Will Self's ninth novel, published August 30, has been shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker prize. It has received rave reviews from the critics. It has been repeatedly compared to the works of the great modernists of English literature.
The title of the book, Umbrella, is a sort of joke. It is a reference to James Joyce's quip that a brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella. This in turn is an oblique reference to the psychoanalytic works of Sigmund Freud. And by a tortuous path suggests Oliver Sachs' Awakenings. These literary references are by way of an indication of the subject matter.
If all this seems rather roundabout, it is as nothing in comparison to the text itself. The book is about, in as much as it can be said to have a story, a woman called Audrey, whose last name appears to be Death. She worked in a munitions factory during the First World War and contracted encephalitis lethargica, the sleeping sickness that swept Europe in 1918. In 1971 she is briefly awoken by a psychiatrist, Zack Busner.
The story meanders across the narratives of Audrey's life, and the life of the radical psychiatrist. It is told without chapters and with hardly the hint of a paragraph break. Even the sentences resist internal consistency and narrative flow. The text is a juxtaposition of disjointed monologues, competing representations of reality, both within and between individuals.
It is impossible to summarise the action of the novel. The streams of consciousness overlap, the very sense of time and place are disrupted: the 70s mental hospital is overlaid by contemporary London, which is overlaid by the trenches of the First World War. In part the difficulty of summarising the text is due to the fact that it is in a very real sense not about the characters at all. It is about the associations, the references, the allusions.
In this book, Self makes no concessions to the reader. He has tried to write a novel that dispenses with the Victorian conventions of linear plot, characters the reader cares about, continuous chronology and, most of all, unity. It is an ambitious attempt to address the dead end of modernism so artfully created by James Joyce. However, in the end, for all its serious intent, the work merely demonstrates that the high art of literary modernism is, as narrative, nothing more than a fancy, fashionable cul de sac.