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 novel...is 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. .
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