Books Magazine

Will Self’s Umbrella is Baffling and Brilliant, Say Critics

By Periscope @periscopepost
Will Self's new novel is brilliant Will Self’s new novel is brilliant. Photocredit: englishpen

The background

Will Self’s new novel, Umbrella, has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It’s his first novel to make the list, and is a typically sprawling work that spans a hundred years. In 1918, Audrey Death, a suffragette, succumbs to Encephalitis lethargica (sleeping sickness), which makes her catatonic; the wanderings of her mind make up one part of the book. The second strand concerns Zack Busner (a Self favourite) who gives Death a drug, L-dopa, which causes her to reawaken. There are no breaks or chapters, and the book discusses reawakenings and, well, everything. Critics are delighted by Self’s ornate prose and newly found stateliness; some even suggest that this may be the book that brings him more prominence as a writer, rather than a TV pundit.

“A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella.” James Joyce; the epigraph to Umbrella.

A schizophrenic music hall act

Lucy Daniel in The Telegraph said that each “leap” of the narrative jolted “the reader unexpectedly out of kilter.” We emerge, “like the awakening patients,” into “an altered state of mind.” The book is “both a homage to and an engagement with modernist fiction of the Twenties.” Self does “different voices like a schizophrenic music hall act.” It’s “refreshing” to read such a book. “The reader is snagged on moments of brilliance, and, most thrilling of all, left to make her own connections.”

Thesaurus-gorged sentences

Self switches his focus “between sentences or, sometimes, during them,” wrote Mark Lawson in The Guardian. But this structure is “encouraged by the subject-matter.” It’s also a “sharp literary joke” – Audrey, being comatose, missed out on modernism – yet her “story is being told in a fashion that is, like most of her startling 1970s surroundings, foreign to her.” Hard work is demanded of the reader, but “it is always rewarded.” The narrative is “coherent and beguiling.” Sure, there are “a few of the thesaurus-gorged sentences that inflame his detractors,” but it’s still “magnificent.”

Making something new out of Modernism

Explicitly tackling Modernism, said Matt Thorne in The Independent, Self is making something new. The book is “a combination of the dryly comic and grotesque,” but there’s also “a new stateliness.” The content is “familiar: a Swiftian disgust with the body; a fastidious querulousness about human sexuality; a forcing of attention on human frailty.” It is, too, “very English.” This is “undoubtedly Self’s most considered novel.”

 A new Sleeping Beauty

It’s Sleeping Beauty, said Jake Kerridge in The Express, or at least, a retelling of it. And, whilst it’s “occasionally baffling and even infuriating,” it does work “like a good dose of l-dopa, waking you up and making you see familiar things in a new way.”

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