Geoff's Reviews > Umbrella

Umbrella by Will Self
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's review
May 23, 2015

it was amazing


Umbrella tells the simultaneous stories (-well okay this is not the simultaneity that one finds in the Wake for instance, which, as far as I know, might be the only way to really really do simultaneity in prose, and that is definitely not what is happening here - what is happening here is more like narrative enjambment, or collage, or a kind of radical undifferentiation of plot lines/perspective-) of Dr. Zack Busner, a charmingly sympathetic character loosely based on Oliver Sacks, who is given to us in multiple timelines - describing his experiences dealing with post-encephalitis lethargica patients in the bewildering, dream- or nightmare-like labyrinthine wards and corridors of Friern Hospital (formerly Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum - in this book a highly developed character all on its own) - along with a twinned narrative of the elderly Busner dealing with the pains of being old and alone in a changing world that seems to be expelling him bit by bit, revisiting the places and memories of his time with “awakened” patient Audrey Death - one of the encephalitic slumberers caught in suspended animation for decades. In a tripleted or trebled narrative current we are shown the life stories of the Death (or Dearth, or De’Ath, or Deeth - names can be slippery things!) family and their disparate destinies throughout WWI and before/beyond. Each of these timelines/narratives holds equal space-time in the novel, and each one seamlessly glides in and out of the other in unbroken chains of vigorous prososity. The real star here is Self himSelf - this is a bravura performance of writing. Self consciously (!) apes the modernist style developed by Joyce and taken up by Woolf et al. (the first words in the book are Busner humming to himself ”I’m an ape man, I’m an ape-ape man…” Self knows precisely what he is doing here - the timeline of the book covers almost exactly the epoch where modernism reigned in literature) but tweaks it or messes with it enough to not come off as some irritating xerox. The fractures in narrative time, the little burping wormholes that open up and close like a chewing maw, the hyperkinetic fidgety use of italics (which come to make sense after awhile, as manic internals or asides, or simply a mirror of the ticcing disorders of Busner’s patients) makes Umbrella a terribly energetic read - I say go with the flow, and let it wash over you, stand under the wave of Self’s enviable vocabulary and range and depth of verbiage and wordsmithery and absolute absence of cliche. It is certainly one of the most unique and most invigorating "historical novels" you'll ever read... And oh yes umbrellas, the physical objects, make countless cameos, and become a kind of quiet symbolic iteration of… well… something perhaps we all eventually realize we have overlooked or lost? But it has to do with that epigraph from Joyce "A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella.” So yes, read this Ulyssean spawn! This is my first Self, and with it he has quickly entered into that pantheon of Writers I Will Read Whatever The Fuck They Write. It's terribly exciting to discover an entire body of work from an author you have full confidence in! And the simple fact that books like Umbrella are being written, published, and nominated for awards in this day and age should be heartening for us readers, one and all!
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Reading Progress

05/14/2015 marked as: currently-reading 4 comments
05/14/2015 page 0
0.0% "Yes yes! This is word-drunk." 24 comments
05/15/2015 page 47
11.0% "Things I'm impressed with thus far : The energy of Self's prose - the obvious control over language and form he is displaying (three - so far - simultaneous timelines) - the crazy wide range of his vocabulary - the absolute confidence behind this writing - a mastery of writing that allows playfulness to show through - I'm really happy I picked up this book on a whim yesterday - Whee!"
05/15/2015 page 66
16.0% "Gals and fellas - do not overlook this - add it to your to•reads! This is good ! " 8 comments
05/15/2015 page 101
25.0% "Unputdownable! (Isn't that something folks say?)" 9 comments
05/18/2015 page 131
32.0% ""a gothic pile of shit twinned with Schloss Weltschmerz..."" 4 comments
05/19/2015 page 191
48.0% "Scene: 7th St., Washington DC
Man On Corner: Watcha readin'?
Geoff [holds book up to show]
MOC [stares]
Geoff: Will Self, ever read him?
MOC: Nah
Geoff: Ah it's good, he's a British novelist, this was shortlisted for the Man Booker, kind of stream of consciousness, multiple timelines within a single sentence, collage-like style...
MOC [gapes]
Geoff: ...uh yeah
MOC [frowns]: Good luck with that. [exeunt]" 5 comments
05/23/2015 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-24 of 24) (24 new)

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Nathan "N.R." Gaddis This is my first Self, and with it he has quickly entered into that pantheon of Writers I Will Read Whatever The Fuck They Write.


Geoff Can you tell I was impressed?

message 3: by Jonathan (new) - added it

Jonathan You are doing much to convince me to give him a second chance - sadly I had him being a dick in person prior to reading any of his books, which meant I was almost waiting for him to irritate me. Which is completely unfair. Maybe I will give this one a go next year...

Geoff How was he a dick in person?

If you need further encouragement, Vacca has some great Self reviews to peruse...

Anthony Vacca Beautiful, Geoff. Welcome to the ample bosom of Self's prose.

Geoff Thank you Anthony, you will be my guiding light ...

Anthony Vacca It's videos like this,

that most people who are only familiar with Self as a TV personality/journalist, can't stand him. I for one love him for videos like this one.

Geoff I mean but he's not totally wrong there at all

Geoff I mean not being a dick at all either

message 10: by Anthony (last edited May 23, 2015 12:07PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Anthony Vacca People equate his vocabulary, his more pessimistic world view, and his confidence in his own logic as reasons enough to tag him as a dick. Just check out comment threads on videos posted of him. So many people sneer at his vocabulary.

Anthony Vacca Will Self=punk rock, and haters will keep on hating.

Geoff All this just sells me on him more and more...

message 13: by Nick (new) - rated it 1 star

Nick Anthony wrote: "Will Self=punk rock, and haters will keep on hating."

Don't insult punk rock like that.

message 14: by Jonathan (new) - added it

Jonathan Met him at Oxford after panel chat - was just rude, patronising and dismissive.

Geoff Ah that sucks Jonathan - yeah that'd put a taint on trying to read him for sure...

message 16: by Antonomasia (last edited May 23, 2015 02:20PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Antonomasia Hm, found him quite personable and polite at a signing c.2002 - more so than I expected from his manner in the media - both in answering audience questions and when chatting to him whilst he was signing. Still opinionated, but def. not what I'd consider rude.

Bad days & good days, maybe.

message 17: by James (new)

James Two of my friends have had their girlfriends hit on by musicians after a show, so it could be worse. They were standing next to their girlfriends at the time.

message 18: by Jonathan (new) - added it

Jonathan yes - was completely silly to be prejudiced - particularly as I am a firm believer that the author is irrelevant when approaching a text. Will give him a go next year when I an done with my modernists

Antonomasia He was pretty dismissive in a Guardian Q&A last year, and gave flippant non-answers to questions deserving in depth responses. (I have a lot more to say on "Has psychology replaced morality?" than he apparently has, for one.) Not sure why he bothered with the exercise in the first place. It may of course have been some reverse psychology trick to increase - if that were possible - the paper's online commenters' hatred for him and thereby provoke other Guardian readers' characteristic sympathy for the underdog.

However, instances like that don't negate, for me, other good stuff he's written, or all the books I got into because of his 90s radio slot on cult novels. He's clearly not as nice as Richard Powers, another somewhat underrated novelist, whose work I've been getting into this year and with whom I've now read dozens of interviews, but I don't think that level of niceness is what Will Self is necessarily for.

message 20: by James (new)

James He's on my radar after this review for sure. Nice work Geoff.

Geoff Hey Antonomasia - since I'm new to Self and all, beyond Shark and Great Apes, the other two I picked up after starting Umbrella, which books of his do you recommend I peep into next?

I would totally dig that radio thing on cult books!

message 22: by Antonomasia (last edited May 24, 2015 09:14AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Antonomasia Geoff - MJ and Anthony have read more of his novels than I have; I'm more of a fan of his non-fiction and essays. My favourite Self novel is Dorian; that's because I go for decadent aestheticism a little more than for the surrealist ugliness of a lot of his stories - it's not quite his usual stuff.
His earlier fiction didn't have so much of the political dimension you can see in Umbrella.

I would totally dig that radio thing on cult books!
A handful of the recordings are on youtube, I think. Or they were 2-3 years ago. Some combination of Will Self, Cult Books, Mark Radcliffe and/or Graveyard Shift should find them, although more of the film spots (with Mark Kermode) were around. Self used some rather unflattering metaphors about Nightwood that haven't aged too well.
Most of the titles I've tagged cult books on here were ones mentioned on the show. Now the shelf looks like a stereotypical reading list for a bohemian late teen, but we were all new and wide-eyed to these things once.

Anthony Vacca How the Dead Live is my personal favorite. Cock and Bull is a terrific early work from Self. Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys is his best short story collection.

Geoff Thanks guys - oh and I see I actually have TTTFTTB on the shelf too - found it at some used store years ago... I'm stoked to read some more, but Shark is up next, keepin' up w/Busner and all...

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