• Will Self
  • Grove Press
  • 448 pp.

An intricate and ambitious novel that strives to capture the essence of modernism and its effect on contemporary society.

In a 2012 interview with The Observer, acclaimed British novelist Will Self said, “I don’t really write for readers ... I write for myself.” Nice work if you can get it. And he can. His latest novel, Umbrella, is his ninth, joining a slew of short-story collections, novellas and non-fiction, some of which have won prizes. Umbrella was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize.

For all that, it’s doubtful that Umbrella will win any popularity awards on Goodreads. Rather, the novel is written for the 1 percent, readers who relish the challenge of 448 pages of turgid text with no chapters, very few paragraph breaks, and a stream-of-consciousness narrative that skips between perspectives and through time, often in mid-sentence. It is the type of book that you read with furrowed brow, fingers at the ready to flip back a few pages or to follow the same passage a few times before feeling comfortable enough to soldier on.

Spanning the 20th century and ending in 2010, Umbrella launches an investigation of modernism’s legacy in contemporary society. The two main narrators are a psychiatrist named Zachary Busner and his patient Audrey Death, though there are brief excursions into the thoughts of her brothers, Albert and Stanley. There is also a rather extended bout with dead Stanley and a band of deceased soldiers in a Hades of trenches that they have burrowed under the actual trenches and battlefields of World War I, which turns out to be Audrey’s reverie induced by electroshock therapy. 

Confused yet?

Further confusion ensues. Transitions in viewpoint frequently happen in mid-sentence, leaving the reader to wonder, as Dr. Busner himself does, “Whoa! How did that happen, that tuck in time?” The echo of an object, gesture or theme clues us in as we slip from one character’s mind into another’s: Audrey’s father consulting his pocket watch, repeated by Busner checking his digital wristwatch, both noting that the time is 08.54 (the precise measurement of time being extremely important in the modern age), or the “paaaah!” exhalation of cigarette smoke shared by two characters (the mass-produced, disposable cigarette being the perfect encapsulation of the modern product: feels good at first, but you pay for it later).

But the main metaphor in this metaphor-laden text is psychiatry and the institutionalization of the insane. The plot involves Dr. Busner’s experiment with a group of “post-encephalitics,” affectionately known as “enkies,” who have been warehoused in London’s Friern Mental Hospital since shortly after World War I, when an epidemic of encephalitis lethargica swept Europe, leaving many of its victims in a catatonic state. Audrey is the ward’s longest resident, admitted in 1922 with the diagnosis of “Primary Dementia,” a label that evolves with the psychiatric times (as does the name of the hospital, which was originally called Colney Hatch Asylum) into “an incurable schizophrenic whose profound catatonia was her most enduringly remarked upon characteristic, now that the decades had worn away all contingencies of sex, age, class and name.”

Busner discovers that a newly developed drug, L-DOPA, releases the elderly enkies from their vegetative state, Sleeping Beauties awoken to find the radically changed world of 1971. (Neurologist Oliver Sacks performed the same experiment, described in Awakenings.)But sadly, the beneficial effects of the drug begin to wear off, and the patients exhibit even more strident behavioral tics, until the experiment, and the patients, are abandoned. 

Even as he is engaging in the experiment, Busner has lost faith in psychiatry, regarding the mental health professions as “in and of themselves mental pathologies.“He sees the tics, spasms and vacant stares of his patients repeated in his daily social interactions, in the paroxysms of his mistress during sex, or in “the tap-tap-tappety-tapping at their keyboards, twitch-twitch-twitchety-twitching at their computer mice, their eyes ticcing back and forth across a few fractions of inches” of the sales staff at the luxury apartment complex that by 2010 has replaced the former Friern Mental Hospital. It is only after his career is over that Busner admits to himself that his work with the enkies was selfishly motivated, using patients with no one to advocate for them purely as guinea pigs, “barely human, being to all intents and purposes lame ducks whose government subsidy might — altogether reasonably — have been withdrawn years or even decades before.”

There are many lofty ideas to be excavated from this novel. That the travesty of the Great War ushered in the demise of idealism, and the lessons that could have been learned from it were overshadowed by the frantic pace of life lived in a mechanized world. That the care of mentally ill patients has not advanced much beyond the era of institutionalization, and though patients are no longer “doomed to the soul-aching gloom of the strip-lit wards,” they are too often medicated into a chemical catatonia. And as surely as the modern age was a precursor to the digital age, so does this paean to modernism lead us to a very postmodern conclusion: life is ambiguous, we are venal creatures motivated by self-interest, and there is no absolute in which to put our faith. 

In the end, though, the reader cannot be blamed for wishing that the author had paid more attention to his audience than to his own voice. Some culling of the text and the ambitious sprawl of themes would have been helpful, as would a frisson of humor (the book’s epigraph, “A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella,” is from James Joyce, and comparisons to the wickedly funny Ulysses are inevitable). The aggressive brilliance of the structure and virile linguistic prestidigitation make for a frustrating, one-sided relationship, not unlike that between Dr. Busner and Audrey. Perhaps that is the point. Busner is the stand-in for the author, who is concerned only with his own legacy, rather than the poor reader, who is just another subject in his grand experiment. 

Alice Stephens is a frequent contributor to The Washington Independent Review of Books.

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