You know the colour “octarine”? It’s the colour of magic, visible only to magicians and cats, a sparkly, glowing combination of yellowy-green and purple. I thought of octarine and the way it became a stand-out feature of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Fantasy novels when I was visualizing the strange brown-purple-grey world, “Stittara”, that L.E. Modesitt, Jr., invented for his novel The One-Eyed Man.
(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.