Reviewed by Ammara Khan
Umbrella, shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize 2012, is the latest and perhaps most ambitious of Will Self’s novels.
It is an uncanny story of Dr Zack Busner, a psychiatrist, and his patient Audrey Death, a feminist and a socialist who believes in free love. The latter was one of the many people who, after World War I, fell ill with an infectious brain disease called encephalitis lethargica.
Abandoned by society and stripped of their identity, post-encephalitic patients — who survived till 1971 — fascinate Busner because of their peculiar and incurable illness. Although there are many patients of this disease in his hospital, Busner is particularly obsessed with Audrey who has been in the same hospital for 49 years: “Her poor old face is crammed into the angle of the headrest, her scrawny legs are rigid and the torsion of her upper body is painful to behold.”
Umbrella belongs to the literary tradition of high modernism associated with writers such as James Joyce. The only governing principle of this novel is its utter chaos. It doesn't lay out a plot or time frame and unveils itself in rapid episodes of anarchic fashion. The story shifts randomly from London in 2010 to the fields of World War I, to a psychiatric hospital in 1971 when Audrey and Busner first meet. To enjoy the narrative you need to forget the niceties of traditional fiction and give into the maddening world of Umbrella.
The title and epigraph of the book is taken from a line of Ulysses: “A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella.” In one of his silent musings, Busner goes: “Umbrellas are never contracted for, only mysteriously acquired, to be fleetingly useful, then annoying and cumbersome before eventually being lost.”
Along with Busner and Audrey, her brothers Albert and Stanley are the key narrators of the novel. Albert, the eldest brother, is drawn into the life of calculation in bureaucracy because of his aversion to his father’s “beery sweats and horsy high spirits.” Greed and power hungry, Albert believes that “war is always an opportunity” and helps the government build an arsenal. Stanley, who is friends with socialists and has no high ambitions or material pursuits, is a better brother to Audrey. This clash between pursuit of money and individuality is one of the recurring themes in Umbrella.
Busner’s search for a cure for Audrey glues this otherwise chaotic story together. He is fixated on the idea that there is nothing wrong with the mental functions of post-encephalitis, also called “enkies” in the novel. He wonders if Audrey’s “higher functions may be ... intact — that she may be quite conscious of what goes on around her.”
Many of the patients diagnosed with encephalitis lethargica manifested symptoms associated with Parkinsonism. This observation leads Busner to video tape them, a fruitful endeavour that helps him realise that it took one patient two hours and twenty minutes to make a flirtatious gesture for him long after he had left the room. Therefore, Busner decides to use a drug called L-DOPA — usually used for Parkinsonism — to awake the post-encephalitis. In the end, he comes to the conclusion that the disease is in fact an existential phenomenology.
Favouring spatial over chronological worlds, Self creates a narrative which has no chapters and a few odd paragraph breaks. Points of view shift in the middle of sentences. Phrases change abruptly into italics and back to regular typeface, signalling, perhaps, slips into and out of interior monologue. For example: “Doctor Trevelyan stands looking at Audrey’s face but my hair — am I scuppered.”
With an abundance of apostrophes and dashes, punctuation is as strange as the paragraph division. Often, Self juxtaposes two punctuation marks together: “the colour of brisket five days old. — Moving behind Adeline’s face.” As a result, the novel reads like Audrey’s description of her subjective thoughts.
And here’s an example of how Self switches from one narrator and time to an entirely different one: “Busner labours and sweats wells from the sticking plaster he had wound round the handle of the club, a mashie niblick picked up from a market stall in Beresford Square when he went for a dekko. Albert smiles down at his own feet planted lumpily on the bare floorbeds of the changing room.”
The stream of consciousness technique is laced with many existentialist observations. Old age, Busner muses, is a form of institutionalisation which “deprives you of your identity and supplies another” and “commits you to a realm […] at once confined and unbound”. Audrey is most perplexed at her contradictory feelings when she sees a doctor and imagines that “impersonal tenderness and scientific concern” are the future of womankind. In one of her interior monologues, she says: “Thought is a melody” and body “an inert mechanism.”
Umbrella explores the inhumane treatment which people with (or supposed) mental illness are subjected to by society. According to Busner, “post-encephalitis have borne the brunt of every successive wave of psychiatric opinion.” The book also criticises excessive materialism, cut-throat race for survival and supreme indifference — fruits of capitalism. However, the human mind is the key obsession of this novel.
Experimental, paradoxical and deliberately complex, Umbrella has more elements of de-creation than creation. It is far from an easy read. It’s frustrating, often confusing, but worth the effort in the end.
By Will Self