Monday, 20 August 2012

Book of the Week - Will Self, Umbrella

I’ve had a busy couple of weeks, so there may be a few posts over the next week or so as I catch up with my blog.  First up is Will Self’s Booker longlisted novel, Umbrella.  I haven’t had a chance to read this and I suspect it will be very much an outsider for the prize, but Self is always an interesting writer if an uncompromising one.  I have had the pleasure of meeting him on more than one occasion, and once won a signed book which he offered as a prize (a story for another day).  He likes to parade his extensive vocabulary and loves walking and cycling (on his Brompton fold up bike).  Indeed, I recall him describing how he rode on one Brompton while carrying a second in a bag over his shoulder, something which he described as “bike on bike action”. 

Umbrella has a medical theme – encepahalitis letharigica and the use of L-dopa , and medical matters are something in which Self is interested (and the reason I won the book from him). For years he injected heroin and also took cocaine and amphetamines. He went to Oxford to read PPE, graduating with a third after spending much of his spare time "hanging out" with schizophrenic outpatients from a local hospital. There was a brief period of cold turkey in the 1980s but he continued to use until a spectacular fall from grace in 1997 when he was found snorting heroin on John Major's jet while covering the election campaign for the Guardian.  He now suffers from polycythaemia rubra vera, an uncommon and potentially serious blood disorder. 

 Like many of his books, Umbrella is unlikely to be an easy read.  Let me quote from the Guardian review – “400 pages of unbroken stream-of-consciousness dotted across three time frames, leaping jaggedly between four points of view, and with barely a paragraph break, let alone a chapter heading.”  You have been warned.  The cover also looks very unattractive.

"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."

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