UMBRELLA. By Will Self.
Bloomsbury. 397pp. $27.99.
Reviewer: ANDREW RIEMER
Far too good to win the Booker? This extravagant and quirky novel is Will Self's most ambitious and most significant achievement to date. Its extravagance and quirkiness will come as no surprise to those who have enjoyed Self's earlier fiction. The Book of Dave, to cite just one example, is a futuristic fable about a country called Ingland, a theocracy whose tenets are based on the ravings of a London cabbie of the late 20th century that Dave, the cabbie, had inscribed on metal plates and buried in the garden of a Hampstead house - a latter-day Book of Mormon in short. The scope and intricacy of Umbrella outstrip, however, Self's earlier, equally idiosyncratic works.
Here the psychiatrist Zack Busner, who had tried to unscramble Dave's muddled brain, is in charge of a group of catatonic inmates of a London mental asylum. The time is the early 1970s, a period of rapid social change and political unrest. But Zack's elderly patients are wholly unaware of the stirring and difficult times through which they have vegetated. All of them were struck down by the mysterious sleeping sickness encephalitis lethargica, which spread over several parts of Europe just before the outbreak of Spanish influenza in 1919.
Dr Busner rouses these poor souls out of their affliction in the way that Oliver Sacks employed in the experiments described in Awakenings, and with the same dismal consequences. They emerge briefly from their by turns comatose and hyperactive states. Their episodes of twitching, repetitive movements and blind rage cease, they become rational creatures once more, puzzled by the brave new world into which they have blundered after half a century of slumber. Then the sky falls down and they sink once again into their former non-selves.
This sad history forms the core of Umbrella. Self reveals striking virtuosity in his descriptions of the tics and twitches and the other terrible torments that torture these living dead and the serenity that some of them achieve during their short-lived awakening. Yet the ambition behind this remarkable novel is far greater than the mere retelling of a familiar tale. The curse of the sleeping sickness that descended over Europe as the war to end all wars approached its end stands as an emblem of the mad sickness (or sick madness if it comes to that) of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st.
Audrey Death (whose surname was transformed by a bureaucratic muddle into Dearth) proves to be the most lucid of the patients Busner drags out of their black holes. The daughter of a conductor on the horse-drawn trams of 19th century London, Audrey found wartime employment at the Arsenal, the munitions factory that supplied the Western Front with often-defective ammunition. During the decades of her affliction, she repeated compulsively and ceaselessly the mechanical task at a lathe that came to define her being in the years before she sank into darkness. When she emerged from that oblivion, light was shed again on her former self and her former concerns and preoccupations.
Stan, one of Audrey's brothers was, like his sister, a devotee of late-19th-century Utopian socialism. He was lost, allegedly missing in action, somewhere in Flanders or Picardy. One of the strangest episodes of Umbrella describes Stan's possibly post-mortem experience in the trenches. Bert, the other brother - later the great Sir Albert De'Ath - rose through the ranks of the civil service (thanks to his extraordinary head for figures) to become the top-hatted chief of the munitions factory where Audrey toiled in the company of even less fortunate girls and women, those poisoned by the deadly chemicals they stuffed, day after day, into poorly cast shell-cases.
This family history of a kind is dispersed through a narrative as discontinuous and superficially inchoate as the demonic ballet of distraction Audrey and her fellow sufferers perform in the foul-smelling wards of their asylum.
Much else besides is caught up in the web of this complex novel - in particular Zack Busner's own history, his personal and professional tribulations (and a few ambiguous triumphs, too), his ambivalent feelings about his Jewish origins and his sense of the decay eating away at the fabric of the contemporary world, especially of London, the anthill where he has toiled all his life.
The publicity material accompanying this novel makes much of Self's attempt to revive the techniques of Modernism. Certainly, Umbrella displays many of the characteristic devices of modernist fiction: Joyce's ''stream of consciousness''; William Gaddis's trick of leaping forward (or back) from one decade to another and from one setting to the next in mid-sentence, in the gap between an adjective and a noun as it were; Proust's meandering digressions; Faulkner's riffs on obsessions and insanity; Kafka's labyrinthine surrealism; flickering images of city life - in the near-senile Zack's London of 2010 as much as in the London of the early 20th century - that have the same nightmarish effect as Alfred Doblin's (nowadays little known) masterpiece Berlin Alexanderplatz.
Like most modernist fiction, Umbrella demands alert and disciplined reading. Its lack of chapter divisions and its long paragraphs (peppered with outbursts of italic type) require a degree of concentration that many people are unwilling to grant to books these days. Yet this most impressive work repays the effort it asks of its readers. By turns hilarious and terrifying, savage and tender, Umbrella marks a significant stage in the development of one of the most talented of contemporary novelists.
As for the title: umbrellas crop up in all sorts of likely and unlikely places, including an epigraph from James Joyce, that most uncompromising of modernist masters.
The winner of the Man Booker Prize will be announced on Tuesday.