Monday, 30 October 2017


Will Self Umbrella (2012)
Ordinarily I would ignore the usual bleatings about how that Will Self thinks he's right fancy with that blummin' dictionary shoved up his arse like that and sticking his little finger out when he drinks tea even though he ain't no better than the rest of us and it don't matter how many of those blummin' long words he uses what no-one understands so that he reckons we'll all think he's right clever but we really know that he ain't no such thing; but I have to admit, this was a fucking tough one.

Umbrella is written as a stream of consciousness with disparate narratives blending together seemingly so as to mimic how memory works, with the past becoming a function of the present. The effect is a little like listening to a radio whilst someone fiddles with the dial. People and places drift in and out of focus, and it's not always possible to tell quite where one ends and the other begins; and this also accounts for why it's nearly four-hundred pages of continuous text without breaks, no individual chapters or anything.

That said, it's wonderfully written, as I suppose you would expect, so reading never quite becomes a chore even if it's not always clear what's happening or how it relates to whatever you were reading a few pages back. The premise of Umbrella is described as follows on Goodreads:

Recently having abandoned his RD Laing-influenced experiment in running a therapeutic community - the so-called Concept House in Willesden - maverick psychiatrist Zack Busner arrives at Friern Hospital, a vast Victorian mental asylum in North London, under a professional and a marital cloud. He has every intention of avoiding controversy, but then he encounters Audrey Dearth, a working-class girl from Fulham born in 1890 who has been immured in Friern for decades. A socialist, a feminist and a munitions worker at the Woolwich Arsenal, Audrey fell victim to the encephalitis lethargica sleeping sickness epidemic at the end of the First World War and, like one of the subjects in Oliver Sacks' Awakenings, has been in a coma ever since. Realising that Audrey is just one of a number of post-encephalitics scattered throughout the asylum, Busner becomes involved in an attempt to bring them back to life - with wholly unforeseen consequences.

So Audrey flashes back to Edwardian times while her psychiatrist flashes forward to his own twilight years, and if we conclude anything, it's possibly that many psychiatric conditions are simply coping mechanisms responding to the circumstances of our shitty society, albeit coping mechanisms which have spun out of control.

See, see! they got rid of him because he represented the truth: that the patients are poor, and they're mad - and indeed that many of 'em are mad precisely because they're poor.

At least that's what I took from the novel, although to be fair, I found the above synopsis on Goodreads after I'd finished the thing, and half of it was news to me, notably the detail of Audrey having been in a coma for most of her life. So I'm probably wrong, but Umbrella seems to be about memory as a property of reality, like I said, and specifically how memory is indistinguishable from reality in terms of cause and effect.

He smiles, thinking of the sartorial fripperies of the period - the long, white silk scarves, and original tailcoats picked up at flea markets, and the bandsmen's scarlet coats that could be spotted weaving their way through the crowd at the Isle of Wight festival, gold frogging leaping about in time to Hendrix's axe-work. Miriam insisted on William Morris floral-patterned wallpaper - while Busner had his own brief flirtation with a handlebar moustache and a velvet smoking jacket ...It must've been strange for them, the reawakened, to have swum back to consciousness in a world done up in a travesty of their own childhood, complete with a soundtrack of oompah psychedelia…

It refers directly to the reawakened right there, and yet that was an element I missed entirely. Simply I found the barrage of undifferentiated information a little too relentless, and a little too resistant to digestion. It might have worked better at a reduced word count, at least for me; but what it does well, or what I can identify as having been done well, makes it all worthwhile, generally speaking.

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