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Customer Review

132 of 163 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Non-linear + stream of consciousness = heavy going mess, 10 Aug. 2012
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This review is from: Umbrella (Hardcover)
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.
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Showing 1-10 of 10 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 3 Sep 2012 16:23:42 BDT
lonpobty says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

Posted on 5 Sep 2012 21:51:17 BDT
ron yeats says:
A perceptive review. I agree with your comment: "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......I'm increasingly of the view that giving him a novel to write is like giving a six year old a catapult." I imagine Mr Self received a handsome advance for this novel, although only a few thousand copies will be sold. Would it have been published, let alone for a large advance, had he been Will Smith, aspiring novelist? I doubt it. The MS would have been returned by the publisher, with a curt note that the book was a pretentious muddle.

In reply to an earlier post on 12 Sep 2012 02:26:54 BDT
Last edited by the author on 12 Sep 2012 02:30:07 BDT
Mark Ramsden says:
It's notable that Will SELF SELF SELF SELF mistranslated, or just guessed incorrectly, the meaning of the German word Zeitung, in the New Statesman recently. Not as clever as he thinks he is. This laughably pretentious bore ('epiphenomenal imbroglio' anyone?) also had a go at the Coen Brothers, their fans are 'upper middlebrow'. Everything Self has written for the screen has failed utterly.

He keeps banging on about modernism, now a mere hundred years out of date. Still, at least he managed not to nick anyone else's title this time. (How The Dead Live.) There is no copyright on titles but you do expect creative people to make one of their own up. Even his defence was pretentious: 'bricolage'. He's lucky anyone sane bothered to read this tripe.

In reply to an earlier post on 14 Sep 2012 21:19:07 BDT
Last edited by the author on 15 Sep 2012 06:25:51 BDT
ArtsEater says:
Modernism is out of date? Wha'! If Modernism is out of date then conventional narrative must be lying in bed and being kept alive by a respirator. It's still being peddled after 200+ years - and behaving as if Freud, WW1, Joyce, Eliot, WW2 etc never happened. I partly blame creative writing courses for the recent (and, to me, welcome) revival of Modernism (e.g. Zadie Smith's 'NW" is also written in the Modernist style). These courses teach creative writing like painting with numbers. Have you established the setting? Check. Have you developed a bell curve narrative? Check. Have you a central character who develops? Check. etc. etc. I could be wrong, but Modernist writing can't be taught like this. It requires years of effort, experience, innate skill, and a lot of blood, sweat & tears. For example, from reading Woolf's diaries and Joyce's biogs you begin to see the agonies they went throught to write books like 'To the Lighthouse' & 'Ulysses'. But both of them had the gift. And I personally think that Self also has it in spades. I honestly think that 'Umbrella' will be one of only a handful of books published in recent years that will still be talked about and increasingly appreciated for years to come.

In reply to an earlier post on 17 Sep 2012 17:29:42 BDT
Mark Ramsden says:
I know just what he's got on his spade and he's been shovelling it for far too long.

In reply to an earlier post on 17 Sep 2012 19:34:49 BDT
[Deleted by the author on 17 Sep 2012 20:34:32 BDT]

Posted on 18 Oct 2012 15:13:32 BDT
C says:
'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.'

Tell that to Faulkner. I haven't read this book yet, but it worked well enough in The Sound and the Fury.

In reply to an earlier post on 18 Oct 2012 15:43:36 BDT
Ripple says:
That's a fair point Callum - I may have over-generalized. To me, the Amazon ratings here are a fair reflection - no 3* ratings at the time of writing. It's a book you'll either love or hate. My advice to any prospective reader is look at both sides of the comments, use the "look inside" or download sample" features and see if it's for you - although it does get more clarity as it goes on - eventually. There are also some excellent 5* reviews here that quote paragraphs that give you a good indication of the style. It's not a book to feel ambivalent about - and credit to Will Self for that.

In reply to an earlier post on 14 Apr 2014 22:07:03 BDT
Last edited by the author on 14 Apr 2014 22:10:14 BDT
Self is no Faulkner. I have no trouble following a plot in Faulkner. Faulkner's logic is elliptical, but it is logic. His grammar is baroque and longwinded, but it is carefully structured.
Having read "Umbrella", I'm still dependent on the jacket blurb to know what it's about. . . . Faulkner respects the reader; Self doesn't.

In reply to an earlier post on 6 Sep 2014 17:24:57 BDT
Could not agree more. Tosh.
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