It has always been difficult to give an adequate definition of the Modernist movement in literature that does justice to its complexities. What we can be certain of is Modernism’s complete departure from tradition. In Umbrella, which could be described as Will Self’s most experimental piece of work to date, the reader is without a doubt taken far away from a traditional novel.
Through his uninterrupted stream-of-consciousness narrative, Self tells the story of a psychiatrist by the name of Zack Busner and his treatment of a patient who, instead of being deemed clinically insane, is believed to be suffering from Encephalitis Lethargica. Self presents a three-stranded narrative that can at times seem a little intimidating. Indeed, with its lack of chapter formation and its untraditional dialogue, it could be said that this dense piece of fiction should be approached with caution. Having said this, the patient, Audrey De’Ath, has a story that is almost seamlessly interwoven with Brunson’s existing narration. Complex and ambitious, Self’s linguistic palate remains rich throughout.
As a result of the non-linear structure, the reader almost becomes trapped in the mind of someone whom Busner might eventually end up treating, and as he renders “those around him either too sharply focused or too blurred”, Self’s writing could be said to do the same. At points it almost feels as though he is trying to locate a greater sense of purpose for the characters (one beyond their immediate actions), one to which all three narrative strands will eventually lead. This notion of exploration, however, leaves the reader feeling that the modern chaos Self is trying to highlight is merely a channel through which to exhibit this radical approach to modernism.
If challenging is what you are looking for, then Self’s abstract responses to mental health issues and societal turmoil, are most definitely ‘there’. With no chapter breaks, the reader is given little time to assess the significance and overall grounding of Busner’s actions or Audrey’s life before committal. As a result of this, the book sometimes loses its sense of direction. Self’s novel never claims to be plot-driven and quite clearly represents an upsurge of thought that envelops action; because of this bold choice, Self, for me, forfeits the title of ‘book I couldn’t put down’. One almost feels that the insertion of chapters would not only have made the novel more ‘easy going’ but may in fact also have been necessary in order to fully appreciate the persistent glimpses of memory and hallucination,.
If the Booker prize panel were to base their decision solely on readability then this certainly would not be a winner. If one were, however, to factor in Self’s intellectual aptitude, then there is no doubt that this remains an advanced piece of literature. Alhough Umbrella’s complex narrative may not appeal to everyone, this should not detract from a cleverly crafted novel that quite obviously pushes the boundaries of what we thought we knew about Modernism.
What may be described as a complex experimentation will always divide opinion but committed Self fans will not be disenchanted by his latest venture. Despite all its narrative and linguistic virtuosity, for me, what Umbrella lacks essentially is reader involvement and, with such an important absence, it would be difficult to brand this novel a ‘winner’.