Sunday, 16 September 2012

Umbrella - wonderful confusion

Umbrella by Will Self (Bloomsbury: 2012) A novel spanning the century, following an outbreak of encephalitis lethargica in 1918, and the lifelong impact it has to a group of patients in which it has been misdiagnosed. Self uses the disease and its aftermath to explore the destructive capacity of technology and machinery on the human condition.

I have almost zero idea where to start. I really don’t. This is Booker Prize shortlist stuff. I'm getting book review stage fright, and I don't know where to begin. But it seems I have, so I’ll try to go on.

I’ve never read anything like Umbrella before. Which I mean in an entirely positive way. That must be the foremost and loudest piece of praise for this book - it’s original.

Underneath that, it’s a bunch of other things as well, positive and negative. In the pro column we should scribble words like ambitious, beautiful, energetic, intelligent, brave. Our con column should include words like confusing, disjointed, hard-work.

No doubt Self would have a few things to say about these judgements. He probably would balk at Umbrella being labelled brave or hard-work. But it is. It takes an idea he believes in strongly, and sets it out in a form that he is no less committed to. By staying true to both idea and form, he runs the risk of the whole project being drowned in confusing modernist prose. To the normal writer, it’s a huge risk. Letting your great idea into the world in such a fragile form. It’s likely to wither.

But not Self. If I learned anything from hearing him speak in Edinburgh
, it’s that he’d simply shrug his shoulders at such risks. He wouldn’t even see it as a choice. The reader experience is not his problem. As far as he’s concerned, this is the true way to represent human experience, so why on earth would he do it any other way.

The result is a book that’s both vital and difficult to untangle. It jumps from character to character, time to time, setting to setting - all without warning or sign posts. He doesn’t even start a new paragraph when he shifts his voice, will go from 1918 to 1971 in the same sentence, leaving it up to the reader to figure out what’s going on.

Not "Umbrella" - it's "For Gavin"
To begin with (and for most of the book in fact) it's utterly confusing. You never master it (at least I didn’t), but I did gradually become comfortable with the it. Persevere, and it has a strange effect. It begins to achieve a feeling of the “continuous presence” that Self harps on about. You slowly begin to see all parts of the story at all times - not as a list of events, but as a whole tangled up confused ball of experience. A bit like the Tralfamadorians, for those Vonnegut fans amongst you (of which I’m sure there are tons).

So that’s the style. But what about the content? I’m totally certain that I missed a lot of the content. I’m sure there are major parts of the story that flew right past me as I was sweating with furrowed brow trying to un-pick the style. But some bits came through. I got the gist of what was happening, and there were some vignettes of experience that shone out.

It may be because I was just so pleased to be understanding a bit of the plot. Will Self has that effect on you. He makes you rejoice in any brief seconds when you feel you're starting to understand him. He makes you feel you're spending a moment or two on equal terms with an elite brain. But whatever the reason, when a section struck home, it did so brightly and beautifully and terribly.

And the ideas that Self explores are worth the struggle too. They become clearer as you get towards the end. Self allows himself to explain them more overtly, and when you put the book down, your mind is racing with thoughts of machines and people and life and death and family and meaning.

I feel I’ve just explained all the pro column. I haven’t really gone into the cons. I don’t want you to think this is a rewarding book which just needs a little effort. That’s not true. It needs a lot of effort. It needs the same commitment that Self has to the style. Yes, the rewards are there. But are they worth it? Do you have the time to earn them? When push comes to shove, would you rather just curl up with a bit of Grisham instead?

Gah! I’m torn. I think you should go read this. I think it’s important and it’ll introduce you to new ideas and styles. But I also think that all of that comes at a price, one that most of you probably don’t have the time or energy to pay.

How do I put all of that into a score between one and ten?


That’s how. Sit right on the fence. Just north of the fence really. But that feels about right.

Next week, something less dense. I promise.


Benny said...

I've always thought that Self is a bit too self-satisfied and in love with his own intellect. The fact that he doesn't care about the reader experience suggests to me that he's basically in love with himself and the sound of his own voice, regardless of who understands him.

The best books are the ones that take interesting themes and concepts and break them down to their basic parts (like The Old Man and The Sea)

I've read two Self books and I found them both unnecessarily cryptic and like you said- hard work! And they really weren't fun to read.

Clever for clever's sake, but not fun, or worth the effort. (For me anyway!)

I haven't rad this one, and I'm not sure I've got the stamina to give it a go...!

Enjoyed the review though, cheers.

Alex in Leeds said...

I've read a couple of other Self books but this is by far my favourite (I wrote a rather enthusiastic review a little while ago) and I usually hate stream of consciousness. I must confess I'll be crossing my fingers that it wins the Booker next week. :)

Gav Collins said...

Thanks Alex - I'm split personally. If either this or Bring up the Bodies wins, I'll be happy.