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Umbrella by Will Self
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Umbrella (original 2012; edition 2012)

by Will Self

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2871739,220 (3.32)1 / 51
Member:AlisonSakai
Title:Umbrella
Authors:Will Self
Info:Bloomsbury Paperbacks (2012), Kindle Edition, 417 pages
Collections:Kindle Books
Rating:****
Tags:Novel, British, Book Club, London, England, 1970s, 1910s, WWI, Mental Illness, Family

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Umbrella by Will Self (2012)

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Some thoughts on my first reading.

Last winter I happened to read Oliver Sacks’s [b:Awakenings|14456|Awakenings|Oliver Sacks|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1388274053s/14456.jpg|2755549] (see review), which is the urtext for Will Self’s new novel Umbrella. In the mid-60s Dr. Sacks famously gave L-DOPA, a relatively new drug mimicking the neurotransmitter dopamine, to dozens of post-encephalytic patients under his care at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, New York. These patients had been infected in 1918 by theencephalitis lethargica virus, or "sleepy sickness" (not to be confused with the Spanish Influenza of the same year). In Umbrella even where references to Sacks’s book do not appear — such as the World War I and present-day sections — it's clear the good doctor's classic collection of case studies serves as the novel's inspration.

Those patients who survived the virus were able afterwards to lead normal lives for many years, sometimes decades, until they were stricken with symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease: locked postures that turned them into living statuary (akinesia), hurrying gait (festination), frozen skewed gaze (oculogyyric crises) and so on. These patients did not have Parkinson's proper, but since the virus reduced dopamine in their brains to about 10 or 15% of healthy levels, they experienced identical if somewhat more severe symptoms than actual Parkinson's patients. The only difference being that Parkinson’s is ultimately fatal, while post-encephalitics (“enkies,” affectionately) might live for the rest of their natural span with the symptoms. Such is the experience of Audrey Death, a main character here.

Self takes much from Awakenings that echoes the trials and tribulations of Dr. Sacks’s enkies--and Sacks himself--and inflates it into a grand fiction resembling the inspirational text very little. Here, the doctor, Zachary Busner, a psychiatrist of Jewish birth, is adrift in a vast English hospital called the Friern, known for its ½ mile or so of monotonous corridors. Many of the problems Sacks had in the 1960s — like pulling all the patients into a single ward, studying their hyper-slow movements via speeded up film, dealing with a highly political hospital administration, and other details — are dramatized here.

There are also large sections of entirely new invention in Umbrella. In one, we follow Audrey Death in her pre-war family life and war-time work as as a “munitionette,” preparing shells for the British army. We also follow two of her brothers: Stanley Death, a trench soldier, and the soi disant Albert De'Ath, who becomes a big-time government honcho. Stanley has an aristocratic lover, Adeline, who he must leave to fight in the endless and pointless war. One day he is brought to live amid a society of bisexual soldiers from both sides deep under that gap between the trenches known as No Man's Land. I suspect this subterranean world of tunnelers was in part inspired by Alasdair Gray's dystopic [b:Lanark|161037|Lanark|Alasdair Gray|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1327948704s/161037.jpg|958496] (see review). Audrey's other brother, Albert, has Asperger's, and is a savant of Rain Man-like propensities, though much higher functioning. Audrey, during her pre-encephalytic days, was a staunch socialist while Albert was a conservative. These divergent political views lead to much conflict between them.

Will Self is an acquired taste. In the past he has regularly made fun of death and unspeakable cruelty with an almost hysterical glee. His talent is certainly great. It has, however, to my mind, at times been exceeded by his ambition. So that no matter how good his books are, and the ones I’ve read are outstanding, he nonetheless always seems to outstrip it (his talent) by way of a stridency of tone (ambition). Subtlety of tone is not in Self's gift. His is always a full throttle, no-holds-barred kind of narrative propulsion. He doesn't dance elliptically around a subject, but always seems to bore to its very heart. This style leaves us with some very naked prose, a prose that doesn’t skirt its limitations, but is on the contrary quite open about them. I know readers who can't abide Self's deeply cynical trickster prose. So I'm happy to report that the cackling satire of Self's earlier work seems in abeyance here, in favor of something softer, something less shrill, more compassionate.

The story is rendered in an almost pitch-perfect Modernist style. I found this astonishing. How does Self pick up Literary Modernism and its attributes (stream of consciousness, abrupt transitions, multiple unidentified intersecting voices, etc.) and don it like a hat? The choice of style strikes me as perfect. I note in my review of [b:Awakenings|14456|Awakenings|Oliver Sacks|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1388274053s/14456.jpg|2755549] how Sacks’s, by flipping from main text to footnote and back again, actually introduces a kind of novelistic discursiveness into his text that would not be obvious to those reading his book without the footnotes. It's an almost [b:Moby-Dick or The Whale|153747|Moby-Dick; or, The Whale|Herman Melville|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1327940656s/153747.jpg|2409320]-like discursiveness. And I can’t help wondering if Sacks's discursiveness did not in part suggest to Self his neo-Modernist approach.

This is a complex book and a single reading will not satisfy those who wish to know it. On first reading I found some 20% of it utterly ambiguous. So I look forward to rereading it soon, though that will probably not render it more "coherent." A stunner and very highly recommended, especially for those who enjoy challenging texts. ( )
  William345 | Jun 11, 2014 |
Rubbish.
  DeanClark | May 6, 2014 |
This book was about mental illness and how it has been treated through WWI through 1977 in Britain. It focuses primarily on Audrey Death - a misdiagnosed patient in a mental hospital and her modern day psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Zachary Busner. She has been catatonic since 1918 and institutionalized until Dr. Busner finds her. In her mind, she is living out different scenes from her past. Through the book, we learn of her father and brothers, her work at the munitions factory, as well as her political leanings as a socialist and sufferagette. The effects of WWI and the industrial revolution run throughout the book. The theme of umbrellas runs through the book as well - whether Audrey was a typist at the Paragon Parasol factory, or Zach was musing about the disposable umbrella of today, they weave throughout the prose.

The interesting part of the novel is that as Dr. Busner increasingly recognizes the signs of mental illness in himself, his family, and the general population as a whole, while he finds a solution physical for Audrey and patients similar to her which he gathers in Ward 20. He stages an intervention and an awakening which for some has been 60 years long. The novel weaves together the storylines from the brothers, Audrey, Busner, a former doctor at the hospital, Audrey's father, and one brother's mistress into a complete tapestry - an oroborous that comes full circle by the close of the novel.

The book is a clear testament to the lackadaisical attitude that many doctors take to pushing pharmaceuticals down patients throats along with a refill and repeat behaviour. Having been on the receiving of this treatment, I don't find it very amusing, so for me, that facet of the story struck home and was very personal in a negative way, but Dr. Busner bucks this system to do the right thing for his patients even though he gets trouble from the administration and the orderlies.

To do the book justice, you either need to have the appropriate psychiatric reference material, or get the ebook version so you have access to the dictionary for all the uncommon medical terminology. Without these definitions, the book is incomplete.

As a slice of history prior to WWI and during the war as well as during the industrial revolution, this book is like slices in time for extremely complex characters. Life was different then, and yet in many ways the same. The imagery is quite stunning and fully accessible for each character - whether in the trenches in France, having tea in an upper class parlor, on a golf course, or at the munitions factory, every scene was beautifully described in both words and sounds. Sounds and songs play a consistent role throughout the prose. This novel is complex. It is weighty and well written with serious messages about quality of life, the medical establishment,technology and progress - or not.

Mr. Self has created what I would consider a piece of literature that should stand the test of time. ( )
  Molecular | Feb 21, 2014 |
yuck!
  robynsc | Sep 2, 2013 |
Review of sample only, 4 Aug 2012.

My intermittent swooning over Will Self's journalism and radio and TV appearances began nearly two decades ago, and I tingled with anticipation the first time, some time in the early 2000's, when I got my hands on a real whole fiction work of his. But it was as if the brain-fizzing, knicker-dampening, sonorous-voiced arrogant wanker had sent his rather less sexy, sparky and interesting twin brother along on the date instead, Sweet Valley High style. Just enough in the vocabulary and subject matter was similar for a common upbringing to be apparent, but it was just not the same and I left early, comprehensively disillusioned.

And it's been the same every damn time I've read his fiction, hoping that it might somehow turn out different on this occasion. At least with Kindle samples, there's no need to commit to many hours of a whole book if disappointment seems likely to ensue. So when Mr WS's article on modernism set me a-flutter all over again, here was the means to instant, gratis, gratification of that same old sceptical curiosity.

Oh dear. Already on the first page are Joycean slightly scatological stream of consciousness snippets which leave me with the same ennui as Will has just said he feels towards most conventional English prose fiction. Deja-vu ensues as Zack Busner again encounters more of his psychiatric-ward patients again. Whilst Self's ego in the Guardian piece rails against the cosy routines of mainstream eng lit, I suspect his subconscious of trying its best to force out a nice little mental-health based series of the James Herriot / Gervase Phinn school. Also, oh how I would love to see him write something which had nothing to do with London; I understand the immersive allure of the city, really I do, but there are a lot of other places out here. And the old childhood scenes, whilst not bad, seem so very much like My Mother Said I Never Should. So once more, nothing in that depressing category "modern British literary fiction" feels new to read; for a few minutes yet again I thought Will Self might have the antidote, but it was just more of his seductive snake oil. I don't know how to create the real stuff myself, so I may as well bugger off and continue to read non-fiction and foreign stories.

But wait. Whilst there aren't the fireworks of his non-fiction prose here, it's not entirely valueless. Anyone who's familiar with doctors as family members or friends (or colleagues) will recognise the way they contradict one another's professional approaches. He makes me look up three words I'd forgotten: it's not the shock of the new ... a teensy splash in a puddle, perhaps, but it helps. And sometimes the narrative flows in tune with real stream of consciousness (not as forced and stylised as Joyce), projecting images and feelings more than extracting laboured thoughts; this is pleasing.

It's sort-of tempting to read the whole book in the next few days and write one of the first proper online reviews (this specious privilege would cost £11). But tonight, it's heavy stuff. I don't think I can read it at a time when I'm worried in case someone I care about ends up in a place like this. And elderly hospitalised Audrey makes me think too much of the last months of my late grandmother. There are times for stirring up ghosts, having a chat with them and a spot of gentle part-exorcism over the tea leaves. But right now I have a bad headache and a house full of material clutter to continue clearing, so this isn't it.
  antonomasia | Aug 15, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 17 (next | show all)


The influence of Joyce’s Ulysses is everywhere, from a housekeeper’s apron printed with pictures of Georgian Dublin to the seamless fragmentation of the prose. An era, a scene, a character’s age can all change in the course of a sentence.

Every experience is filtered through another, or infiltrated by it. At times, this Self-imposed exile from any “fixed regard”, threatens the narrative’s sanity, and its readability, but that is the point. Whether Umbrella takes experimental fiction beyond the magnificent cul-de-sac into which Joyce steered it is doubtful. But this fresh reminder of the potential of finding new selves – to be and to write with – is extraordinary.
 
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A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella.
 - James Joyce
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For Deborah
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I'm an ape-man, I'm an ape-man...
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0802120725, Hardcover)

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

Radical and uncompromising, Umbrella is a tour de force from one of England’s most acclaimed contemporary writers, and Self’s most ambitious novel to date. Moving between Edwardian London and a suburban mental hospital in 1971, Umbrella exposes the twentieth century’s technological searchlight as refracted through the dark glass of a long term mental institution. While making his first tours of the hospital at which he has just begun working, maverick psychiatrist Zachary Busner notices that many of the patients exhibit a strange physical tic: rapid, precise movements that they repeat over and over. One of these patients is Audrey Dearth, an elderly woman born in the slums of West London in 1890. Audrey’s memories of a bygone Edwardian London, her lovers, involvement with early feminist and socialist movements, and, in particular, her time working in an umbrella shop, alternate with Busner’s attempts to treat her condition and bring light to her clouded world. Busner’s investigations into Audrey’s illness lead to discoveries about her family that are shocking and tragic.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:55:36 -0400)

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.… (more)

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