Umbrella (Self)

Will Self, 2012
448 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780802120724

A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella. —James Joyce, Ulysses

Recently having abandoned his RD Laing-influenced experiment in running a therapeutic community—the so-called Concept House in Willesden—maverick psychiatrist Zack Busner arrives at Friern Hospital, a vast Victorian mental asylum in North London, under a professional and a marital cloud. He has every intention of avoiding controversy, but then he encounters Audrey Dearth, a working-class girl from Fulham born in 1890 who has been immured in Friern for decades.

A socialist, a feminist and a munitions worker at the Woolwich Arsenal, Audrey fell victim to the encephalitis lethargica sleeping sickness epidemic at the end of the First World War and, like one of the subjects in Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings, has been in a coma ever since. Realising that Audrey is just one of a number of post-encephalitics scattered throughout the asylum, Busner becomes involved in an attempt to bring them back to life—with wholly unforeseen consequences.

Is Audrey’s diseased brain in its nightmarish compulsion a microcosm of the technological revolutions of the twentieth century? And if Audrey is ill at all—perhaps her illness is only modernity itself? And what of Audrey’s two brothers, Stanley and Albert: at the time she fell ill, Stanley was missing presumed dead on the Western Front, while Albert was in charge of the Arsenal itself, a coming man in the Imperial Civil Service. Now, fifty years later, when Audrey awakes from her pathological swoon, which of the two is it who remains alive?

Radical in its conception, uncompromising in its style, Umbrella is Will Self’s most extravagant and imaginative exercise in speculative fiction to date. (From the British publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—September 26, 1961
Where—North London, England, UK
Education—Oxford University
Awards—Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize; Aga Khan
   Prize for Fiction; Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize
Currently—lives in Stockwell, South London, England

William Woodard "Will" Self is an English author, journalist and television personality. He is the author of nine novels, five collections of shorter fiction, three novellas and five collections of non-fiction writing, of which his novel Umbrella was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. His work has been translated into 22 languages.

His fiction is known for being satirical, grotesque, and fantastical, and is predominantly set within London. His fiction often deals with such themes as mental illness, illegal drugs and psychiatry. Self's regular columns for Building Design on the built environment, and for the Independent Magazine on the psychology of place brought him to prominence as a thinker concerned with the politics of urbanity.

Self is a regular contributor to publications including Playboy, Harpers, New York Times and London Review of Books. He currently writes two fortnightly columns for New Statesman, and over the years he has been a columnist for The Observer, The Times and the Evening Standard. He is a regular contributor on British television, initially as a guest on comic panel shows and, more lately, on serious political programs. He is also a frequent contributor to BBC Radio 4.

Early life
Self was born and raised in North London. His parents were Peter Self, Professor of Public Administration at the London School of Economics, and Elaine (nee Rosenbloom), an American from Queens, New York, who worked as a publisher's assistant. His father was from an Anglican family and his mother was Jewish.

As a child, Self spent a year living in the U.S.—in Ithaca, in upstate New York. His parents separated when he was nine and divorced when he was eighteen. Self was a voracious reader from a young age. At ten an interest in science fiction grew, with notable works such as Frank Herbert's Dune, J. G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick—reflecting the precociousness of Self's reading. Into his teenage years, Self claimed to have been "overawed by the canon," stifling his ability to express himself. Self's dabbling with drugs grew in step with his prolific reading: he started smoking marijuana at the age of twelve, graduating through amphetamines, cocaine, and acid to heroin, which he started injecting at eighteen.

Of Self's background Nick Rennison has written that he:

Self is sometimes presented as a bad-boy outsider, writing, like the Americans William S Burroughs and Hubert Selby Jr, about sex, drugs and violence in a very direct way. Yet he is not some class warrior storming the citadels of the literary establishment from the outside, but an Oxford educated, middle-class metropolitan who, despite his protestations to the contrary in interviews, is about as much at the heart of the establishment as you can get, a place he has occupied almost from the start of his career.

After graduating from Oxford, Self worked for the Greater London Council, including a period as a road sweeper, while living in Brixton. He then pursued a career as a cartoonist for the New Statesman and other publications and as a stand-up comedian. In 1986 he entered a treatment centre, where he claims that his heroin addiction was cured. Then "through a series of accidents," he ended up running a small publishing company.

The publication of his short story collection The Quantity Theory of Insanity brought him to public attention in 1991. Self was immediately hailed as an original new talent by Salman Rushdie, Doris Lessing, Beryl Bainbridge, A. S. Byatt, and Bill Buford. In 1993 he was nominated by Granta magazine as one of the 20 "Best Young British Novelists." Conversely, Self's second book, My Idea of Fun, was "mauled" by the critics.

He gained some notoriety in 1997 when he was sent by the broadsheet The Observer to cover the election campaign of John Major and was caught by a rival journalist using heroin on the Prime Minister's jet. He was fired as a result. He says that he has abstained from drugs, except for caffeine and nicotine, since 1998.

Self has made many appearances on British television, especially as a panellist on Have I Got News for You and as a regular on Shooting Stars. Since 2008 Self has appeared five times on Question Time. Since 2007, Self has later stopped appearing in Have I Got News for You, stating the show has become a pseudo-panel show.

Since 2009 Self has written two alternating fortnightly columns for the New Statesman. The Madness of Crowds explores social phenomena and group behaviour, and in Real Meals he reviews high street food outlets.

In 2012, Self was appointed Professor of Contemporary Thought at Brunel University. In July 2012, Self received his first Man Booker Prize long list nomination for Umbrella, which the Daily Telegraph described as "possibly Self's most ambitious novel to date." The book was later placed on the prize shortlist.

Personal life
Self was married from 1989 to 1997 to Kate Chancellor. They have two children, a son Alexis and a daughter Madeleine. In 1997, Self married journalist Deborah Orr, with whom he has sons Ivan and Luther. His brother is the author and journalist Jonathan Self. He lives in Stockwell, South London.

Self has described himself as a Psychogeographer and modern flaneur and has written about walks he has taken. In December 2006, he walked 26 miles from his home in South London to Heathrow Airport. Upon arriving at Kennedy Airport he walked 20 miles from there to Manhattan.

Self is 6' 5" tall, collects and repairs vintage typewriters and smokes a pipe; he claims that a psychologist once described him as schizoid personality and borderline personality.


1991: Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize for The Quantity Theory of Insanity
1998: Aga Khan Prize for Fiction from The Paris Review for Tough Tough Toys for Tough Tough Boys
2008: Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction for "The Butt"

Self has been shortlisted three times for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award: in 2002 for Dorian, in 2004 for "Dr Mukti" in Dr Mukti and Other Tales of Woe and in 2006 for The Book of Dave. (Author bio from Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
Brilliant but chaotic…Umbrella is a work of throwback modernism. It has no chapters and few paragraph breaks…It shuffles points of view without warning. It is freckled with Joycean neologisms…it's an erudite yet barking mad novel about barking madness. It's as much performance piece as novel. It will force you to hold contradictory ideas in your head…You give yourself over to Umbrella in flashes, as if it were a radio station you're unable to tune in that you suspect is playing the most beautiful song you will ever hear. Just when you are ready to give up on it entirely, this novel locks into moments of ungodly beauty and radiant moral sympathy. It tests your patience. It tests your nerve.
Dwight Garner - New York Times

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…is a virtuosic performance…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…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…and loads of mordant satire. Yes, Umbrella is a "difficult" novel, but it amply rewards the effort.
Steven Moore - Washington Post

A savage and deeply humane novel.... Umbrella is an old-fashioned modernist tale with retrofitted ambitions to boot.... Self has always been a fabulous writer... The result is page after page of gorgeously musical prose. Self’s sentences bounce and weave, and like poetry, they refract. The result is mesmerizing.... In its best moments, Umbrella compels a reader to the heights of vertigo Woolf excelled at creating...a triumph of form. With this magnificent novel Will Self reminds that he is Britain’s reigning poet of the night.
John Freeman - Boston Globe 

Self’s latest a strange and sprawling modernist experiment that takes the human mind as its subject and, like the human mind, is infinitely capacious, wretchedly petty and ultimately magnificent.... It may not be beautiful, but it is extraordinary
NPR Books

A hefty, challenging stream-of-consciousness story whose engagement with modernist themes and techniques is announced in its epigraph from Joyce’s Ulysses.

In prose uninterrupted by chapters or line breaks, a twisted version of the 20th century is woven and unpicked again. It is a postmodern vivisection of Modernism, analyzing the dream and the machine, war as the old lie and a new liberation, and rituals sacred, profane and banal...a linguistically adept, emotionally subtle and ethically complex novel.

An ambitiously conceived and brilliantly executed novel in the high modernist tradition of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.... Its scope is dazzling.... The switches between perspective and chronology are demanding (there are no chapters), but Self handles them with bravura skill, setting up imagery and phrases that echo suggestively between different episodes.... Umbrella is an immense achievement.
Financial Times

Entertaining and enthralling...extensively researched.... An experimental novel that is also a compassionate and thrilling book—and one that, despite its difficulty, deserves to be read.

Will Self’s Joycean tribute is a stream of consciousness tour de force.... [It] builds into a heartbreaking mosaic, a sardonic critique of the woefully misdirected treatment of the mentally ill and the futility of war and, above all, a summation of the human condition. Despite the bleakness of the message, by the end you are filled with elation at the author’s exuberant ambition and the swaggering way he carries it all off, and then a huge sense of deflation at the realization that whatever book you read next, it won’t be anything like this.
Daily Mail

Umbrella is old-school modernism. It isn’t supposed to be a breeze. But it is, to use the literary critical term of art, kind of amazing … It may not be his easiest, but I think this may be Will Self’s best book.”—The Observer (London)Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Self’s sweeping experimental new novel (after Walking to Hollywood) creaks under the weight of chaotic complexity. At its core lies a fractured matrix only partially resembling a coherent story. For more than 50 years, octogenarian Audrey Death aka De’Ath, Deeth, Deerth has languished in North London’s Friern Mental Hospital, suffering from encephalitis lethargica—a brain-damaging sleeping sickness she contracted in 1918 that renders patients either “whirled into a twisted immobility, or else unwound spastic, hypotonic.” In 1971, whiz-bang psychiatrist Zachary Busner attempts to revive her and other “enkies” by plying them with L-Dopa (an anti-Parkinson’s drug). A fleeting reawakening reveals jarring glimpses into Audrey’s past (a hardscrabble childhood in Edwardian England; a job at a WWI munitions factory; a raunchy love affair with a married man), with alternating flashbacks to the lives of her brothers Stan (a gunner in the war) and Bert (a puffed-up civil servant), and jumps forward to Busner in 2010 reminiscing about his past (a failed marriage; adultery; his mixed career). Lacking chapter breaks, paragraph separations (mostly), and hopping between these four characters’ stream-of-consciousness points of view, the already puzzling tome can be difficult to follow, let alone grasp. But with snippets of dialects, stylistic flourishes, and inventive phrases loose with meaning, for those who grab hold and hang on, the experience falls just shy of brilliant.
Publishers Weekly

Cutting-edge psychiatrist Zachary Busner is concerned about some of the patients at a 1970s London mental hospital—in particular, Audrey Dearth, who was born in the slums in 1890 and unfolds her life story in alternate passages—but efforts to reach them don't end well. Long-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize.
Library Journal

Brainy and outlandish, though still in the mainstream of modernist fiction, this book captures a number of eccentric voices and sends the reader running to the dictionary. The epigraph to the novel is, fittingly, from Joyce's Ulysses: "A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella," and Self offers us an account of Audrey Death and her two brothers, Albert and Stanley. Originally Audrey De'Ath, her name transmutes to Deerth and then to Dearth, a prime example of Self's--dare I say self-consciously?—Joycean word play. By whatever name, Audrey was born in 1890, came of age in the Edwardian era, involved herself in the suffragette movement, worked for a while in an umbrella shop, became ill with encephalitis lethargica (aka "sleeping sickness") toward the end of World War I and was institutionalized in 1922 at a mental hospital in north London. Now it's 1971, and Dr. Zachary Busner, a recurring character in Self's novels and stories, tries to treat her—and other sufferers from the illness—to bring them out of their catatonia. Self plunges the reader into the twisted conscious minds of both Audrey and Zach, a feat that's in equal parts exhilarating and bewildering. Consider the following description of a pianist Audrey had heard in her past: "Ooh, yairs, isn't it luvverly, such fine mahoggerny—while the fellow's knees rose and fell as he trod in the melody, Doo-d'doo, doo d'doo, doo d'dooo, doo d'dooo, triplets of notes going up and down." The novel disdains such literary conventions as chapters and just plunges us into the inner worlds of its characters. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this novel is uncompromising and relentless in the demands it makes upon the reader, yet there's a lyrical, rhapsodic element that continually pulls one into and through the narrative. .
Kirkus Reviews

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