The OF Blog: 2012 Man Booker Prize finalist: Will Self, Umbrella

Sunday, November 25, 2012

2012 Man Booker Prize finalist: Will Self, Umbrella

The patient lies beached across her specially reinforced catafalque of a bed, and as he sponges around her pudenda she groans a'herrra! and grinds her teeth while her bare feet patter on his shoulders – several flies settle close to her very bits, but none of this matters.  She's mine now, my Twiggy...grown Redwood.  A bed sore in the region of her hip dressed, that dressing sheathed in underwear chivvied from reluctant staff, Busner fetches his tripod and Bolex camera.  He is operating intuitively – there is no clear idea.  In Willesden and before, he used photography to present objective images to the deluded with which to counter their disordered ones.  To the same end he employed a tape recorder after injecting them with sodium pentothal.  Sometimes he guided them on LSD trips – all of it, as he now admits, had only variable results.  This is different, however:  Leticia Gross is wholly inert, holed up deep inside her voluminous fat, and moving images of her colossal inanition seem entirely beside the point.  ANd yet...And yet... he has a hunch.  As with Audrey Dearth, he senses singing within her a crazy polyphony of exaggerated tics, a pickingitupandpickingitupandpickingitup, a hairflickinghairflickinghairflicking, a scratching and a reaching, and a perseverating.  He sets up the camera and she fills the viewfinder:  a Matterhorn, her eyes arêtes, her cheeks ice flows.  The light is drab, yet he presses the button and waits...and waits... (p. 127-128)

Modernist prose has long fascinated me precisely because it is not something one just picks up and reads with quick and near-total comprehension.  Sometimes, a reader should have to work harder at deciphering a text, plowing through its layers of intertextual symbolism and "crosstalk" to get closer to the substance of the passages.  Our world is not a singular narrative that flows lineally from point A to B; it pauses, interrupts itself, interjects a multitude of viewpoints.  Perspectives shift or transform in front our eyes and meaning, like time and space, seem to occur all at once and not at all.  Confusing?  Perhaps at first.  Worth the effort?  Depends upon the skill of the writer to convey a sense of fractured time through narrative forms such as stream of consciousness that capture this sense of multiplicity in a succinct fashion.

Will Self's Umbrella was by a fair margin the most challenging narrative of the six 2012 Man Booker Prize finalists.  Self consciously tries to capture the best of the Modernist techniques in a combination of three stories and four PoVs that span the length of the long Modernist/Postmodernist ages (roughly 1918-2010 for the novel).  It is a tale of movement among those who appear to be for virtually all extent and purposes the sleeping dead.  It is also a whole host of other things, all wrapped up in a multi-perspective stream of consciousness narrative that works on several levels.

Umbrella (the novel's name is explained in the epigraph, being a quote from James Joyce) concretes on two past/present narrators:  Audrey Dearth/Death (among other surname variations) was a victim of the 1918 encephalitis lethargica epidemic that left her condemned to a sort of waking death until a curious experiment conducted by Dr. Zack Busner involving LSD seems to reawaken parts of her mind.  Much of the narrative flow consists of pre-1918 Audrey's conceptualizations of the world, including her support for feminist and socialist causes being transformed through this 1971 LSD-induced reawakening into something that feels like a fissured reconstitution of this important period in 20th century British social history.  Mixed in with Audrey's past/present recollections are Busner's own thoughts and reminisces, both as the experimental doctor in 1971 and as the retired one in 2010 who is reflecting back on what was a mysterious series of events that occurred during that fateful summer.  Self intertwines their thoughts, past/present during these three periods (1918, 1971. 2010) in such a seamless fashion that it takes some effort from the reader to discern which Audrey is speaking and which Dr. Busner is conversing with his past/future/present self.

This narrative technique can be rather hokey if the author does not tailor the story to fit within the constraints of stream of consciousness.  For the most part, with very few slip-ups, Self eloquently captures the tenor and feel of three separate periods through stray thoughts and symbolic representations (including the transformation of WWI-era munitions into something quite different in Audrey's thoughts).  The name play (a fat woman with the surname of Gross, not to mention Audrey's various surname spellings?) is well-done, with the occasional onomatopoeia, such as that in the quoted passage being a nod to Joyce and his use of such to play with the narrative tone.

Yet a narrative can be as "daring," as "experimental" as possible and lack a "soul" to it.  This, however, is not the case in Umbrella.  Amongst the memories of old items for sale and pre-mass media marches and demonstrations lurks another narrative, that of the terrible 20th century and its dissolution of older traditions in order to create mass entities that mimic some of the past's cultural heritage while suborning it all to machine-like mass production.  Self's commentary on the century is not direct, but it can be pieced together through a careful look at what Audrey and Dr. Busner recall and how they react to it.  Through their eyes and through their real/symbolic states, much more is said on the century that was, on its great social movements and its blunderings toward horrific violence, than if Self had told their stories through a more conventional narrative form.

Umbrella was my second-favorite out of the six 2012 Man Booker Prize finalists.  I thought that Self succeeded in achieving most, if not all, of his literary goals, with the result being a complex narrative that yields only some of its fruit upon a first reading.  Re-reading passages prior to writing this review sparked memories of other times, other events that I had read prior to this novel and that too perhaps is part of the novel's goal of narrating and reshaping a turbulent past.  Umbrella may not be "accessible" (those who tend to use this word to describe novels frequently espouse a trite, Hallmark Card-style approach toward storytelling that sucks the narrative marrow dry), but it certainly is an impressive achievement and worthy of further consideration in the years to come.

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