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Umbrella, by Will Self – Writing as avant-garde Jazz

Umbrella, by Will Self
Umbrella, by Will Self

(Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012)

You have to be determined to finish Umbrella. It’s 379 pages of text with no line breaks. Seriously. Self does not use paragraph breaks, nor indents, nor chapters to structure his narrative or help the reader to make sense of what’s going on.  At an average of 13 words per line, 29 lines per page, this makes 142,883 words, non-stop. I have, in all my years of reading, never come across anything like this. I’ve read long and wordy, poetic and convoluted, dense and complex works, from Salman Rushdie (surreal, melodramatic, elaborate) to Gabriel García Márquez (magic realist, lyrical, flowery), and everything in between, including the almost-impossible-to-read, mystifying prose poetry By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, by Canadian author Elizabeth Smart. But this is something else.

Most modern fiction works have nothing on the sheer linguistic tour de force that is Umbrella. It was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, and you can see why. Other reviewers have said that perhaps the nearest equivalent to Self’s style is that of James Joyce.

Self’s writing style can be a serious impediment to readers even attempting this book. At times I felt I was reading the literary equivalent of tonality-free, avant-garde Jazz, in which meter, beat, and formal symmetry all disappeared. It flowed, it was very beautiful in places, surprising in others, a cacophony of words sometimes – but I wondered if I was missing the essence of the argument. I probably was.

But if you were to dive into it, it snatches you out of the here-and-now and plonks you squarely into the mad, weird, riveting, saddening world of the De’Aths – and their creeping insanity. You could say his style mirrors the streams of consciousness – such as they are – of the “enkies”, the post-encephalitic patients featured in the novel. And that, I must say, is pretty darn impressive.


Four main characters feature in the novel; the psychiatrist, Zach Busner; his patient, Audrey Death / De’Ath, suffering from Encephalitis Lethargic, who used to work in armaments and umbrella manufacturing; and her two brothers, Stanley, a soldier in WWI, and Albert, a maths genius and arms production expert. The story is set in Edwardian England in WWI, and the 1970s and the mid-20th century.  Self switches between characters, times, settings, events and, particularly, thoughts, literally in mid-sentence. The only clue that the reader has that the story is now about a different character, is perhaps the mention of a name, or – more subtly – a change in style. This, for 379 pages, is tough going and requires the reader either to stop worrying about what going on and just read, or exert tremendous concentration and make a lot of margin notes.  For instance:

“But why not? Now is forever, the jellyfish dances in the ocean of noise [Self’s italics], the shocked officer lies in spasm on his side, his hands and feet sketching possible trajectories in the dirt that follow some map or plan long since encrypted in his otherwise jumbled mind, Marcus must’ve come in by the main gates, turned right off the roundabout and puttered along the preposterously names Western Avenue, passing Blythe House, Villa No. 3 and the Upholstery Workshop, then manoeuvred his way between the spur and the Occupational Therapy Annexe, before finding a place to park.”

Midway through this sentence the map in the mind of the dying officer, being observed by Stanley, becomes the map being followed by the psychiatrist Zach Busner when he’s driving. The only clue to the change of voice is that “Marcus” is the name of one of Busner’s colleagues – and the style of writing changes from a kind of shell-shocked, manic, sing-song rambling which identifies Stanley, to the modern English of the medical staff.

This technique is at once the most difficult aspect of the novel, and its most illuminating. It allows Self to draw really unusual comparisons, creating exceptionally strange and disturbing metaphors: in the quote above, he compares the officer spasming and dying on the battlefield, to a jellyfish dancing in an ocean of noise, to trajectories or lines on a map, to roads on the hospital grounds. Thus, Busner becomes the confused, twitching, spasming officer, trying to cope in a war of another sort. Busner’s little mumblings and mutterings later start to sound oddly like those of his patients.

These images occur throughout the novel, Self drawing comparisons between sex and war, eroticism and gunfire, food and death, sanity and singing. Like the post-encephalitic patients slide in and out of increasingly severe states of mental confusion and palsy, the characters veer between snatches of songs, ditties, poetry and odd and disturbing memories or illusions, which Self often indicates by writing them in italics. “Or perhaps, she adds, a glass of ale – there’s a jug in the pantry? He hears this but flirts with the notion that it is one of the busy little doves that speaks, poking its pearly head from its nook, ruffled up and coo-coo-concerned…Stanley hears the sluggish b’boom-b’boom-b’boom of his heart, a single feather falls revolving on the axis of its quill, white, less so, white, less so.”

Stanley is an expert in handling the Vickers machine-gun, which the men call “Vicky”, which makes the same sound as his heart, b’boom, when it fires. Seeing the bird and hearing his heart-beat take Stanley immediately back to the trenches, and later on the same page, he gruesomely imagines the maid shot in the head on the battlefield.


Each character uses the lexicon appropriate to their time and occupation, along with a mass of cultural references, which poses additional challenges to the reader.  A random selection from a section by Stanley: tallowy flesh, Under den Linden, Everyman edition of Pater’s Appreciations, two zeppelins and a cloud, puttees, redingote. Got all of that? I didn’t. But the distinctive lexicons is one way to distinguish switches between characters.

The plot is fairly simple: Dr. Busner attempts, in a last hope to revive his mediocre career, to take a group of post-encephalitic patients, “enkies”, suffering from Encephalitis Lethargic, off all their medication, and administer L-DOPA to wake them up. “His post-encephalitic patients, he knows, experience a strange sleeeeeewwooooowing down of thought…the turntable dragging treble back to bass…a stickiness as oneinsightstrugglestodetachfrom…the next.[sic]”

Patients eventually return to their previous states as the L-DOPA effect wears off. Audrey Death wakes up momentarily, revealing her past, a simultaneously perverse and tragic story. She was practically prostituted by her father, became the mistress of a wealthy man with socialist aspirations, and worked herself into a state of ill-health and madness in factories. Stanley, similarly, ended up being the lover of an upper-class married woman, was shell-shocked and hid out in a series of tunnels beneath the battlefield, along with other MIA soldiers – or he might’ve died in an explosion. Albert’s genius with numbers allowed him to become highly educated and have an important position in government, but he ended his days a lonely, bitter and highly eccentric recluse.

Awakenings, by Dr. Oliver Sacks
Awakenings, by Dr. Oliver Sacks


The disease that Audrey and the other patients suffer from, Encephalitis Lethargic, attacks the brain, leaving some victims in a speechless and motionless, in a sort of permanent, ticcing spasm. Self makes the connection between the poisonous chemicals used to manufacture artillery to which Audrey was exposed during the war, and her condition. However, he also alludes to Stanley developing similar tics and manic, repetitive thoughts, like counting in threes, hallucinating randomly, and having a confused sense of time. And, he points out similar weaknesses in Busner. “Why, Busner wonders, am I quite so plagued by these tapeworms spooling through my mind? Is it my unconscious ventriloquising through Hurricane Smith?”

Between 1915 and 1926, in which time the novel is set, an epidemic of Encephalitis Lethargic spread around the world; no recurrence of the epidemic has since been reported, though isolated cases continue to occur. Dr. Oliver Sacks, a neurologist, worked with one of the largest groups of Encephalitis Lethargic patients in a U.S. hospital. In 1969 he was instrumental in prescribing what was then a new drug, L-DOPA (levadopa), to these patients, and witnessed their extraordinary “awakenings” from their illness. Dr. Sacks work with L-DOPA was described in his book Awakenings in 1973. The book was used by Harold Pinter as the basis of his one-act play A Kind of Alaska, performed in 1982, starring Judi DenchAwakenings, a 1990 movie starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, is also based on the book. (For readers wanting to know more about the disease, it would be better to read Dr. Sacks’ book than watch the movie.)


The lives of the three Death siblings illustrate the class differences and, in particular, the struggle of the working class and the poor, in Victorian and Edwardian England, through WWI. The Edwardian era (1901-1910) was a period during which the British class system was very rigid. But rising interest in socialism, attention to the plight of the poor and the rights of women, together with increased economic opportunities due to rapid industrialisation, came about as a result of World War I (1914-1918) and its aftermath. The Deaths are as much victims of the class system as Busner’s patients are victims of an uncaring and mechanistic health care system.

Ironically, Busner is also a victim in this tale: – his brother committed suicide, and his son is mentally ill. And, in the ultimate betrayal, while Busner is on holiday, his supervisor stops the patients’ L-DOPA and they return to their impassive state. “And beside his dead brother twitches the still-living body of Busner’s eldest son, Mark, …his poor face! who, although not doomed to the soul-aching gloom of the strip-lit wards, remains the unwilling, tempestuous and tortured recipient of…care in the communityand who has to wait for a very long time in his Stanmore bedsit for a visit from his psychiatrist father to…check he’s taking his medication so that Hey, Presto! no mental illness – all gone…”


Finally, Audrey returns to her old state, in which she looks exactly like an old, ragged umbrella, mentally and physically: “…propped in the corner, her thin mental ribs and struts all furled in the stained folds of her old silken skin? His very own …Sleeping Beauty…her neck, gripped in the kyphotic vice of her extreme old age, curves up and over into a hook, so that levelled at him is its very blunt and accusatory end.” A blunt, silent accusation: Busner, in his self-interest, had failed to help her, just like the societal, economic and political systems in Britain had failed to help her and her family, or the men who had suffered in the war, or the patients forgotten in psychiatric hospitals.

It is a depressing conclusion to the novel, and one reads on towards the end, hoping for some enlightenment, but knowing it can only end badly. In places, there are clues that perhaps the solution to these varying degrees of disconnection with reality, is a matter of the brain reorganising itself, or something as simple as human touch. “Audrey arches still more, lifting her torso clear of the covers – her arms are flung back and her nails pick at the wallpaper, fingers scrabbling up to discover the picture frame, I-am I-am I-am… and then there is sensation – the answering pressure of fingers that make his fingers exist once more, and once they are, so are his wrists, his forearms, his elbows, all me bendersIt is touch, Stanley thinks, the movement of touch that makes us be in time – for time had fled me also.”

Will Self (2007)
Will Self (2007)


Award-winning and critically acclaimed author William (Will) Woodard Self’s fiction is predominantly set in London, UK, and his subject matter often includes mental illness, illegal drugs and psychiatry. “Dr. Zack Busner is a recurring character in his books, appearing in the short story collections The Quantity Theory of Insanity, Grey Area, Dr. Mukti and Other Tales of Woe, as well as in the novels Great Apes and The Book of Dave

Here’s a clue to what you could expect from reading Will Self:

Self has given his reason for writing as follows: “I don’t write fiction for people to identify with and I don’t write a picture of the world they can recognise. I write to astonish people.” (Understanding Will Self, by M. Hunter Hayes, University of South Carolina Press; annotated edition, March 1, 2007, p.1)
“What excites me is to disturb the reader’s fundamental assumptions. I want to make them feel that certain categories within which they are used to perceiving the world are unstable.” (Will Self’s Transgressive Fictions, by Brian Finney, from: Postmodern Culture, Volume 11, Number 3, May 2001)
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