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Disturbia—Will Self’s Experiment

INCREASINGLY, ARTISTS OF all stripes are expected not only to create original work but also to provide some explanation of their intentions. Consumers, especially of art that is not straightforward, want proof that it hasn’t been created merely to confound or bamboozle them. Artists want to stave off accusations of obscurity, pointlessness, and technical incompetence (“My kid could do that!”) by situating their work within a larger context.

In numerous places, the novelist Will Self has explained his intentions for his latest book: he wanted to capture the real-time experience of being alive and, in doing so, expose the failings of narrative fiction. He wrote Umbrella in part to try to create a more true-to-life depiction of consciousness than the traditional prose novel allows. “Life doesn’t resolve itself into chapters,” Self stated in one interview, “nor is it punctuated by line breaks. … We don’t think in the simple past, and we don’t think by the agency of an omniscient narrator.”

About approaches to fiction, I say the more the merrier, but, while Umbrella is a remarkable assemblage of thought and language, it neither achieves the immediacy Self intended nor succeeds in supplanting or even fully escaping conventional narrative. The first sentence, with its dual allusion to The Kinks’s “Apeman” and Self’s novel Great Apes, is a suitable introduction to the stylistic challenges that lie ahead: “I’m an ape man, I’m an ape-ape man … Along comes Zachary, along from the porter’s lodge, where there’s a trannie by the kettle and the window is cracked open so that Muswell Hill calypso warms the cold Friern Barnet morning, staying with him, wreathing his head with rapidly condensing pop breath.”

And so it goes. Umbrella is four hundred pages of unbroken stream-of-consciousness that switches points of view and eras without warning, sometimes mid-sentence. Ellipses and allusions abound. Paragraphs are ten or twenty pages long. A mysterious, inconsistent system of italics gives the prose an off-balance emphasis, an irregular but beguiling hitch in its gait. Quotation marks are out of the question.

Umbrella is undeniably difficult reading, although I found it less and less taxing as I went, a phenomenon that had something to do with the book teaching me how to read it, but probably more to do with a slight easing of Self’s stylistic zealotry somewhere around page fifty. I had the sense that, despite himself, Self became invested in conveying a story. Scenes became longer; characters had decipherable conversations; events caused other events. Any sentence might end by teleporting you from 1971 to 1918, but once you got your bearings, the plot picked up more or less where it left off the last time you’d been in that particular era.

This plot, once its shards are sorted out and reassembled, concerns a woman named Audrey Death (a.k.a., Deer, De’Ath, Deeth, Deerth, and Dearth) who contracts encephalitis lethargica—“sleepy sickness”—after World War I, and spends fifty catatonic years in an insane asylum until a psychiatrist, Zachary Busner, briefly brings her back to lucidity. (Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings seems to have supplied this central plot.) Audrey’s brothers also figure: Albert, who oversees the munitions factory where Audrey works, and Stanley, who dies in the trenches and passes into a grimly fanciful afterlife involving a multinational underground community of “troglodytes.”

The novel’s chronology and geography are meticulously specific, and there is pleasure to be gleaned from Self’s attention to detail. Take the cool distance of this line about a shell-shocked officer whose madness is described as “a soiled and ill-fitting suit of clothes he wears on top of his uniform.” Or the atmospheric richness of this description: “The air darkens and darkens: a smutstorm in lurid yellow suspension …” Or the mingled physicality and wit of this one: “Marcus receives them in silence, only the chopped-liverish air he emits from his tightened lips suggests that lodged inside him is a balloon full of bilious cynicism.”

Themes and patterns emerge. Technology infiltrates the human body, manifesting as repetitive tics. When Audrey is young and with a lover, “she lay beneath him jerking not with pleasure provoked by his caresses but the repetitive motions of operating the lathe—twirling, cranking, pulling—that had been dinned into every nerve-fibre throughout the twelve-hour shift.” As an encephalitic, she performs the same movements. “Freaky,” says an orderly, “that old biddy’s working an invisible turret lathe.” In the present, the tapping and sliding of fingers on smartphones becomes a communal tic.

“A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella,” reads the novel’s epigraph—drawn from Ulysses—but umbrellas (and brothers, for that matter) are far from forgotten in Self’s novel. Characters tap them along paving stones. Audrey is a typist for an umbrella maker before she becomes a munitionette. In the asylum, syringes are called “umbrellas.” Busner’s schizophrenic brother “removed all the polythene from their uncle’s dry-cleaned suits, then, taking the wire coat hangers, bent them to form the framework upon which the filmy stuff could be stretched.” By reducing umbrellas to their most basic description—thin material stretched over a rigid frame—Self takes an oddly shaped object and makes it seem suddenly universal, of cosmic importance. How satisfying, as a reader, to come across two women holding hands who “remain intimate in the complexity of their bones, the stretched coverings of their skins’ overlay” and know to think of an umbrella. The haunting ubiquity of umbrellas in the novel, despite its arbitrariness, involved me in the mad, ticcing paranoia of Self’s modernity: for a moment, the lowly umbrella seemed like the key to the universe.

But while I enjoyed puzzling over the novel’s tangled references and images, the rewards of deciphering these patterns had more to do with literary gamesmanship than approaching a truer representation of consciousness. Self seems torn between his willingness to disorient the reader and a need to make sure his cleverness is appreciated, like when he can’t resist pointing out the resemblance between two characters’ names: “More than anything Busner desires the approval of this near-homonym of his uncle.” Or, in the final pages, when he italicizes the book’s theme: “Because, thinking back to those last few weeks of the trial-that-never-was-a-trial, he understands: it all had to do with time.”

This heavy-handed assertion also underlines the ultimate shortcoming of the novel’s grand experiment. Self might want Umbrella to be all about time, but in the end it is about his characters. When a novel is unhitched from conventional narrative, momentum is notoriously difficult to sustain—how can the author do something more than tail-chase, show-off, babble? Maybe out of an aversion to that danger, Self lets narrative intrude. Taken in its own right, Umbrella can be read as a mechanically clever conspiracy theory of modern life that weaves dark connections between technology and the body and makes marvelous use of the complicated inextricability of destruction from creation, death from sex. Taken as a repudiation of narrative, however, Umbrella fails by virtue of its own success as a narrative.

The unreliable human experience of time is a theme of modernism that Self has adopted wholeheartedly, but the novel’s general relationship to modernism is somewhat muddled. In an essay for The Guardian titled “Modernism and Me,” Self wrote that he wanted to dispense with convention entirely and make his books “the fictive equivalent of ripping the damn corset off altogether and chucking it on the fire.” But this novel is far from being free of convention; it’s just that Self has chosen to follow the conventions of Joyce-era modernism—literary techniques that were considered avant-garde a hundred years ago, including stream-of-consciousness, fugal structure, self-conscious highlighting of the artificiality of fiction, and a preoccupation with the past. But while Joyce revisited and disassembled the Greek heroic tradition in Ulysses and Eliot juxtaposed Grail-quest romance with the dehumanizing anonymity of a smoky, crowded, modern city in The Waste Land, Self does little to deconstruct or recast the modernist style or era. Instead he uses the swathe of the past as a setting like any other and as an excuse to revisit—without significantly altering—anxieties about industrialization, isolation, war, and cultural fragmentation that are still relevant today but feel, in this form, more nostalgic than iconoclastic.

I’m glad writers like Self are out there creating difficult, chaotic, inscrutable art that is hard work to consume, but Umbrella did not convince me that the dominance of conventional narrative is evidence of cowardice or feeble-mindedness in readers or writers as Self seems to assert. Narrative is the mode of communication we employ most often, and isn’t literature a form of communication? No work of art can replicate the immediate experience of being alive (no matter how big its canvas or long its paragraphs), and would we want it to? Recreating the claustrophobia of a single consciousness would be an extraordinary feat for a novelist, but is that the ultimate goal of literature? If it is, it’s an impossible one, as any ultimate goal should be.

Self might agree but still remain undeterred. Umbrella is only the first book of a planned trilogy.

Maggie Shipstead is the author of Seating Arrangements. Follow: @MaggieShipstead