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Will Self: Umbrella

I once started a Will Self book some years ago but did not get very far. I found it pretty well unreadable. Self has since become fairly ubiquitous on TV and in the press so you cannot really ignore him. When this book made the Man Booker longlist and then the shortlist, I felt it might be time to try again. When I started reading it with its disjointed fragments, quotes from the Kinks and other quotes and misquotes from pop songs, its Joycean word plays and lines from the denizens of what is clearly a mental hospital, I soon realised that this was not for me but, in the interests of science, I stuck it out. To be fair, it does get (a bit) better later on, but it is still avowedly modernist. We learn early on that one of the patients is probably suffering from encephalitis lethargica, a disease that affected a huge number of people in the 1920s, with the survivors, as in this case, often being confined to mental institutions. The patient we are concerned with is called Audrey Death (Self, inevitably, has fun with her name, not just the obvious death remarks, but also linking it to dearth and the name De’Ath and suggesting that it was originally Deeth). Audrey has been working as a munitions worker in Woolwich Arsenal when she is affected. She eventually comes under the care of Zack Busner, who treats her with l-dopa. (This is clearly based on the real life story of Oliver Sacks and his treatment of encephalitis lethargica patients.) Mixed in with the story of Audrey and her treatment are the stories of her early life and the stories of her siblings, particularly Stanley, killed by a premature detonation of a shell in 1928, and Albert a very intelligent civil servant. Self does his homage to London as Audrey’s father predicts its future which is quite fun but, on the whole, you get the feeling that Self is being self-consciously difficult for its own sake. I don’t write for readers, he has said and made it clear that it is the job of his readers not to enjoy his books but to work at them. That might be valid if he were, for example, James Joyce. He isn’t. The mishmash of different stories and different voices and the language games work in Joyce because Joyce is such an outstanding writer. It doesn’t work in Self because he isn’t. This could have been an interesting novel – the idea behind it is certainly fascinating – but Self makes us work just too hard for no apparent reason than his own attempt to be avowedly modernist and/or his attempt to annoy us readers. I cannot see myself reading many more of his books. If you do want to get a flavour of the book and do not want to read the entire 397 pages, you might read John Crace’s digested read, a brilliant pastiche of the book.

Publishing history

First published 2012 by Bloomsbury