Will Self’s ninth novel, Umbrella – longlisted for the 2012 Booker prize – is just shy of 400 pages, has no chapters, hardly even an indent to separate paragraphs, and shifts often and seamlessly between narrators and moments in time. There are no quotation marks indicating dialogue and, occasionally, there isn’t even a space between words (“Idon’tknowabouthatDoctorBusnerIonlyknowwhatIdoesrightnow…”).
What Umbrella does have is plenty of Self’s wonderfully eloquent and witty prose. And lots of italics. Where other authors might slip in asides of indirect discourse throughout their plot, Self flags up his characters’ voices with a neat cursive print:
“It seems most unlikely to Busner that Missus Haines has been able to jump at much for decades, but her tongue leaps about enough … He stands there letting it lap all over me, while his own tongue circles the ice rink of silver amalgam that Missus Uren, the dentist in East Finchley, has implanted in his molar.”
And who better to tackle Modernism in the 21st century than this champion of irony, satire and experimentation?
Modernity in general is a prominent theme here as Self relates the life of Audrey Death (“not De’Ath, not lar-de-dar”), who is cured of the brain disease in 1971 that had condemned her to a mute existence in an insane asylum since 1918. Her Prince Charming is recurring Self character, Dr Zack Busner, who, in 2010, travels back to the site of the old hospital, now converted into luxury flats.
It’s a meandering, wandering tale that perfectly fits with the troubled mind of an ageing psychiatric patient and with Busner’s journey through modern-day London. Each stream of consciousness flows into and through all the others and the result is a long, rambling river of writing. Great writing, and, of course, the rambling comes with the territory, but personally, I think Joyce had the last word on Modernism when he wrote “yes” at the end of Ulysses. And then he trumped it in Finnegan’s Wake (with “the”). It’s difficult to see how anybody, even Will Self, can ever add to that. (In case you’re wondering, Self ends Umbrella with “end”.)
Any Cop?: For aficionados of Modernist literature this is a must, but even fans of Will Self will find Umbrella difficult to love. Will it win the 2012 Booker prize? If it was last year, it wouldn’t have had a chance, when the then chair, Dame Stella Rimington, looked for “readability”. With TLS editor, Peter Stothard, at the helm this time, Self just might be in with a shout.