“It’s Progress That’s The Real Delusion”: Will Self’s “Umbrella”

In an interview with the Edinburgh Festivals published last year, Will Self huffed and puffed: “I hate umbrellas. I’m just the right height to get poked in the eye. I’ve never had an umbrella. Hate them.” It’s impossible not to remember this line, perhaps muttered off the cuff to an ill-prepared journo during an artificial recreation of Self’s famed tramps through the capital (or, dear reader, perhaps not), when reading his new book. In part, this is because it is entitled Umbrella. On the other hand, it’s because Umbrella is a novel that likes to poke the reader in the eye.

Ostensibly the story of Audrey Death, a twenty-something suffragette who at the dawn of the First World War goes to work in a munitions factory whilst her two brothers – the earthy science fiction-reading Stanley, sent to the trenches, and Albert, the eidetic civil servant managing the war from home – undergo two wildly different fates, Umbrella in fact takes place over three time periods: 1917, 1971 (when Audrey is Sacksishly awoken by Self’s recurring psychiatrist, Zack Busner, from an encephalitic sleep, having “borne the brunt of every successive wave of psychiatric opinion” [pg. 120]), and 2010, with Busner looking back on Audrey and the twentieth century with confusion and trepidation. In book blurb, interview and essay alike, Self has helpfully glossed this novel of Death’s century (geddit?) as taking up “the challenge of Modernism”, and the novel is indeed told in the kind of chapterless, paragraphless, tractionless mode invented by James Joyce.

Now, look: if I am not quite of the Dale Peck school of thought on the matter of Ulysses (“it all went wrong with Joyce”), I am certainly not convinced that modernism is the best means of representing consciousness – and certainly sceptical that it is the only way of unravelling “new and unsettling truths about our world”. We have, pace the Booker shortlist’s omission of Nicola Barker’s The Yips, moved on. All of this may mean I am not the ideal reader to assess the success of such a project, but Self is himself no Luddite, and so it is difficult not on one level to understand Umbrella as a kind of joke played on the literati, and upon the reader: “it was always, he thought, the fucking Irish”, Stan muses ruefully [pg. 150].  On the other hand, Joyce is not the only Modernist (even if Umbrella occasionally reads as if he is), and in particular the radical humanity of Woolf still has something to teach the modern novel. Self’s horror at the mechanised anonymity of the 20th century (“how can anything be beautiful or noble or romantic when it’s [all] the same?” [pg. 50] despairs Audrey, later reflecting that “impersonal tenderness and scientific concern” are “how she imagines the future for womankind [pg. 107]) is a potent encomium for the thwarted human spirit:

This, Zack had thought, is the whole of the twentieth century thus far: a white sheet thrown over our heady hopes, our disturbed dreams, our fleshly desires – with no sense of smell we touch only plush skin, rub it in, gargle the mucal ice cream deep in our throats, but without pleasure … This is our crisis of fixed regard: the zeppelin crashes to the cold earth again and again, a cathedral of rumpled buttresses, flaming arches, burning beams. [pg. 321]

But, but, but. The zeppelin, that canvas stretched over arching struts, is the umbrella (that nasty bit of extraneous technology) writ large, and Self has teased that his novel, too, shares this construction: beams of narrative proceeding, spoke-like, out of a central event; but a zeppelin also, of course, resembles the umbrella not at all – and Self’s novel, not coincidentally, reads for the most part as entirely without structure. Take the italics in that paragraph above: Jon Day has made a decent stab in the LRB at divining their purpose, suggesting they represent the characters’ consciousness breaking through the more general narrative voice; but in truth, whether snippets of song lyrics or great spurtings of over-written insistence (all that mucal ice cream), they come almost at random, adding little except texture to the page. There are awful lapses in this book’s prose – “the sun was out, still puissant enough to raise will-o’-the-wisps from the flowery meadows they clopped beside” [pg. 151], and “the caged bird fluttercheeps” [pg. 65] – which simply are not mitigated by a design only hinted at.

Perhaps this is deliberate. At Balham station, Stanley observes a fellow soldier: “Willis is snoring fitfully – he is an engine with no traction on the present, no means of drawing it into the future” [pg. 153]. This mechanical paralysis (evoked, in this interpretation of the novel-as-trick, by the pastiche idiom) is a recurring theme: in her encephalitic sleep, and like all her other fellow patients mistakenly locked away in an insane asylum, Audrey obsessively repeats a motion bewildering to her doctors but clear to the reader as the movements she learned by rote in the munitions factory; “repetitive actions sustained equally repetitive reveries,” we are told [pg. 164], and Umbrella‘s conception of modernity essentially comes to be one of obsessive compulsiveness, endlessly repeating the same mechanical rhythms without significant progress or change (again we come to doubt if Self really believes all this guff about reviving high modernism). Inspired by pulp SF, Stanley promises Audrey that “in twenty years’ time everyone will be an aeronaunt, Colonel Cody will perfect his war kite and there’ll be gazzetted aeroplane connectin’ all the cities of the Empire” [pg. 62] – in fact, of course, we are still waiting for our future. For Self, our fates are more properly set by our past (“a time bomb was primed in the future and planted in the past” [pg. 14]), and by our eternal present  (“Each era … new and old blended … the utterly familiar paintjob slapped on” [pg. 242]).

Self’s justification for this vision, and thus for his Joycean expression of it, however, is slim – in 1918, we glimpse “an advertisement for Germolene so large its letters loop across the end wall of an entire four-storey block” [pg. 59], and in 2010 we experience the realisation that “the post-encephalitics’ akinesia and festination had been the stop/start, the on/off, the 0/1, of a two-step with technology” [pg. 395]. Of course, Self’s novel – full of mid-sentence shifts in time (“he awakens to find himself an old man” [pg. 29]) and orthographic accents to make Thomas Hardy blush (“Or-dree, Or-dree, Ordee’s mammy gorrersel knocked up by a navvy!” [pg. 25]) – has a defense against this scepticism: it accuses the reader of Not Getting It. “Mind, Busner suspects, cannot possibly assimilate all this confusion – repels it in fact.” [pg. 376]   This from a novel so comfortable with cliché - “y’know Corporal,” opines a soldier at the front to Stanley, “that Frenchie and me, we were regulars, we’d seen war but it was war with hard blows and straight dealings – now we both knew, as we looked upon that curtain of fire, that everything had changed” [pg. 227] – that it just comes out and admits it: “simply because they were truisms, it didn’t mean they weren’t … true.” [pg. 396]   Sam Leith, a usually wise counsel, is intimidated enough to argue that Umbrella exhibits “an ambition of technique that I haven’t seen in him before”, but Self is surely just pulling our chain.

Which is fine, so far as it goes: Umbrella is in large part a satire, particularly of psychiatry and psychiatrists, which, like literature itself, offer such insufficient explanations for our modern condition (the post-modern here being banished). “They are possessed, he thinks,” we read of Busner’s diagnosis of the encephalitics, “by ancient subpersonalities, the neural building-blocks of the psyche” [pg. 13]; but this sort of erstaz, textbook Freudianism, “employing vocabulary purged of any upsetting words” [pg. 5], is insufficient to its task. (When Audrey awakes, she is left repeatedly to switch the lights on and off, squawking, “It’s magic! [...] I do honestly believe it to be magic!” Busner sees this as a success. [pg. 300]) In short, banality may be part of Self’s project. But the novel lapses too regularly. Is the slickness of “Albert picks up the tankard from the table where he’d placed it among a slew of his tools: metal rulers, propelling pencils, slide rules, dividers … Audrey thinks: She hasn’t got the measure of him” [pg. 353] really, truly an evocation of modernism? Isn’t the jolly wit of “he wheezes wordy notes – he has swallowed the consumptive’s harmonium” [pg. 65] more Johnson than Joyce? And isn’t the following simply fluff, frankly unable to add meaning or metre to what is a staid old evocation of the English class system?

As it is, while Albert’s coat may be comme il faut for the Second Division – well cut by a tailor in Swallow Street – the cuffs of his trousers are a long way off on the rug, and fraying, something probably seen plainly enough by the grandees who peer down from the library walls with soon-to-be-cashiered eyes. The grandees lean on marmoreal pillars, ignoring open tomes and laughing their Harrovian laughs, A-ho-ho! A-ho-ho! at the upstart. [pg 111]

Really, this is too much: it’s the sort of pseudishness that might attract a Booker panel looking to burnish its high literary credentials, but it is also a great upwelling of verbiage designed to disguise – or, if Self is playing an elaborate joke on us, draw attention to – thin material. In his essay on modernism for the Guardian, Self has derided the contemporary novel, suggesting it is “as fusty as Victorian drawing rooms cluttered with over-stuffed furniture, and glass domes beneath which once-fluttering thoughts had been imprisoned”. He might be right; but retreating into a century-old mode of writing and pretending that style alone can enliven the same old content – the War, the mechanical, class and gender – is no solution, either. If Umbrella is a joke – on the reader, on the literati, on the novel - it is an unfunny and bathetic one; if it is meant as a serious repositioning of literature, it is misconceived. Self was probably right to avoid umbrellas.

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