on 4 December 2014
I picked this up to read on the commute to and from work, which was a mistake. This is not a book that one can easily dip in and out of, and the total immersion required to make the most of it is inconsistent with the constant distractions of a crowded train. However, this is not a criticism of the book itself, which, whilst certainly challenging at times, represents the rare combination of a compelling narrative wrapped in an artful and innovative prose style. Does it err into pretentiousness at times? Yes, in spades; but anyone who has spent more than 30 seconds listening to Will Self on almost any subject should come to this book adequately steeled for that, and while there is a certain amount of intellectual masturbation here, I found I could overlook that in my appreciation of an original and effective style. I also learned, as others on here have already said, that once you stop trying to wring some precise sense out of every word and simply let the stream of consciousness wash over you - in essence, once you start to read the book as it was written - you quickly become absorbed into the flow of the story. Overall, I found the book interesting more than enjoyable. Both my personal reading history and the literary canon generally are doubtless the richer for this book, but Umbrella is heavy going and while I appreciate the experience, it has not whetted my appetite to explore any of Self's other work any time soon.
It is fair to say that this is very much a marmite book - you will either go with the flow, read and enjoy, or struggle and hate this intriguing novel. It employs modernism, stream of consciousness and the storyline (such as it is) runs between times and characters. The novel takes the viewpoint of two main characters: the psychiatrist Dr Zachary Busner at Friern Hospital and patient Audrey Dearth.
When Busner begins work at Friern Hospital he is allocated two chronic wards. This is a place of endless corridors, psychiatric orderlies who employ "thump therapy" and patients who wear canvas tunics, said to resemble a uniform "for a slave labourer". Busner has an embittered wife, Miriam, and young children. He also has a brother who suffers from a mental illness and an interest in patients suffering from the somnolent-opthalmogic form of encephalitis lethargica ('sleepy sickness'). This came before the Spanish Flu epidemic at the end of WWI and Busner tells his wife about Audrey Dearth, a patient who may be one of hundreds scattered throughout asylums, who suffered the virus and have nothing psychologically wrong with them. Less than impressed, Miriam responds with a plea for him to show less enthusiasm and spend less time poring over patient notes and more with his family. Yet Busner visits other doctors who disagreed with the original diagnosis and attempts to investigate other patients with the same possible condition.
This novel veers between Busner's story and that of patient Audrey Dearth. We are taken through Audrey's life, from her childhood onwards and from Busner's investigations to his memories in later years. I know the building he writes about well, as I live near it, and thought he captured the sheer size and scale of the place beautifully. This is not an easy read - there is a place for both nice relaxing books and ones that require concentration and commitment. Although this book can be difficult at times - you need to keep your mind on the text to know who and when you are reading about - it is worth perservering with and it is enjoyable, with characters you care about, and it is the characters that matter in any novel.
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 28 April 2016
Great read. I struggled with the language but if I read it again I'd enjoy it more. You have to stick with it otherwise you lose the enjoyment. I started reading Finnegan's Wake and found it a bit easier , but hey one thing at a time? Modernist literature is not there to baffle us. It's there to be enjoyed. If you like Flann O' Brien ,Irvine Welsh and David Mitchell then read this.
on 5 February 2014
This modernist and stream of consciousness novel will not be to everyone's taste. If you need the 'permission' of a chapter end to stop reading, then either don't read this book, or start reading it surrounded by extensive supplies of food and drink and with a toilet close at hand. There are no chapters, no parts, not even a few handy blank lines, just a constant flow of sentences. Treat these sentences like a wonderful word tapestry being woven by Audrey Death, her brother Stanley and Dr Zach Busner, using threads from Edwardian London, the horrors of the World War 1 trenches, and 1970s & 1990s London, and you can start to relax and comprehend what Self is trying to say. I fought this book initially, wanting desperately to understand who and when I was in each sentence before moving onto the next one. In the end, I learnt to absorb long sections and trust that afterwards I would have a sense of what had happened in each of the story lines, which ultimately are one story line.
It's hard work, but worth every moment if you want to reflect on how we are so careless with our fellow human beings.
on 25 August 2012
If you want a real challenge to read, but one that is worth it - this is the book. I read a few interviews with Self which made me curious about the book and I was so glad I bought it as it kept me very happy during a short break away. I was just sorry I didn't have the actual book, just had it on Kindle, so I couldn't show it off in the Departure Lounge, where every other woman was engrossed in 'Fifty Shades'. Anyway, it takes a while to really understand what Self is doing with all the different stories going on and linking up - but that makes it sound deceptively as if there is a linear structure, which there isn't. You have to just go along with it, enjoy the journey but not get too frustrated when he drops a story just as you really want to know what happens next and just as you are really responding to the characters. It is worth the struggle I think and you finish the book in awe at his skill. I especially enjoyed the wide ranging vocabulary Self uses and although I know that can be easily derided, I found it refreshing to be treated as an educated adult for once instead of authors who wouldn't use more obscure words in case their readers were alienated by them. By the end of the book, you do have a full story, by the way - it is all there, plus many other experiences along the way. It won't be to everyone's taste and of course it is easy to level the charge of pretentiousness at Self, but I loved it and actually found it a good read.
on 20 February 2016
Bit of a post-post modern Dr Sacks. Really clever and engaging, across time and mental states (reading it on Kindle helps to get an instant definition for the many medical terms). Not so much a novel as the revealing of a hidden mind - maybe that is just what a novel should be. Repays the work needed to read. Recommended.
on 2 December 2013
I have just read this fantastic tale. I have never read anything like it before. I don't think Self's Umbrella is trying to be 'clever' or stuffed with 'long' words for the sake of it as some feel. Will Self is clever (surely that's a good thing isn't it?)and if the vocabulary is tricky use a dictionary;that's what I did. There were not that many words I didn't understand and am glad to have learned a few more. The hard work that has obviously gone into this book made me feel really grateful and glad that we have such an original writer in the UK who puts real graft behind his art. Integrity is the word. This is not writing by numbers. I did get lost in places as to exactly what was happening but decided to just enjoy the feeling and go with it. I don't feel these were faults in the novel but more to do with my reading skills and anyway, at some point you're helped back in from one of the umbrella spokes and onto the handle again! Fasten your seat belt and read it!
on 30 November 2012
As someone who used to work in the old psych 'bins' I can tell you Will Self nails it, just utterly nails it, the sights, smells, attitudes good and bad - but more than that and more than he's ever done before he brings a real aching humanity to the characters and the pain, joy and tribulations of their lives - it's a great read BUT also a really excellent audio book, if you think the language is a challenge have it read to you, its like Shakespeare it just makes sense when you hear it
on 10 January 2016
What a Joy!
If you’re a Times cross-wordsmith, a railway carriage puzzle-booker, or a member of the PD James Society this novel is not for you. But it is for me alright; the joy of being unencumbered by plot, clues, genre, influences, and to be at liberty to enjoy word, texture, rhythm and sound! ‘Not an easy read,’? What a whinge! Art isn’t easy, God isn’t easy, Quantum Mechanics isn’t easy, so why should literature be gobbed down while sitting on the tube, sitting on the toilet, sitting in the doctors waiting room, or wandering along the street? I heard that an employee of a certain bookshop put it in the Self Help book section – 'I mean it 'as to be don’t it?...Says on the cover - Will? Self?' Doohh…Read it, love it, you’ll be a better human!