book was very difficult to get into. I returned it right away. Perhaps I missed something...
on May 27, 2013
As other reviewers have noted, this book is a continuous stream of text with no chapter breaks, few paragraph breaks and every sentence sprinkled randomly with words in italics. Sound like the sort of thing you'd want to read? Thought not. I struggled through about five pages before deciding that life is too short to bother.
on July 8, 2013
What a foolish conception. What is intended by the italics I wonder. Doubt they are used consistenty. A mess. A joke on the reader perhaps. I am not amused.
on November 14, 2014
Got no problem with challenging fiction. Got no problem with stream of consciousness style. Got no problem with the absence of traditional narrative structure. Got no problem with abstruse medical terminology. Got no problem with the abrupt blending of time periods mid-sentence. Got no problem with multi-page paragraphs. Got no problem with randomly italicized words. Got no problem with the blurred, non-distinction between speech and thought. I don't prefer Will Self's unconventional approach in this book, but these qualities are not why I rate this novel only two stars. My problem with Umbrella is: IT'S NOT THAT INTERESTING A STORY. Zach Busner, who makes appearances in a lot of Self's novels and stories, is just not that compelling a character this time out. Audrey Death is, but her tale is buried so deeply within the quicksand of the book that it's not satisfyingly extractable. I could have overlooked the difficulty in trying to follow the action if the story was more gripping. Sadly, this story -- concerning the discovery and treatment of post-encephilitic patients condemned to British psychiatric institutions in the years between WWI and the early 1970's -- didn't interest me much.
I sympathize with people who find the book hard to deal with. It does at times seem like Self is really indulging his experimental whims at the expense of his readers' patience. And I definitely agree with the reviewer who wrote that any publisher would have tossed the manuscript in the bin if it was Self's first book. But Self is not your ordinary writer. He is an intelligent, hyper-articulate and imaginative author that pushes boundaries. Sometimes this results in remarkable books (Cock & Bull, Great Apes, Book of Dave, Tough Toys, Dr. Mukti), and sometimes the experiments aren't so great (Dorian, How the Dead Live, My Idea of Fun). Umbrella falls into the latter category. For me, that is -- you can see from the reviews that many people loved it and that it was listed for a Booker award (for what that's worth, if anything). And, for each of Self's books I thought was a dud, I'm sure there are many people that thought they were excellent. A writer this polarizing deserves recognition.
If you haven't read anything by Will Self before, Umbrella is not the place to start. It would be akin to someone who never heard the Beatles putting on 'Revolution 9' from the White Album and wondering what all the hype was about. That said, Self's is a very unique talent and there are few contemporary writers to compare him to. He is well worth checking out if you are an adventurous reader. You may find, as I and many others did, however, that Umbrella isn't worth the effort.
on July 28, 2013
Umbrella may now become the greatest novel I've ever read; until now it was Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, which I now have to go back and re-re-re-read. Many others have compared Umbrella to Gravity's and the comparisons are apt. Both works are brilliant, both require you read carefully and with a dictionary at your side (and maybe an additional medical dictionary in the case of Umbrella), both take risks with the numerous interconnections, digressions and changes of scene or viewpoint and both try to explain the meaning of modern life, including the impact of technology on personality. My take on Gravity's has always been that sentence by sentence it was the best ever but, at the end of the book, I really didn't understand it. Umbrella may now be the better book IMO because sentence by sentence it is superb and, at the end of the book, I do feel that I understand well, much of it.
I've now read Umbrella three times: once on my ipad, and then reading in hard cover during the day and re-reading much of the same again on my ipad at night. That immediate reinforcement of what I just read helped immeasurably. Of course, i could still read it again profitably.
Umbrella, however, has its problems. Most importantly, Self's gimmicky refusal to use paragraphs or chapters just doesn't add anything. Not that I am against what he is attempting, to force the reader into an immediate "thisness" (my word) of what is happening and the connections to memory, to the concept of time, and to the other characters. Perhaps if he had actually changed scenes and perspectives in a way that eventually made sense, say the same event as viewed by different characters, or an event triggering a memory of the same character, i would say well it was difficult but in the end it worked. Here I think in the end, the formatting, actually lack of formatting, did not work. I do not think the reader receives a payoff for the pain she has to go through. Finally, there are just too many confusion-causing sentences that are not later addressed or explained. Most of the questions I wrote in the margins as I read still were not answered at the end. Just one example, I did happen to know who "Ronnie" is--brilliant but controversial psychiatric theorist R.D. Laing, who rose to fame, especially in the mental health counter culture, in the 70s. But if a reader didn't know that at the beginning, she still wouldn't know it at the end.
All in all a superb work. I absolutely recommend and i think it is important to read in a physical book, as opposed to ipad--ipad is ok for an additional reading. But Self too often played with the readers in a way that ultimately was a bit unfair.
Now, I have to get onto Gravity's again!
on July 30, 2014
This is so hard to read!
on February 28, 2013
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.