Umbrella by Will Self
With its epigraph from Ulysses and a revealing synopsis printed in the book’s front-endpapers, it is apparent from the start that Will Self’s Umbrella (shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize) will not be an easy read. The endpapers forewarn of three timelines revolving around the encephalitic and curiously-named Audrey Death: one following her early-20th century youth, one focused on her time under Dr. Busner’s care in 1971 (when he woke her up with an unconventional chemical treatment), and finally, a thread in the year 2010 which follows an aged, retired Dr. Busner long after Audrey’s passing. Flipping through the book will reveal an intimidating lack of paragraph breaks, chapter headings, and any feasible way to differentiate between these three threads.
Meandering across four hundred pages, Umbrella is a riverrun of Joycean free-flow and actually shifts in midsentence between the three previously outlined timelines. The novel opens in the seventies and drifts from Busner’s mind into his brain-dead patient, deep into her childhood memories. And suddenly, these recollections fade and become the hazy reflections of Busner in his old age. In Umbrella, memories can even trigger daydreams from other characters, unfolding in a prismatic diffusion: “Stuck in the present’s flesh are the looking-glass fragments of a devastating explosion: a time bomb was primed in the future and planted in the past.”
But these temporal hurdles hardly slow Self down: he consistently shifts between these threads with effortless, seamless grace. Certain Proustian smells or feelings derail the text from track to track: in an early scene, Busner checks Audrey’s vitals and initiates a rhapsodic foray into her childhood:
“…Now the cold dial of his sphygmomanometer lies cold against her neck and smells still fishy, — she had found it together with plenty of others underneath the fishmonger’s cart and there were more in the gutter in front of the Leg of Lamb, a mean little gaff, her father said of it, a grog shop for the navvies and shonks, but Audrey thought the low weatherboard building — little more than a shack — had a romantic air, not that she altogether understood what this was…”
Sentences in Umbrella often end dizzyingly far from where they began, and demand careful reading (and, at times, re-reading). Although exceptionally difficult, Umbrella is a remarkable achievement that showcases the limitless reality of language and composition.
Eventually, a fourth thread emerges from Umbrella and results in somewhat of a lopsided read (if that’s even possible with such an amorphous book). Stanley Death, Audrey’s brother, emerges as a protagonist and leads Umbrella through scenes of World War I without any direct physical connection to Audrey — she’s working in the arsenal while he’s in the trenches, but they don’t often share the same experiences. This is a strange deviation from the tight, tripartite threading of Busner, his younger self, and Audrey, but Stanley’s story opens up new themes of personal and familial connections. It seems Self wants his readers to ponder the tenets of brotherhood and shared experience (the epigraph from Ulysses does in fact say “A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella”), but Stanley’s importance doesn’t come through as deliberately as Self may have hoped. He pulls the novel away from the more compelling story of Audrey and Busner.
The most exciting thing about Umbrella is that Self leaves much of the book’s interpretive substance in his readers’ hands. If undeterred by the staggering inaccessibility of the novel, one can find an impressive network of themes, words, and memories strung between each of Umbrella’s timelines. Put these connections and overlays in the context of collective consciousness and shared memories and Umbrella becomes something deeply discussion-worthy, an enigmatic statement on synchronicity and the human experience.
Take the puzzling italics that Self riddles through his novel: these read at times like a character’s subjective thoughts snuck into a thread of a different tone (for instance, Audrey’s remarks above that the Leg of Lamb had a “romantic air”). What happens when those italicized emphatics appear, nearly word-for-word, in another character’s thread, describing an entirely different experience in the same “unique” way? In one scene, Stanley considers his war-worn, trench-rotten feet as “the colour of brisket five days old,” a phrase Dr. Busner uses a handful of pages earlier (and nearly forty years later) to describe the state of one of his patients. This is just one example of many, but provides a glimpse of the depths Umbrella can offer.
Umbrella is a novel full of wormholes, a maddening cross between high literature and string theory. Memories loop across timelines and suck readers through distant tangents, reveling in a glorious non-linearity that somehow feels fully formed. While difficult to break into, Umbrella is an inspiring and challenging experience, worthy of any supplemental essays, criticism, and charts that might emerge in years to come.