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Umbrella isn't going to be to everyone's taste. It is written in a meandering, stream of consciousness fashion where a sentence will start out telling one story in 1970 and end up telling a different story in the 1920s. It drifts in and out of present times without using conventional signposts such as tense. The punctuation is eccentric, use of paragraph breaks every dozen or so pages is haphazard at best and apart from that, you have a continuous block of text.

Most people are not going to like Umbrella because, on the surface, it seems difficult.

But if you can set aside your preconceptions, just read on through even if it feels a little hard to follow and it will all come together. At the heart of the text, Will Self has created a chugging rhythm that just keeps on going. If you stop, the rhythm stops - so just press on. And from that rhythm you get this kind of prose poetry emerging.

Enough pretentiousness. On with the plot.

Umbrella tells various stories. One is the history of the treatment of mental illness in the UK from the Edwardian times to the present day - from early days of the asylum as a sanctuary, through to containment, drugs, lobectomies, cognitive treatment and care in the community. Another story is the discovery of L-Dopa as a treatment for Parkinson's Disease - the miraculous cure that is accompanied by bizarre side effects and, after a year or so, a complete relapse. We follow Dr Zack Busner (from Self's earlier novel Great Apes) as he pioneers this L-Dopa treatment. And thirdly we have the life story of Audrey Death, an elderly Parkinsonian patient, and her brothers.

It is a very rich, interwoven and moving story. At times, it is richly comic and this is a wonderful counterpoint to the extremely harrowing stories that are being told. There is a good use of idiom and dialect (especially phonetically rendered cockney dialect) that creates a personal feel to what could otherwise have been rather a universal story.

What lifts Umbrella from the very good to the excellent is the heavy use of reference. However, this is likely to bewilder readers who are not of exactly Self's vintage, who have not been brought up in the UK, and do not know London. For example, would younger readers or overseas readers get the reference to The Grocer? But if you do get the references, they are an absolute joy and shine like jewels in a box of gold chains. There are references to Ulysses throughout. The half title page has a quote from Ulysses explaining the significance of Umbrellas. And my top tip: brush up on song titles from the 1960s! The references don't feel laboured. Each one feels as though it was put there from a sense of fun, a playfulness with language. Will Self's obvious pleasure in writing the novel comes through and rubs off on the reader.

Umbrella flies by, as though blown in the wind, but leaves a strong impression.

 

*****

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I'm a big fan what I've read of Self's other work, especially his short fiction, but have managed to resist buying this so far. I know my local library has an audio copy and I have found that this can sometimes be a way past any textual trickery like endless paragraphs and eccentric punctuation that a writer might choose to use. Given what you say about the prose's rhythms, Mr HG, sounds like audio might be the way to go for me. 

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I'm a big fan what I've read of Self's other work, especially his short fiction, but have managed to resist buying this so far. I know my local library has an audio copy and I have found that this can sometimes be a way past any textual trickery like endless paragraphs and eccentric punctuation that a writer might choose to use. Given what you say about the prose's rhythms, Mr HG, sounds like audio might be the way to go for me. 

As I remember, Gram, things often slip from one protagonist / era to another mid sentence. What could have been annoying was actually thrilling, but you needed to pay close attention. On audio I expect it will be a marked change of voice and accent, thus easier to keep up with.

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While Vic Wilcox, the macho middle manager in David Lodge's Nice Work, reckons that reading "is what you do when you come home from work, to relax", Robyn Penrose, the feminist academic in that novel, explains that "Difficulty generates meaning. It makes the reader work harder." According to her: "Reading is production. And what we produce is meaning."

 

Will Self's Umbrella is not for those seeking relaxation or escapism in their reading-matter. But it is unquestionably an astoundingly brilliant novel, refreshing the parts other novels cannot reach* (and indeed, in most cases, do not even try to reach).

 

I'm an ape man, I'm an ape-ape man… – although never directly explained, the opening words of Umbrella provide a key to the novel, and in more than one way. Ape Man, by the Kinks, was in the UK pop charts (as they were then known) in the early part of 1971, and the words from the song's chorus are among the myriad musings going through the mind of the psychiatrist Zack Busner as he arrives at work in a London mental hospital. This is where Dr Busner is to encounter one Audrey Death, a patient in the hospital for the best part of  the past fifty years, a victim of encephalitis lethargica in the years following World War I.

 

The allusion (one of scores of similar allusions and echoes, musical and otherwise, in the novel) is also a questioning of the difference between apes and humans (apart from being an obvious echo of Will Self's earlier novel, Great Apes, also featuring Zack Busner). The novel is constructed around Dr Busner's attempts to bring Audrey Death back to life, with the help of a  new psychotropic drug. With the hope of bringing her out of her basically subhuman state…

 

The novel then alternates between four points of view: that of Audrey herself, as a munitions factory worker in the early years of the twentieth century; the chronologically parallel experiences of her elder and younger brothers – the elder one a civil servant, the younger one sent off to fight in the killing fields of the war – ; and the predicaments of the professionally brilliant, and philanderingly unfaithful, Dr Busner in the early 70s; and, as a kind of fragmented coda, the same Dr Busner some forty years later, wondering about the value and meaning of his professional life, and finding the erstwhile hospital converted into lucratively luxurious apartments.

 

Umbrella is a brilliantly sustained flight of literary imagination. It is very far removed from those novels where different points of view are blatantly signalled by chapters headed "Claire", "William", "Esther", "Claire"… Here there are no chapters, and indeed precious few paragraph breaks, and the point of view may abruptly switch in mid-sentence (in one particularly notable example the "nought" at the end of a phone number becomes the grammatical subject of an entirely different sentence).

 

But, independently of its (essentially modernist) narrative techniques, Will Self's novel pays a tribute, mainly through Audrey and the less fortunate of her two brothers, Stanley, to those countless characters mentioned at the very end of George Eliot's Middlemarch, "who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs". Ordinary people, who are extraordinary if one takes the time to peer below the surface. As Dr Busner does.

 

Umbrella is without any question a brilliant tour de force. It shows Will Self to be, as the Boston Globe put it, "Britain's reigning poet of the night".

 

[*This reference was thrown in rather gratuitously. If you picked up on it, you'll probably enjoy Umbrella...]

Edited by jfp

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I'm glad you shared my passion for this, jfp. I discovered it through the Booker 2012 longlist and, for me, this shone out above all the other novels as the deserving winenr. In fact, I'd say it shone out as the deserving winner of all the novels longlisted for the past 5 years. It is a tragedy that the prize went to Bring Up The Boredom instead. I hope and trust that history will deem this an injustice of the magnitude of Atonement.

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I'm glad you shared my passion for this, jfp. I discovered it through the Booker 2012 longlist and, for me, this shone out above all the other novels as the deserving winenr. In fact, I'd say it shone out as the deserving winner of all the novels longlisted for the past 5 years. It is a tragedy that the prize went to Bring Up The Boredom instead. I hope and trust that history will deem this an injustice of the magnitude of Atonement.

Um, a little harsh, Mr HG! But I agree, Umbrella was brilliant and we need to keep telling the world.

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But if you can set aside your preconceptions, just read on through even if it feels a little hard to follow and it will all come together. At the heart of the text, Will Self has created a chugging rhythm that just keeps on going. If you stop, the rhythm stops - so just press on. And from that rhythm you get this kind of prose poetry emerging.

I started reading this months ago, after reading the reviews here. I was really enjoying it and raced through the first half (with a dictionary to hand, of course), but then stopped for a while and read something lighter, ‘The Rosie Project’ (also based on BGO reviews). I returned to ‘Umbrella’, but just couldn’t get into it again.

 

Re-reading this thread helped, and by MrHobgoblin’s advice, seems to have allowed me to stay in Self’s thought current and be carried along. Although I suspect that many references are splashing out along the route, I am once again enjoying the experience.

 

Last week Will Self gave the ‘Richard Hillary Memorial Lecture’ at my daughter’s former university college, so we went along. Some of you may have read it as it was also printed in the Guardian, ‘The Novel is Dead’.

 

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/02/will-self-novel-dead-literary-fiction

 

Hillary died, as a young Flight Lieutenant, in 1943, having been shot down also in 1940. In his introduction, Will started to relate Hillary’s life, and the waste of it, to ‘Umbrella’. He said that ‘Umbrella was loosely based on his own family over the same period, dealing particularly with the two World Wars. His next novel, ‘Shark’ follows ‘Umbrella’ loosely, with a third example of humans and war, Cambodia (not his family though).

 

He chose the name ‘Death’ because of its similarity to ‘Self’, an abstract noun that is uncommon as a name and makes one memorable, but can make others feel slightly uneasy at times.

 

Will Self, himself is good at that. He certainly had a few of his questioners squirming at the end. It is fair to say that their questions showed they had understood little of what he said, but it was an open lecture and anyone could attend, not just students and graduates. Never the less few of us would have been as rude and brusque as he was. I know he likes to be controversial and openly admits so, but I think his reaction was pure incredulity and despair. I don’t like his retorts and would never act in that way, but I do admire his honesty and integrity.

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Will Self seems to be one of those people, necessary to keep the rest of us thinking and reaching beyond ourselves; but by doing so has to propel us way beyond our comfortable thoughts and into downright discomfort. It must have been both awesome and excruciating to have been there, angel. Thanks for reporting back to us.

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Having just read this thread for the first time I am going to put Umbrella on my Wish List.  The reference to Ulysses is enough for me to want to read this although I have never read Will Self before.  Hope to report back in due course.

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Will Self seems to be one of those people, necessary to keep the rest of us thinking and reaching beyond ourselves; but by doing so has to propel us way beyond our comfortable thoughts and into downright discomfort. It must have been both awesome and excruciating to have been there, angel. Thanks for reporting back to us.

Perfectly put.

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Having just read this thread for the first time I am going to put Umbrella on my Wish List.  The reference to Ulysses is enough for me to want to read this although I have never read Will Self before.  Hope to report back in due course.

With 'Ulysses' and all the songs you know from your dancing, you'll probably understand many of the references, Barblue. Enjoy.

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"There is one question alone that you must ask yourself in order to establish whether the serious novel will still retain cultural primacy and centrality in another 20 years. This is the question: if you accept that by then the vast majority of text will be read in digital form on devices linked to the web, do you also believe that those readers will voluntarily choose to disable that connectivity? If your answer to this is no, then the death of the novel is sealed out of your own mouth."

 

That comment stuck with me from the Guardian article and agree Will shoves you out your comfort zone.

Not read Umbrella and later in the summer when on holiday hope to try it and determined not to give in like I did with The Book Of Dave

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"There is one question alone that you must ask yourself in order to establish whether the serious novel will still retain cultural primacy and centrality in another 20 years. This is the question: if you accept that by then the vast majority of text will be read in digital form on devices linked to the web, do you also believe that those readers will voluntarily choose to disable that connectivity? If your answer to this is no, then the death of the novel is sealed out of your own mouth."

 

That comment stuck with me from the Guardian article and agree Will shoves you out your comfort zone.

Not read Umbrella and later in the summer when on holiday hope to try it and determined not to give in like I did with The Book Of Dave

Spot on Clavain - in question time, Will Self kept referring back to that point as being the crux of the matter. When somebody said that he did manage to concentrate on just the novel when reading online he asked the man's age (34) and said that that was just about the borderline - anyone older was brought up to read in a single minded way, whereas those younger had always known two way technology, which brought about a different mindset, and took it for granted.

 

I'd better stop now as I don't want to lead us off topic for the thread!

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Will Self wrote:

 

"There is one question alone that you must ask yourself in order to establish whether the serious novel will still retain cultural primacy and centrality in another 20 years. This is the question: if you accept that by then the vast majority of text will be read in digital form on devices linked to the web, do you also believe that those readers will voluntarily choose to disable that connectivity? If your answer to this is no, then the death of the novel is sealed out of your own mouth."

 

An interesting point. On last year's Booker longlist, there was a book called The Kills, available as a text based novel but also as an on-line experience with hyperlinks to diagrams, maps, audio files and stuff. You can argue that this is still essentially one way - the author provides the material and directs the reader when and where to go, but it does allow for some illusion of interactivity.

 

I think, though, that Will Self is wrong. I think young people (ages 20-30) have always tended to shy away from novels as a reaction against being asked to read loads of stuff at school. But I think they come back as they discover the pleasure of an immersive experience like reading a novel. In a similar vein, people still watch films from beginning to end and are seldom bothered to look at the extras sections on DVDs. Some things just work better in a linear fashion, and reading a novel is one of those things.

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The more this book is discussed the more I want to read it.  It is currently on my Wish List so I hope some in the family buys it for me for my up-coming birthday. :yup: 

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