“A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella.”James Joyce, Ulysses
Audrey Deathfeminist, socialist and munitions worker at Woolwich Arsenalfalls ill with encephalitis lethargica as the epidemic rages across Europe, killing a third of its victims and condemning a further third to living death.
Under the curious eyes of psychiatrist Dr. Zack Busner, assumed mental patient Audrey Death lies supine in bed above a spring grotto that she has made every one of the forty-nine years she has resided in Friern Mental Hospital.
Now retired, Dr. Busner travels waywardly across North London in search of the truth about that tumultuous summer when he awoke the post-encephalitic patients under his care using a new and powerful drug.
Weaving together a dense tapestry of consciousness and lived life across an entire century, in his latest and most ambitious novel, Will Self takes up the challenge of Modernism and reveals how itand it alonecan unravel new and unsettling truths about our world and how it came to be.
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About the Author
Will Self is the author of six short-story collections, a book of novellas, eight novels, and six collections of journalism. His work has won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction and the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction, and been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He lives in London.
Read an Excerpt
By Will Self
Grove PressCopyright © 2012 Will Self
All rights reserved.
I'm an ape man, I'm an ape-ape man ... Along comes Zachary, along from the porter's lodge, where there's a trannie by the kettle and the window is cracked open so that Muswell Hill calypso warms the cold Friern Barnet morning, staying with him, wreathing his head with rapidly condensing pop breath. I'm an ape man, I'm an ape-ape man, oh I'm an ape man ... The lawns and verges are soft with dew, his arms and his legs are stiff – a rigor he associates with last night's tense posture, when I aborted the fumbled beginnings of a noncommittal congress. While Miriam fed the baby in their bed hawsers and pipelines coiled away into milky, fartysteam – the enormous projectile retracted into the cradle of my belly and thighs ... I'm an ape man, I'm an ape-ape man ... the Austin's steering wheel plastic vertebrae bent double, kyphotic ... had pulled at his shoulders as he wrestled the car down from Highgate, then yanked it through East Finchley – knees jammed uncomfortably under the dashboard – then across the North Circular and past the blocks of flats screening the Memorial Hospital before turning right along Woodhouse Road. Under the bonnet the pistons hammered at his coccyx, the crankshaft turned his pelvis round and around, while each stop and start, each twist and turn – the very swivel of his eyeballs in their sockets – didn't ease this stress but screwed it still further into his frame: bitindrill, chuckinlathe, poweron ... In his already heightened state he had looked upon the city as an inversion, seeing the parallelograms of dark woodland and dormant grass as man-made artefacts surrounded by growing brick, tarmac and concrete that ripples away to the horizon along the furrows of suburban streets ... While his domestic situation is by no means quiescent, nor is it settled, and the day ahead – Ach! A beige worm of antiseptic cream wriggles into the festering crack of a bed sore ... Bitterly he had considered: Is my dip' psych even relevant when it comes to this first-aiding, the sick parade of a shambling citizen militia? ... I'm an ape man, I'm an ape-ape man ... The drive into work is already automatic. — Still, it's a shock that his destination is this folly with a Friends' Shop. Along comes Zachary ... Hush Puppies snaffling the gravel path that leads from the staff car park – where cooling steel ticks beside floral clocks – towards the long repetition of arched windows and arched doorways, of raised porticoes and hip-roofed turrets. Along comes Zachary ... creeping noisily up on the high central dome with its flanking campaniles in which no bells have ever rung, as they are only disguised ventilation shafts designed to suck the rotten fetor from the asylum ... Along comes Zachary ... avoiding the unseeing eyes of the tarnished bronze statue that hides behind some forsythia – a young man clearly hebephrenic ... his face immobile forever in its suffering, the folds of his clothing plausibly heavy ... for he looks altogether weighed down by existence itself. Along comes Zachary ... chomping beside the arched windows now, and the arched doorways, and then the arched windows again. He admits himself into this monumental piece of trompe l'il not by the grand main doors – which are permanently bolted – but by an inconspicuous side one – and this is only right, as it begins the end of the delusion that he will encounter some Foscari or Pisani, whereas the reality is: a low banquette covered with dried-egg vinyl, and slumped upon this a malefactor, his face – like those of so many of the mentally ill – a paradoxical neoplasm, the aged features just this second formed to quail behind a defensively raised shoulder. A hectoring voice says, You will be confined to your ward and receive no allowance this week, DO YOU UN-DER-STAND? Oh, yes, I understand well enough ... which is why he continues apace, not wishing to see any more of this routine meanness ... Along comes Zachary – and along a short corridor panelled with damp chipboard, then down some stairs into the lower corridor. Along comes Zachary – and along – he has clutched his briefcase to his chest, unfastened it, and now pulls his white coat out in stiff little billows. You'll be needing one, Busner, Whitcomb had said – a jolly arsehole, his long face a fraction: eyes divided by moustache into mouth – else the patients'll think ... Think what? Think what?! But the consultant's attention span was so short he had lost interest in his own phrase and fallen to reaming the charred socket of his briar with the end of a teaspoon, the fiddly task performed inefficiently on the knobbly tops of his knock-knees. – Why were the staffroom chairs all too low or too high? Along comes Zachary – and along ... I'm an ape man, I'm an ape-ape-man, oh I'm an ape man, his splayed shoes crêping along the floor, sliding across patches of lino, slapping on stone-flagged sections, their toes scraping on the ancient bitumen – wherever that was exposed. Scrrr-aping. He wonders: Who would dream of such a thing – to floor the corridors, even the wards, of a hospital with a road surface?
Excerpted from Umbrella by Will Self. Copyright © 2012 Will Self. Excerpted by permission of Grove Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2012 MAN BOOKER PRIZE
“A work of throwback modernism . . . an erudite yet barking mad novel about barking madness. . . . You give yourself over to Umbrella in flashes, as if it were a radio station you’re unable to tune in that you suspect is playing the most beautiful song you will ever hear. . . this novel locks into moments of ungodly beauty and radiant moral sympathy. . . . a bitter critique of how society has viewed (and cared for) those with mental illnesses. It’s about myriad other things too: class, the changing nature of British society, trench warfare in World War I, how technology can be counted on to upend everything. At heart it’s a novel about seeing. . . . Mr. Self often enough writes with such vividness it’s as if he is the first person to see anything at all.”The New York Times
“A savage and deeply humane novel. . . . . Umbrella is an old-fashioned modernist tale with retrofitted ambitions to boot. . . . Self has always been a fabulous writer. . . . The result is page after page of gorgeously musical prose. Self’s sentences bounce and weave, and like poetry, they refract. The result is mesmerizing. . . . In its best moments, Umbrella compels a reader to the heights of vertigo Woolf excelled at creating.. . . . a triumph of form. With this magnificent novel Will Self reminds that he is Britain’s reigning poet of the night.”Boston Globe
“A virtuosic performance . . . narrated in the allusive, sensory-overloaded style associated with Joyce’s Ulysses. . . . A heady mixture of closely observed (and deeply researched) period details, colorful imagery, surrealistic juxtapositions, and italicized interjections . . . Self’s wildly nonlinear narrative offers other delights: richly detailed settings that bring the Edwardian era and mental hospitals sensuously alive, kaleidoscopic patterns of symbolism (umbrellas assume all sorts of forms and functions), and loads of mordant satire.”The Washington Post
"In these culturally straitened times few writers would have the artistic effrontery to offer us a novel as daring, exuberant and richly dense as Umbrella. Will Self has carried the Modernist challenge into the twenty-first century, and worked a wonder."John Banville
"Umbrella is his best book yet. . . . It makes new for today the lessons taught by the morals of Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Tin Drum, also García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold."Alasdair Gray
“Self’s latest novel. . . is a strange and sprawling modernist experiment that takes the human mind as its subject and, like the human mind, is infinitely capacious, wretchedly petty and ultimately magnificent. . . . It may not be beautiful, but it is extraordinary.”NPR Books
“A hefty, challenging stream-of-consciousness story whose engagement with modernist themes and techniques is announced in its epigraph from Joyce’s Ulysses.”New Yorker.com
“In prose uninterrupted by chapters or line breaks, a twisted version of the 20th century is woven and unpicked again. It is a postmodern vivisection of Modernism, analyzing the dream and the machine, war as the old lie and a new liberation, and rituals sacred, profane and banal. . . . a linguistically adept, emotionally subtle and ethically complex novel.”The Guardian
“An ambitiously conceived and brilliantly executed novel in the high modernist tradition of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf . . . Its scope is dazzling . . . The switches between perspective and chronology are demanding (there are no chapters), but Self handles them with bravura skill, setting up imagery and phrases that echo suggestively between different episodes . . . Umbrella is an immense achievement.”Financial Times
“Entertaining and enthralling. . . extensively researched. . . . An experimental novel that is also a compassionate and thrilling bookand one that, despite its difficulty, deserves to be read.”The Economist
“Will Self’s Joycean tribute is a stream of consciousness tour de force. . . . [It] builds into a heartbreaking mosaic, a sardonic critique of the woefully misdirected treatment of the mentally ill and the futility of war and, above all, a summation of the human condition. Despite the bleakness of the message, by the end you are filled with elation at the author’s exuberant ambition and the swaggering way he carries it all off, and then a huge sense of deflation at the realization that whatever book you read next, it won’t be anything like this.”Daily Mail
“Umbrella is old-school modernism. It isn’t supposed to be a breeze. But it is, to use the literary critical term of art, kind of amazing It may not be his easiest, but I think this may be Will Self’s best book.”The Observer (London)
“Umbrella is the result of Self’s surge in ambition.”The Millions
“A virtuoso performance. . . . Self weaves together disparate voices so seamlessly . . . but there’s more going on here than a display of formal dexterity. . . . [Umbrella] disorients the reader, who experiences identity as porous and permeable, the individual fractured and reconstituted in the twin forges of industrialization and institutionalization.”The Globe and Mail
“Defies convention and digs deep into the social issues plaguing the 20th century. . . . loaded with heavy critiques of war and mental health treatment. . . . Leaves the reader wondering if the future will indeed repeat the past or if we will finally learn the hard lessons from what we have already painfully known”ZYZZYVA
“A fascinating read. . . Self’s prose is so beautiful and assured that it feels authentic even as it renders confusion. It’s a funny, sad, surreal novel that aims high and reaches most of its lofty goals. Modernism fans will be glad to see a current author who so strongly captures the form pioneered by Proust, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner, and Umbrella only falls short by comparison with those classics.”Onion-AV Club
“Brainy and outlandish, though still in the mainstream of modernist fiction, this book captures a number of eccentric voices and sends the reader running to the dictionary. . . . There’s a lyrical, rhapsodic element that continually pulls one into and through the narrative.”Kirkus Reviews
“Umbrella is a magnificent celebration of modernist prose, an epic account of the first world war, a frightening investigation into the pathology of mental illness, and the first true occasion when Self’s ambition and talent have produced something of real cultural significance. . . . [Umbrella] must be recognized as, above all, a virtuoso triumph of emotional and creative intelligence.”The Spectator
“There is a contemplative quality to the prose that feels new . . . but the content remains familiar: a Swiftian disgust with the body; a fastidious querulousness about human sexuality; a forcing of attention on human frailty . . . Undoubtedly Self’s most considered novel, as much a new beginning as a consolidation of everything he has written to date.”The Independent
“Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Self’s sweeping experimental new novel (after Walking to Hollywood) creaks under the weight of chaotic complexity. . . . With snippets of dialects, stylistic flourishes, and inventive phrases loose with meaning, for those that grab and hang on, the experience falls just shy of brilliant.”Publishers Weekly
“The Edwardian sections are the most lavishly engaging, with Self doing different voices like a schizophrenic music hall act. . . . In the course of the book the umbrella becomes a syringe, a penis, a fetish of the bourgeoisie, as one Edwardian socialist pompously declares it, and the novel itself an umbrella beneath whose canopy all manner of anxieties about technology and the body cram together.”Daily Telegraph
“Scattered thoughts of patient and doctor add layers of comprehension that a more straightforward telling might miss, and the writing often sizzles with invention.”Chicago Tribune Printers Row
“This is by far Will Self’s best novel; clever, intense, ambitious and risky.”The Scotsman
“Umbrella is an astonishing achievement, a novel of exhilarating linguistic invention and high moral seriousness. . . . This is a novel which will be read and re-read, as much for its emotional weight as its technical virtuosity. . . . With this book he reveals himself as the most determinedly and delightfully literary novelist of his generation.”Scotland on Sunday
“[Self] renders the texture of Audrey's London, its odors and colloquialisms, in vivid detail. . . . Perhaps in the story of Sacks' roused patients, Self saw a metaphor for his own attempts to resurrect the past, to give history a distinctive, earthy voice. In this he succeeds beautifully, writing with a new sophistication. The result is a stunning novel, and a compelling Self-reinvention.”The Independent on Sunday
“There are echoes of Joyce and Eliot, but also of Flaubert. . . . Umbrella is a complexly textured, conceptually forbidding thesis about the modern, its art and their discontents. This being Self, though, there is also a great deal of humor, much of it to do with the dismal, drugged, inhuman pass to which Busner’s patients have come after decades in their psychiatric ‘jail within a jail.’”New Statesman
“A surprisingly moving story of common people crushed by the state.”Metro
“If the realist novel welcomes you in, takes your coat, hat (and umbrella), shows you to a comfortable seat and gets you a gin and tonic, this book leaves you to let yourself in, sit yourself down (if you can find room) and get your own bloody drink if you insist on having one.”The Sunday Times
“This is not an easy read, but it is a major and unforgettable one . . . and, with it, the prolific maverick Self may have written his best book yet.”Booklist
“Umbrella is a 417-page, sprawling beast of contemporary Modernism, which many are claiming to be Self’s best yet.”Huffington Post (UK)
“Self fully embraces the fragmented and elliptical form with all its clutter and confusion, depth and dexterity. . . . Some passages trip off the tongue with a speed and ease that delights; others jar the senses. . . . Umbrella is epic in its scope.”The National
“What Self most brilliantly does is to construct a world antic with new technologies (many of them as bogus as the robotic huckster Enigmarelle) but a world in which the most prolific industrial commodity is that formerly artisanal and lovingly crafted thing degraded by mass production and mass consumption: the human self.”The Herald
“A work of unparalleled audacity, originality and utter perplexity . . . there are delightful tricks of language and linguistic acrobatics that take the reader by surprise.”Irish Times
“Not only was Self the man for the job writing this all-consuming, challenging book was probably something he could not help doing. . . . It is almost as if the book, fighting restrictive conventions, transcends its own, and its author’s, limits physical, gender, literary and opens up as a new structure, one of those ‘delicate and airy things’ whose ‘struts snap’ and ‘covers tear.’ It he, she may not be big enough to protect the whole of contemporary fiction from the elements, but is highly suitable for personal use.”3:AM Magazine
“You have to salute Self’s determination to challenge literature’s conventions so boldly.”The List
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I am finished with this book, but I read only a third of it. It will be the worst book I read this year. Will Self attempted to write this book using stream-of–consciousness, a technique invented by William Faulkner. However, the difference between William Faulkner and Will Self is dramatic. With Faulkner, every word counts and the story is told from a single perspective. Will Self inserts random gibberish including made-up words and changes the perspective chaotically between four characters across decades of time. This book is a departure from his earlier work. I have two theories as to how this book came to be written: 1. It was a bar bet between Will Self and his agent. Will was complaining to his agent that he wasn’t being paid enough and his publisher was not supporting him enough. His agent repied that he was being very well compensated and supported for a writer at this stage in his carreer. Will countered that he is a serious author whose reputation is so strong that he could write three hundred pages of pure gibberish and still be short listed for the Booker Award. He won £100 off his agent. 2. Will Self’s ego got the best of him. He thinks of himself as the Jackson Pollock of literature and would establish a post-modern stream-of-consciousness school of literature. But all he did was the literary equivalent of dribbling paint allover a canvas lying on the floor.