Will Self’s Joycean novel, Umbrella, has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
It is beautifully written. It is not, however, an easy read.
I pick it up, I read 30 pages, then I go back and reread parts, and then I hurry on, and then I put it down…
I have this problem with James Joyce’s Ulysses, too. Self’s stream-of-consciousness flows richly, his characters are distinctive, the narrative is often humorous, but the dialect is at times difficult, and there are almost no paragraph indentations, even when the point of view changes.
In fact, I might say that’s why I prefer Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness to Joyce’s, and now Self’s. She writes in paragraphs.
But the form fits the content: Will Self is describing an edgy psychiatrist’s musings and patients who turn out not to be mad, though tragically they live in a psychiatric hospital. The odd dialect and musings reflect hierarchical rankings and class.
The narrative is not straightforward, but the premise is: Dr. Zack Busner, the psychiatrist hero, theorizes that several catatonic patients in a mental hospital in 1971 are not mentally ill but rather survivors of a lethal disease, encephalitis lethargica, that struck Europe in 1918.
He notices disparities in the patients’ behavior. The shuffling-pivoting-then rapid jerky hurrying of Audrey Death, a catatonic patient who mutters and has a strange heap of junk collected beneath her bed, does not fit the symptoms of any disorder in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual. Busner gleans that she is not mentally ill: her very odd ticks and peculiar movements, which at first he assumes are tardive dyskinesia, a disorder of involuntary movements caused by years of anti-psychotic drugs, are actually the aftermath of encephalitis. Other patients like Audrey at the hospital are lucky to be alive.
And it turns out he’s not the first to discover it: another psychiatrist, who worked there years earlier, also recognized it.
So he brings all the enkies together and awakens them (though I’m not to the awakening yet.).
We also, more or less simultaneously, learn the story of the patient Audrey from childhood to the present: we see her as a child playing hokey-pokey with her brother Stanley, and then, dazzled by Bert’s marbles, is unable to resist stealing a striped marble, though Stanley says she’ll catch it. We see her taking a bus ride and walk in Londonw with her rather pompous vain father. Self also sometimes inhabits the consciousness of Stanley.
Here is a short passage about Audrey as an adult, a feminist socialist, talking about her work. And this gives you an idea of Self’s style.
She counters: I don’t make umbrellas, Gilbert, or brollies, or garden tents, or portable pavilions for the bloomin’ beach–I’m a typewriter, I make words. Such words: Dear Sir, in respect of your order of the 15th instant, I regret to inform you that we are unable to supply the precise numbers of the Peerless and the Paragon models that you requested due to Fox’s tardiness in fulfilling our own order for their patented Aegis frames. Ad I know you appreciate, all Ince & Coy umbrellas are finished to the highest standards and employ the Aegis frame as a matter fo course due to their superior quality and efficiency…”
There is much discussion of umbrellas: Dr. Busner finds an umbrella he doesn’t recognize and thinks umbrellas “are never contracted for, only mysteriously acquired”; Audrey’s lover Gilbert tells her that “when Crushoe–that quineishenshial petit-bourgeois–is cashtaway, the firsht implement he makesh for himself ish an umbrella”; and a nurse at the hospital fetches an “umbrella” when a patient gets violent, a hypodermic needle.
I tell everyone the prose is “Booker-worthy,” but I wish I had that 50-years-in-the-future edition with a commentary. My husband glanced at the first line in the book and told me that “I’m an ape man, I’m an ape-ape man…” is from the chorus of the Kinks’ song, “Apeman.”
See why I need notes? I never listened to the Kinks. I loved Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Band, Dylan, Joni Mitchell…all the usual suspects…but not the Kinks.
It doesn’t seem to have mattered that I missed this allusion, though.
But here is the Youtube video of the Kinks’ “Apeman” just for YOU.