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Struggling to make sense of Will Self’s ‘Umbrella’

The English writer, Will Self (1961), uses a quote from James Joyce about an umbrella to begin his impressionistic novel, “Umbrella.”

Joyce wrote, “A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella.” And Stanislaus, one of Joyce’s brothers, could verify the quote’s accuracy, except for when James wanted money or a favor from him, which was often.

In a sense, Will Self asks a favor from his readers as well. He wants us to spend a good deal of our time accommodating his interest in psychiatry, mental illness, drugs and death in his free-wheeling, stream-of-consciousness novel, “Umbrella,” where rules of grammar and breaks between chapters are infrequent.

Is reading about the maverick psychiatrist, Zachery Busner, a stock character in Self’s repertoire of earlier books, worth it? You decide.

My view: I like the novel but it’s a chore to make sense of it all.

“Umbrella” covers three time periods, the first beginning in London in April 2010, where Dr. Busner thinks back to the summer of 1971.

It was that year that he was experimenting with L-DOPA, a drug now used to treat patients with Parkinson’s disease. Busner was using it on mental patients with brain disease.

To appreciate the extensive historical references, the reader is required to have a sense of English social history and period detail, much as the reader of Joyce’s “Ulysses” would be required to know or learn about Dublin as it existed on June 16, 1904, the day celebrated in Joyce’s classic.

“Umbrella” opens with Busner making rounds as the new man in a London psychiatric hospital. Here is a brief piece from that section to give you a feeling for the prose.

As the two psychiatrists walk the corridors, an older colleague named Whitcomb advises Busner about what to expect of patients under his care.

Whitcomb says:

“This is at the corner where the western corner intersects a rounded corner worn down by lurch-upon-lurch - No! It was designed this way to stop them killing themselves, which they will do. And get used to it, Whitcomb had said perkily from behind his plastic comb moustache, because you’ll have to deal with a great many more. That’s just the way - how it is. A great shame - but how it is. Hanging may’ve been repealed by Parliament. He puffed small and aromatic clouds of cosmic faux pas ... but it remains the number one method of execution in here - this decade is proving quite as swinging as the last!”

Or, try another set of sensory word images, to see if you wish to abide the images.

“Apart from that smell, faecal, certainly, but antiseptically chemical too, with an ammoniac note of floor polish - a still more intense blending of the odour that emanated from the pores, mouths and hidden vents of the inmates confined to the first psychiatric ward Bushner had ever visited more than a decade before, where he had student-foolishly inquired, what’s that smell?”

The “take-away” is that Self’s writing can be riveting, although you’ll have to wade through broad swaths of indelicacies to appreciate it.

One of his patients, Audrey Death and two members of her family, Albert and Stanley, evoke during treatment the third and most distant time period, the Edwardian era, the early 1900s and thereafter. The other periods are the early 1970s and 2010.

Audrey worked in an umbrella shop and in old age exhibits a strange physical tic: rapid, precise movements that she repeats over and over.

Busner discovers too late that the films he made of post-encephalitic patients, specifically the one of Audrey Death operating her invisible lathe “…embodied in these poor sufferers’ shaking frames … the entire mechanical age - the post-encephalitics’ akinesia and festination has been the stop/start, the on/off, the 0/1, of a two-step with technology, and she, Audrey, anticipated it!”

But he has failed her in not recognizing the connection.

In death, Audrey levels a last look at Busner: “her thin metal ribs and struts all furled in the stained folds of her old silken skin. His very own. Sleeping Beauty. her neck, gripped in the kyphotic vice of her extreme old age, curves up and over into a hook, so that leveled at him is its own blunt and accusatory end.”

Nick Rennison, who writes for the Sunday Times, gives us a bit of background on Will Self.

He explains that the author “is an Oxford-educated, middle-class metropolitan who, despite his protestations to the contrary in interviews, is about as much at the heart of the establishment as you can get, a place he has occupied almost from the start of his career.”

My conclusion is that Self’s lobbing bombs of social criticism from inside an asylum – an awkward position for a critic - is as hard on his literary “throwing arm” as it is on his readers, stretching their wits to catch the nuance.

“Umbrella” is not easily forgotten. Artistically, it is a brave piece of work recently short-listed for the Man-Booker Prize. But, like “Ulysses” to some,ww perhaps more commented upon as complicated and head-scratching than read.


By Will Self

Grove Press

448 pages, $30.50

Michael D. Langan is a veteran News book reviewer.