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Reviews

Umbrella

Clare Hobba

Will Self
Bloomsbury, 397pp

RSelf.jpgThe most noticeable feature of the Man Booker-shortlisted novel, Umbrella, is the method that Will Self has chosen to employ.  He has adopted the techniques of high modernism - the continuous present tense and the stream of consciousness. Nor is it the stream of consciousness of just one individual, but of several; the point of view from which the story is being told sometimes changes in mid-sentence.  Similarly, the time period leaps between the First World War, 1971, and 2010. Each of these is written in the continuous present. The text is peppered with phrases in italics which sometimes I recognise as quotes from popular songs or literature, but more often, don't. There are no sections, chapters, even paragraph indents.

Umbrella, then, is not an easy book to read. Its inclusion in this year's Man Booker shortlist is notable, as last year the judges were criticised for broadcasting a criterion of 'readability'. Umbrella may therefore be seen as an antidote.

The main pivot point of the story is in 1971 and it concerns the actions of Busner, a psychiatrist working at Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum in Barnet. He encounters a group of patients who suffered in the encephalitis epidemic which followed World War I. Instead of either dying or making a full recovery, these particular individuals lay in the twilight of semi-coma for decades.  In a reckless experiment Busner treats them with L-Dopa, a drug developed for Parkinson's disease, and miraculously, they are restored to consciousness. The fact that the reader may already know the pattern and outcome of this intervention through Oliver Sacks's famous account Awakenings makes it easier to follow Self's account. Stream of consciousness and the continuous present are not merely literary devices, but are also the state in which the post-encephalitics or 'enkies' find themselves since they do not have the blessing of unconsciousness during their semi-coma. Events from their lives replay and there is no relief from them.

We encounter aspects of the First World War through Audrey Death (later one of the 'enkies') who works in the toxic environment of a munitions factory; her brother Stan, who is a skilled machine-gunner, and her other brother, Albert, who climbs to an eminent position in Whitehall from where he deals death as a bureaucrat controlling arms manufacture.  Many readers will already have knowledge from literature, film and TV of the background and landscape of the war both on the home front and the frontline, so again, the challenging style of the narrative presents less of a barrier, depicting for us scenes we have beheld before.

As ever, Self gets carried away by the joy of airing his formidable vocabulary. For instance, the psychiatrist, Busner, uses many Latinised words for mental conditions and their symptoms. Unfortunately, technical terms sometimes escape into the narrative of the other characters, weakening the individuality of their particular voice, and voice is so crucial here where the reader has to jump point of view with no warning. Nevertheless, Self seems to be unable to resist sprinkling his recondite vocabulary around.

To me, the most touching part of Umbrella is the egalitarian Utopia that Stan Death imagines after he is caught by a shell blast. It has the same atmosphere as some of Stanley Spencer's paintings - Resurrection, Cookham and Love Among Nations - and the reader badly wants it to be real, a healing after so much carnage.

The title of the novel invites us to ask what the umbrella might be for Busner and for his patients. There are many references to umbrellas - Audrey Death's first job is in an umbrella factory and both a syringe and a penis are compared to umbrellas.  However, two images of umbrellas stand out as particularly powerful.  One is that of the medley of drugs, referred to as an 'umbrella' under the shelter of which the mental patients are kept safe from harming themselves or others. Their distress is alleviated at the expense of a dulling of their senses. There is also the safety offered by the vast Victorian mental hospital itself with its miles of corridors, almost a town in its own right. The focus is very much on the post-encephalitic patients without much musing on the mixed blessings and disadvantages of these huge establishments for the mentally ill. However, when Busner visits and finds the site of the old hospital turned over to luxury apartments and renamed Princess Park Manor (where, so Wikipedia claims, Ashley Cole met Cheryl Tweedy), one wonders how so many wards and staff can have been completely replaced by 'care in the community'.

Also, at the start, Self quotes James Joyce: 'A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella'. Of the three siblings of the Death family whom the novel follows, only Albert, the eminent Whitehall official changes his name to De'Ath and in doing so, sheds the brother and sister whose working class allegiances embarrass him. He is also the most long-lived of the family. By changing his name, has he managed to cheat Death?

One of the strengths of Umbrella is that it sweeps effortlessly over the ethical minefields of the First World War and of the experiments with L-Dopa.  Because of the use of the continuous present, we have an understanding of the motivations operating on each protagonist at the time.  Much of the moral and ethical debate is not rehearsed in the narrative, but left to the judgement of the reader, finding them contemplating the interconnected scenes and consequences long after coming to the end of the book.

Clare F Hobba