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Umbrellaby Will Self
Synopses & Reviews
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.
It is 1971, and Zachary Busner is a maverick psychiatrist who has just begun working at a mental hospital in suburban north London. As he tours the hospital's wards, Busner notes that some of the patients are exhibiting a very peculiar type of physical tic: rapid, precise movements that they repeat over and over. These patients do not react to outside stimuli and are trapped inside an internal world. The patient that most draws Busner's interest is a certain Audrey Dearth, an elderly woman born in the slums of West London in 1890, who is completely withdrawn and catatonically tics with her hands, turning handles and spinning wheels in the air. Busner's investigations into the condition of Audrey and the other patients alternate with sections told from Audrey's point of view, a stream of memories of a bustling bygone Edwardian London where horse-drawn carts roamed the streets. In internal monologue, Audrey recounts her childhood, her work as a clerk in an umbrella shop, her time as a factory munitionette during World War I, and the very different fates of her two brothers. Busner's attempts to break through to Audrey and the other patients lead to unexpected results, and, in Audrey's case, discoveries about her family's role in her illness that are shocking and tragic.
"Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Self's sweeping experimental new novel (after Walking to Hollywood) creaks under the weight of chaotic complexity. At its core lies a fractured matrix only partially resembling a coherent story. For more than 50 years, octogenarian Audrey Death aka De'Ath, Deeth, Deerth has languished in North London's Friern Mental Hospital, suffering from encephalitis lethargica — a brain-damaging sleeping sickness she contracted in 1918 that renders patients either 'whirled into a twisted immobility, or else unwound spastic, hypotonic.' In 1971, whiz-bang psychiatrist Zachary Busner attempts to revive her and other 'enkies' by plying them with L-Dopa (an anti-Parkinson's drug). A fleeting reawakening reveals jarring glimpses into Audrey's past (a hardscrabble childhood in Edwardian England; a job at a WWI munitions factory; a raunchy love affair with a married man), with alternating flashbacks to the lives of her brothers Stan (a gunner in the war) and Bert (a puffed-up civil servant), and jumps forward to Busner in 2010 reminiscing about his past (a failed marriage; adultery; his mixed career). Lacking chapter breaks, paragraph separations (mostly), and hopping between these four characters' stream-of-consciousness points of view, the already puzzling tome can be difficult to follow, let alone grasp. But with snippets of dialects, stylistic flourishes, and inventive phrases loose with meaning, for those who grab hold and hang on, the experience falls just shy of brilliant. Agent: Andrew Wylie, the Wylie Agency." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Will Self belongs in the company of Nabokov, Pynchon, William Gaddis, and Don DeLillo." The New York Times Book Review
"In these culturally straitened times few writers would have the artistic effrontery to offer us a novel as daring, exuberant and richly dense as Umbrella. Will Self has carried the modernist challenge into the twenty-first century, and worked a wonder." John Banville
"Umbrella is his best book yet....It makes new for today the lessons taught by the morals of Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Tin Drum, also García Márquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold." Alasdair Gray
"A hot tip for the Booker prize...a stream of consciousness tour de force....[A] heartbreaking mosaic, a sardonic critique of the woefully misdirected treatment of the mentally ill and the futility of war and, above all, a summation of the human condition....[B]y the end you are filled with elation at the author's exuberant ambition and the swaggering way he carries it all off, and then a huge sense of deflation at the realization that whatever book you read next, it won't be anything like this." The Daily Mail
"In prose uninterrupted by chapters or line breaks, a twisted version of the 20th century is woven and unpicked again. It is a postmodern vivisection of Modernism, analyzing the dream and the machine, war as the old lie and a new liberation, and rituals sacred, profane and banal....[A] linguistically adept, emotionally subtle and ethically complex novel." Guardian
"A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella." James Joyce, Ulysses
Umbrella, the latest novel by the cuttingly intelligent Will Self, arcs between pre-World-War-I London and a mental hospital in 1971. The title refers to a recurring motif in the book, which appears most notably in the sections that take place at the mental hospital, where the nurses call for an umbrella” when they need to inject a patient with a sedative. The book challenges the institutional treatment of the mentally ill from the Victorian asylums to the care in the community” that is the touchstone of contemporary mental health care. Umbrella is a complex narrative peppered with Self's wit, dark humor, and stylistic idiosyncrasies.
The work is written as a single uninterrupted stream of narrative, without any chapter breaks and with paragraph breaks only rarely. The book is told in the third person, but includes italicized lines in many sentences that relay the characters thoughts or speech. The setting shifts between a coherently advancing central plot in one timeframe and flashbacks/memories of earlier periods in some of the characters lives, which initially makes for a (deliberately) disconcerting reading experience. However, as the reader becomes more familiar with this narrative strategy, the changes in narrative perspective become second nature. This shift in narration, far from alienating the reader, keeps the books narrative in constant flux, and makes the work gripping and engaging.
About the Author
Will Self is the author of six short-story collections, a book of novellas, eight novels, and six collections of journalism. He lives in London.
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