Warning: “Umbrella” is what’s known as a “difficult” novel. If that sounds as appealing as a difficult pregnancy, stop reading now. But if you enjoy challenges, in literature as well as life, read on because “Umbrella,” which was a finalist for this year’s Booker Prize, is a virtuosic performance.
The story itself is not difficult to follow. It concerns a woman named Audrey De’Ath (changed to “Death” and then “Dearth” by her caretakers), a lively, redheaded Londoner who comes of age during World War I, works in a munitions factory, gets caught up in socialism and “free love,” and then falls victim to encephalitis lethargica, an epidemic that raged through Europe and England between 1915 and 1926, killing a third of its victims and leaving the rest in a somnolent state with symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. She is confined to a mental hospital in 1922, and remains there, “mind out of time,” until 1971, when a young clinician named Zach Busner awakens this sleeping beauty with a drug called L-dopa. The cure is temporary, however. The patients relapse, and decades later — on April 8, 2010, to be exact — Busner thinks back on all this as he visits his old hospital, which is nowa complex of luxury apartments.
The story also branches out to include Zach’s marriage problems, harrowing accounts of how the mentally ill were mistreated, and the careers of Audrey’s two brothers, one of whom becomes a bloodless technocrat and the other a forward-thinking soldier in the Great War. (Fans of World War I fiction will not want to miss the military passages, gruesomely realistic depictions of what life on the front was like.)
What makes Will Self’s novel challenging is its nonlinear form and stream-of-consciousness style. The story opens in the spring of 1971 but thereafter time-travels back and forth between Audrey’s Edwardian childhood and 2010, jumping mid-sentence from one era to another with no chapter breaks and precious few paragraphs indents to guide the reader.
And all this is narrated in the allusive, sensory-overloaded style associated with Joyce’s “Ulysses.” (The epigraph comes from a line in that novel: “A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella.”) Self’s narration is a heady mixture of closely observed (and deeply researched) period details, colorful imagery, surrealistic juxtapositions, British slang and italicized interjections such as this: “his arm Bill Sikes upraised to another dog — or a dog spliced with a child that howls, then coughs, the Coniston’s catching in its throat, before loping off along an alleyway past a stinking shambles where there are staved-in casks, a shed-on-stilts, and beneath this a pyramid made from horse’s skulls, some flayed entirely except for their twitching ears. The dog-child gives a last despairing hooooooooooooooooowl and is gone into the August-evening quiet of the city that lies splayed there under the dirty orange of its senescent sky.”
Joyce and other modernists adopted a new style because they felt the old ways were inadequate to convey the paradigm-shifting changes underway at the beginning of the 20th century. Self seems to agree with those modernists who feared technological advances would oppress “the human spirit and the human body.” He implies that Audrey and others were martyrs to inventions that did not free “well-fed and healthy folk . . . from material want” but only resulted in “the maceration of bodies and the grinding up of souls.” Self’s metaphor-mad mind finds mechanization recalibrating nearly every aspect of life, especially the sexualization of weaponry.
This material isn’t particularly new: Oliver Sacks dealt with the same sleeping sickness and its treatment in “Awakenings,” and fears of technological advances have been expressed at almost every stage of history. What’s admirable about “Umbrella” is Self’s ingenious treatment of his material: He welds form with content, using modernist techniques to deal with an epidemic that occurred during the heyday of modernism, an approach that can be as puzzling to readers as encephalitis lethargica was to physicians. Like Dr. Busner examining photographs of his patients’ compulsive-repetitive actions, the reader may cry out, “This is incomprehensible, this intercutting of time.” But Self’s wildly nonlinear narrative offers other delights: richly detailed settings that bring the Edwardian era and mental hospitals sensuously alive, kaleidoscopic patterns of symbolism (umbrellas assume all sorts of forms and functions), and loads of mordant satire. Yes, “Umbrella” is a “difficult” novel, but it amply rewards the effort.
Moore is the author of “The Novel: An Alternative History.”
By Will Self
Grove. 397 pp. $25