If it’s true that all literature is about death, then Will Self’s new Man Booker-longlisted homage to the modernist novel is exemplary. It is all about Death, specifically Audrey Death, a victim of encephalitis lethargia, or “sleeping sickness”. This brain disease swept across Europe in the wake of the First World War, killing a third of its victims and leaving another third stuck for decades in mental institutions in a state of permanent mental inertia, “not dead but hibernating and growing more and more desiccated with the years”.
Umbrella interweaves three chronological strands. The first features Audrey, a worker in the munitions factory at Woolwich Arsenal. The second, set over 50 years later, is about Zachary Busner, a restless and determined Jewish doctor. He becomes fascinated by Audrey and her fellow “enkies” incarcerated in a hospital in Friern Barnet, and administers a special new drug to try and wake them from their slumber. Finally, the book flashes forward to the present day, where the ageing Dr Busner travels across the familiar landscape of suburban north London recalling the strange events of 40 years ago.
Self has expressed his disdain for traditional, naturalistic novels, with their conventional chronologies and attempts to recreate human dialogue. “The world is really strange,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s not to be explained by ‘He went to the pub’. You can create a very fine entertainment, but you can’t reach any closer to any kind of truth about what it is to exist.”
If this sort of pronouncement on the human condition makes you want to reach for the nearest copy of 50 Shades of Grey, then this is not the book for you.
Self splices together the three separate time zones, moving between them without the slightest indication (the book eschews paragraphs) other than a subtle shift in character and tone.
Umbrella is at once a First World War novel and a book about time travel, illness and memory. It also demonstrates Self’s difficult relationship with Judaism. His references to “bearded weirdos” with their “legalistic mumbling” and the “chopped livery” odour of Dr Marcus add little, and demonstrate an apparently deep-seated need for Self to reserve his pen’s most potent poison for the religion of his birth.
The subversive structure often renders the book exhaustingly incoherent as it jumps across time zones. However, for readers with the determination to persevere, this meandering tale will leave a powerful, unsettling impression of an existence eked out in the darker recesses of the human mind.