If you have ever wondered whether a book can hate you, Will Self’s Umbrella will bless you with a densely voiced, slightly illegible but resounding yes. This novel hates you on every page, unconditionally and with a passion. It hates your cute haircut and the soft expression in your eyes. It hates the immature cuticles on your fingers. It hates the way you read, the way you try to skip the thorniest passages and get to the meatiest parts – those that would be ‘interesting’ or even ‘understandable’. Primarily, it hates your guts. To the extent that the way with Umbrella is to try and win its trust and maybe even affection – by tightly gripping the book, by holding on and believing in that big, old-fashioned sacrifice for the sake of art. Because this really is your only chance.
Take almost any contemporary writer of note and a few Bookers (well, maybe of shortlisted fame – like Mr. Self himself), and you will see that underneath all that ‘higher voice’ and artistic integrity, there’s a great desire to be loved. It’s give or take with ‘understood’, but to be liked is a must. The plots and the prose are there spreading their legs for you or at least smirking adorably for some kind of love and enjoyment. With Will Self, there’s just no such thing. Here is a man who simply doesn’t care. Which isn’t really so hard to do when you are a young artist who is really more young than an artist. But when you are someone as established as Will Self is, when you write 1000 published words every day (this is according to a recent interview with the man), that’s a completely different story. It means shortlisted is as far as you are ever going to get. It means University and college courses will faithfully snub your works. It means people will either love or hate you.
It’s more like love for me, but by no means has it been a perfect record. While I consider myself a huge fan of Will Self’s writing (and that includes his fiction as well as his journalism), I do admit that The Book Of Dave is there lying somewhere eyeing me with disdain. I still believe that novel needs a rope, a gun and a machete. Well, perhaps one day.
This time, however, I was quickly and ruthlessly won over by the single and singular metaphor that so expertly and so poetically ties the whole book together. First you read it as the novel’s title on the cover or elsewhere. Then you have a passing crush on it when you see it in the epigraph. (James Joyce’s timeless quote: “A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella”.) Then you see it under various guises throughout the book: it could be a syringe and it could be a penis. It could be many things, and if you are more intrigued than enlightened, that’s not such a bad thing either.
And then there’s of course the actual novel. It’s never too easy, is it, and I can still hear my mind noisily resisting the humourlessly lush prose huge on words (in all their endless manifestations), lacking in paragraphs and threaded with merciless cursives that on occasion appear so sudden and so random. Except they aren’t, so do try to hang on to these three interwoven narratives, time periods and characters. The 1918 story of Audrey Death, a munitions worker and a feminist, who falls victim to a severe epidemic of encephalitis lethargica, can so easily ooze into an interior monologue of Dr. Zack Busner, a retired psychiatrist who in 2010 looks back on his work (namely 1971) in Friern Mental Hospital where a strong drug helped him awake his post-encephalitic patients – including Audrey Death. It’s one hell of a read, one that is fascinating rather than engaging. It’s a bit like David Lynch’s Inland Empire without any visual aids or depictions of immaculate female breasts to help you weather the storm. You don’t see anything but the language – but the language is good. Illegible not by accident but by design, Will Self’s writing is a congested jungle of words that barely give you a chance to let a page slip by, take a break or even breathe. Still, as long as you can run into jewel observations like “old age is a form of institulisation” or “it’s a matter of time – how you understand time”, you should be doing okay. It’s basically your stamina, your attention, your intuition and your love of art. Speaking of which, Umbrella is so offensively, so deliberately pretentious that it slaps you with that word (a-r-t) as tirelessly and consistently as a gloved hand of an erudite boxer.
However, it would be a sign of bad taste to decry pretentiousness in such a daring novel. Interestingly, excluding a boy with an iPad and a few other details, Umbrella could have been written back in the 1920s by an especially snotty and edgy Modernist inspired by nothing else but determination and self-belief. Which means, I guess, that Will Self achieved whatever he had set out to achieve. I mean, how many writers these days are prepared to go this far? Martin Amis tried and failed with Yellow Dog. Kazuo Ishiguro did well with a much more modest The Unconsoled. But it’s Will Self that had the guts to take the top prize. Even if, technically, he was stalled at the shortlist stage.
Maybe it’s way too easy forget these days that art can, and perhaps should, be challenging. Hell, even difficult. Will Self himself has admitted that it’s a difficult book. One, however, I will give any number of literary awards to (not that he will need them). And before I sign off and urge you to read the damned thing, as insistently as I only could, I would like to stress yet again that this novel is not entertainment. Nor needs to be. But do believe me: bruised and beaten, you will somehow find solace in that.