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Will Self’s new novel a demanding read, but well worth it

Will Self
Grove Press

There's really only one question to ask of Will Self's Umbrella, just out in North America after having been short-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize: Does Umbrella justify the challenging manner of its presentation?

Stretching from the Edwardian era to our more recent credit crunch, Umbrella tells the story of Audrey Death, a victim of the encephalitis lethargica epidemic that afflicted Europe in the immediate aftermath of the Great War, and the man who treats her. Catatonic for decades, Audrey is briefly awakened in 1971 through the Oliver Sacks-like clinical intervention of Dr. Zachary Busner, a recurring character in Self's fiction.

After an early flirtation with the radical ideas of maverick psychiatrists like R.D. Laing, Busner finds himself mired on the fringes of professional respectability. Working with the long-forgotten patients, he observes that their stupor is hardly passive, punctuated as it is with spasms, twitches, murmurings, pants and yawps.

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It's only after isolating their repetitive and mechanical behaviours on film that Busner makes a diagnostic breakthrough. By slowing down or speeding up the film, he renders the seemingly involuntary and reflexive gestures intelligible. Audrey's tics, for example, turn out to replicate exactly the movements she made operating a lathe in an armament factory during the Great War. The "enkies," as Busner calls them, suffer from a peculiar form of locked-in syndrome, which he is able to treat with liberal doses of L-DOPA, restoring them to the world, if only fleetingly.

Though he has stumbled on a course of treatment, Busner has no real sense of the causal mechanism responsible for the enkies suffering. This uncertainty provides the mystery that drives the narrative as well as the rationale for Umbrella's formal daring.

Clocking in at nearly 400 pages of continuous, chapterless prose, Umbrella offers a formidable test for even the keenly attentive reader. The narrative flows in a stream of consciousness; we aren't so much told what is happening as flooded by a rush of physical perception, emotional reaction and intellectual reflection, not to mention the torrents and eddies of distraction, evasion and reminiscence.

It's a virtuoso performance, but the real challenge is managing the multiple points of view. Zach Busner's perspective slips between 1971 and 2010, when the retired psychiatrist decides to take a day trip to his old workplace (now a luxury condo development) in order to make sense of his long-ago accomplishments … and his failure to sustain them.

The narrative also encompasses Audrey Death's point of view as she recalls her London childhood and contradictory career as a fervent feminist and pacifist who nonetheless serves the war effort as a Thomasina, a munitions worker busily arming the trench-bound Tommies on the Western Front.

Braided into Audrey's account are those of her brothers. Albert is a coolly calculating savant who ends up directing the munitions factory where his sister serves as a mere cog. Stanley is a shell-shocked machine gunner lost in the Somme in 1916, and the subject of some of the novel's most startling and memorable passages, notably a fantastic scene where the traumatized soldier simultaneously attends a garden party and endures an artillery barrage.

Self weaves together disparate voices so seamlessly that it's often difficult to pinpoint where one account ends and another begins. For that reason, Umbrella is certainly deserving of the accolades it has received, but there's more going on here than a display of formal dexterity. Style reflects substance. Self's exuberance of invention is entirely appropriate to his subject in that it disorients the reader, who experiences identity as porous and permeable, the individual fractured and reconstituted in the twin forges of industrialization and institutionalization. For what is the quintessentially modern experience if not a sense of vertigo, a profound uncertainty about our place in a world rendered radically new by technologies that shrink distance and accelerate time?

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In a world, moreover, racked by war and soaked in blood? Self uses encephalitis lethargica to explore our modern disorder; "embodied in these poor sufferers' shaking frames was the entire mechanical age," he writes, "the stop/start, the on/off, the 0/1, of a two-step with technology […] the binary blizzard that would blow through humanity's consciousness."

Matt Kavanagh previously reviewed The Book of Dave in these pages.

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