Will Self has made a career out of being difficult. Often portrayed as the ‘bad boy’ of contemporary literature, the award winning author has never been one to shy away from controversy. His first novel featured a man who grows a vagina behind his knee, his last a dwarf sculptor who carves gigantic stone statues. With such a deliciously dark back catalogue, Will Self’s new novel was never going to be just nice.
‘Umbrella’ begins in 1918 with the story of Audrey Death, a onetime political rebel who now lies catatonic in a hospital bed. The fevered wanderings of her damaged mind make up the first part of the novel. The narrative quickly leaps between consciousnesses, flitting from Audrey’s medicated stupor to that of her hospital psychologist Zack Busner, a man who is trying to find a cure for people in Audrey’s condition.
A second narrative follows Audrey’s past life as a munitions worker. Her relationship with her two brothers is key, as is the impact of her younger brother’s enlistment. A final narrative encounters Zack Busner in retirement, an old man looking back on his life and his former patients. Switching between past, present and future is no mean feat for an author and Self does lose track at times, spending too much time on witty digression and ephemera. Such intertextuality may be relevant but it can and does take focus away from the character development of Death and Busner.
Nods to modernist icons such as Pynchon, Eliot and Ballard come thick and fast throughout ‘Umbrella.’ The novel’s epigram, “A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella,” comes from Joyce’s Ulysses, as does Self’s infectious delight in wordplay. In any other context use of words like ‘sphygmomanometer’ and ‘palilalic verbigeration’ could seem pompous, but in this author’s deft hand, words are mere playthings.
‘Umbrella’ is a truly wonderful piece of literature. It’s sinister, it’s grotesque and it’s very, very funny. In amongst the substance abuse, schizophrenia and phallic symbolism, there is much to make light of, particularly if you like your comedy blacker than black. What ‘Umbrella’ is not however, is easy. At just over 400 pages, with few paragraph breaks and even fewer chapter headings, Self’s ninth novel is definitely not for the faint hearted. Barrelling through memory after twisted memory, with no immediately obvious sense of direction, ‘Umbrella’ is a veritable thrill ride.
But if you’re brave enough to buy a ticket, you’ve got to be brave enough to enjoy the trip.
Take heed. This is no ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.’ This is no ‘Hunger Games.’ Packed to the brim with tortured souls and fractured identities, ‘Umbrella’ is part nightmare, part hallucination. Though it certainly isn’t a picnic of a novel it duly rewards the bold and the daring.
‘Umbrella’ is modern literature in its finest, purest form.
It isn’t Will Self’s most enjoyable novel but it is absolutely his very best yet.