Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Booker Longlist 2012, 8: Will Self, Umbrella (2012)

Ahuh Ahuh (Yea Rhianna), Ahuh Ahuh (Good girl gone bad), Ahuh Ahuh (Take three... Action), Ahuh Ahuh Trotting along to a Costa to bash out the review, my head full of orts and scraps, and wha? Whadawe got? Here it is. Self’s book: one 400 page slab of creative-writing-exercise prose, not disposed into chapters, with paragraphs that spool on for dozens of pages. It’s inside the head of 1971’s Dr Zack Busner, who works in a run-down institution for the bewildered and catatonic, and his head is full of orts and scraps of professional knowledge and contemporary pop and random shit fully faecally rendered, this novel. It’s also inside the head of Dr Zack in 2010, old and fat and sad, and wandering around North London. It’s also, ainy owld ion ainy owld ion ainy-ainy-anally ion inside the head of Audrey Death in 1918, London lass, working in the Munitions factory at the Woolwich Arsenal. Working class gal. And we know her family is working class because they talk loik this: ‘ca-a-a-t’s me-eat! Until praps a cat’s gotit. Audrey! Or-dree! Cummun get yer tea!’ and so on ... *sigh* ... Audrey has brothers, but the First World War is raging (it is all the rage) and as the war ends the Great Flu comes. Audrey goes down with encephalitis and wastes her catatonic life in one institution after another, until Dr Zack does the Dr Sacks thing of waking her up with L-DOPA in 1971. You can stand under my umbrella. You can stand under my umbrella. (Ella ella eh eh eh.) Oh it’s all written like this. Oh, there’s no let-up. There’s no. Reading it is not unrewarding, I am compelled to concede that much. Often impressive. And the novel gains something by its sheer persistence, it begins to aggregate into something weighty and memorable just by not letting up. But it’s a terribly strenuous business, reading it. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed the reading of it very much. Ha-a-a-rd work. It is more admirable than successful. It has weight, but it does not have life. Its Frankenstein clots of flesh don’t live my creations, live! In part this has to do with the sheer ponderousness of Self’s stream of consciousness, which is, formally speaking, the whole of the novel. There’s no Joycean or Faulknerian flow here. It is all too carefully studied, too clunkily welded together. Stream of consciousness? Stagnant canal of consciousness, filled with old shopping trolleys and scum. That may not be a criticism, actually. That may be exactly what Self is going for. When the clouds come we gone, we Rocafella. We fly higher than weather. Self is saying: consciousness is not flow-y; it is cluttered and jittery and broken-up and full of abstruse allusions and oblique visual description and condescending prole speak and lots and lots of this sort of thing: ‘vermiculated quoins’; ‘bulb of the sphygmomanometer’; ‘swelling embolism of the geriatric’; ‘her bombazine prow’; ‘spontaneous jactitations’ [35; 39; 134; 288; 392]. Personally, I do not think that consciousness is like this. (Nor, as it goes, do I think consciousness is a Joycean verbal-free-associative stream either, but that’s a separate matter). You may have more sympathy with Self’s sense of things than I, ‘The Great Pretentious-er’. But your gorge will surely rise, as mine did. Self wants our gorges to rise. Umbrella is a novel full of disgust. It’s full of eew! It’s a stew of eeww. Here is Audrey’s brother Stan, as a soldier in WW1, in a brothel, with his sergeant. There’s a queue of other men outside the door: ‘the sergeant took his time, the suck out of her cunny was his satisfied belch, then he pulled up his breeches by his braces and moved aside to reveal gaping wet lips, hag hairs, brown-eyed teats—a likeness of a raddled old woman’s countenance that had nothing to do with the young girl whose body it was. The sergeant turned to Stanley, his panting subsiding, his belly all shivery—he was neither annoyed nor discomfited and his hand said, Your turn. Three weeks later Stanley spotted his corpse in the no-man’s-land of the Hohenzollern Redoubt—the sergeant had done a somerset into the wire and sprawled there deadstock, all swole up—the maggots were having a terrific feed …’ [204]. Self seems to have chanced upon a rather potent sex/death thematic in this book. I wonder if any other writer has thought of it before? If not, then he has good reason to be proud. (To be fair: few writers since Swift have wallowed quite so wholeheartedly in the nasty sty of physical revulsion and satiric disgust as Self does). Fair? Ah. but it’s not fair, this novel. It’s foul. It’s the dark lady of the sonnets, Mr W. S. All Happinesse and that Eternitie Promised By Our Ever-Liuing Poet … It’s death and myriad indignities, and a bad smell, and physical humiliations and clever phrasing. And italics. Lots and lots of phrases and sentences in italics. You think the italicised portions, with which the prose is fantastically littered, follow some kind of pattern? Mr. W.S. is too clever for you there, my friend, my freud. For the first few paragraphs of the novel, up to about p.30 they present one kind of sense: we’re inside the head of 1971-vintage Dr Zack, as the Kinks rattle around his scattle-skull. First sentence: ‘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 Frien Barnet morning, staying with him, wreathing his head with rapidly condensing pop breath.’ [1; elipsis in original ...] We think: alright, the italics are inward thoughts, or, no, since it’s all inward thoughts, they must be the distractions in Dr Zippy’s stream of consciousness. But thereafter italicisation increasingly seems to be dropped in at random. It is my belief that Self uses italics in much the way Braque or De Kooning worked over their finished canvases, dirtying things up to create a more interesting texture. That in other words Self uses these italics to scratch and striate and distress his otherwise too polished prose. And occasionally to highlight a bit of writing of which he’s really rather proud (who was it said, ‘go through what you have written and when you find a phrase you’re particularly proud of, strike it out …? Self certainly does the opposite of that, here). Occasionally he’ll capitalize a word. Like this: SEPULCHRAL. Or words, like this: WHOLE HORIZON BURST INTO FLAME. The whole novel is structured like an umbrella—I know this because Self has said so, in interviews, pleased with his cleverness. And it’s hard to avoid being pleased with one’s cleverness. I’m clever, and I know: one’s own cleverness is a pleasing thing. Smuggening, though. Smuggerella, ella, ella. (‘When I was with the umbrella-makers there were always damaged frames and plenty of material offcuts—oiled cottons, art silks, that sort of thing—[147] D’you see what he did there?). The novel’s epigraph is from Joyce: ‘a brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella’, ironically applied because nothing is forgotten in this novel despite its main theme of the physical frailty of memory, catatonia, repression and so on. Self drags all his post-it-noted research into the making, weaves his cloth and sews it to its metal frame. Is there an umbrella ella, ella in this novel? Not functionally, because umbrellas serve to keep the rain off and nothing keeps the rain off in this novel; the rain it raineth every day; and the rain it getteth into every crack. It seeps through the inadequate soldering of the brass shells Audrey and her co-workers make in Woolwich, rendering a proportion (‘perhaps as high as 50%’) of the munitions duds (‘imperfectly brazed and welded the tonic wine of rainfall drips through their torn seams’ [248]). Characters in London are ‘strafed by raindrops’; the trenches at the Western Front fill with the downpour and the battlefield turns to mud. ‘Black bars in the sky that cut across the puce clouds bleeding mauve rain’ [316]. Oh, ugh, that last one’s bad writing. What else? Looking back, I think I can discern (unless it’s just my pattern-noticing brain and not present in the text at all) an eight-part unprocrustean structure to the Umbrella’s 400 pages: roughly 50 pages per section, each one shuffling all three time periods 1918, 1971, 2010, but running radially round the stem of Self’s name of the father supportive writer’s phallus: stasis—feminism—catatonia and ‘the shaking palsy’—medication—war—revival—sacralisation—movement. Good and bad. If Self hadn’t said that in interview, though, would I have noticed it? Chiz, chiz. Old slang, sliced ham, ‘on the arm of her chair her twisted hand dances fingertrot, handango, thumba' [192]. The 1918 portions are the most vivid, with some particularly horrible trench-war scenes—the officers all donkeys, the ordinary men lions who say ‘cunt’ a lot, and they’re working class, we can tell they’re working class because they say things like ‘Think on’t, Stan, iffen they knew they’d turn their goons on uz, winkle uz aht, drag uz oop’ [315]. It’s like the old nursery rhyme: Moloch come. Moloch stay/Moloch never go away/Not a thought in your white brow/Can satiate old Moloch now. ‘The piss yellow champagne foaming in real glass goblets.’ [261]. Audrey makes a sort of shrine or grotto under her bed every year out of various discarded and often unpleasant things. ‘Audrey smiles, her twiggy fingers go to her temples and scratch at the dried-out nest of white hair’ [305]. Didn’t Elvis Costello manage to get all this into a four-minute pop song. Veritably, Veronically? Does this subject benefit from being bashed and hammered for four hundred pages? And you know what? For all the myriad Anthony Burgess touches in this novel it lacks Burgess’s core belief that the reader must be entertained and seduced (by narrative, by character) at the same time as being stimulated, challenged, revolted and condescended to. Urban life, London life seagully yawp of car-alarm. A Ford flashing all its lights on, off, on, off, as if having an epileptic seizure. Puff, puff, hurrying down the street. Need to get to the coffee shop, get my laptop out, jot down my thoughts about this novel, move on. A couple thousand words? So many? Starlings flow about the sky like iron-filings under the influence of a vast and moving magnet. Some of this is Self, and some of it is myself. Is there an aesthetic virtue in muddying the borders? Now that it's raining more than ever. Know that we'll still have each other. Is Self’s novel a self-consciously Martian exercise, I wonder? That may be it. The wild Curiosity rover, sending its postcard home from a desolated, brown-and-tan coloured landscape? It’s a hard it’s a hard it’s a ha-a-a-rd Raine’s gonna fall … myriad moments of very niftily-put little shards of Martian poetry. A man checks a bicycle inner-tube for a puncture (‘Stanley mends the inner tube, feeding it through the water in the wooden pail, the kinked eel sends a piddle of bubbles to the surface. He pulls it out, mops it, marks its gills with the chalk.’ [18] The italics overegg this, though); cherry blossom (‘is frogspawn in the pond-green sky’, [52]); sparrows (‘they’re the same as the crumbs they peck at on the platform: they’ve been brushed off by the sky’ [153]); phlegm (‘we gargle the mucal ice cream deep in our throats, but without pleasure’ [321]). Lots and lots of those moments swim out of the overall fog. Many of them very neatly done. But despite the epigraph the wordplay is Burgessian rather than Joycean (‘doo-d’doo, doo-d’doo, doo-d’-doo, doo d’-doo, triplets of notes going up and down. Brarms, ’is intermetso a very high class roll for the cunny-sewer’: ah! the old cunt-cesspit connoisseur gag …). The world isn’t a very nice place. People aren’t always very nice to one another. The shit-brown trench walls, the yeast-stupefied pub, the faecal corridors of the psychiatric ward. Here’s one thing it all is: clever. It’s clever in two ways. One is that Will-i-am Selfspeare is, simply, a clever man, who has a very smart though often icky turn of phrase and who has done lots and lots of research about 1918 and 1971 … But it’s clever in another way too: because it interpellates the reviewer as, as it were, an ass for disliking it. It says: ‘to dislike this book is to take your place alongside those myopic critics who disliked Ulysses and To The Lighthouse because they were new!’ But-but-but! But Umbrella isn’t new. It isn’t even, as McCarthy’s C was last year, an attempt to revivify Modernism. It’s an exercise in a much more small-c conservative literary nostalgia. It’s 1922: the Year In Literature viewed under the aegis of Swift. Liking this novel is the old-fashioned thing, not the other way around. Not that there’s anything wrong with being old-fashioned. In the 1980s Angus Wilson wrote a Victorian Novel called Gentlemen in England which presented a mummified, dead-at-heart, pastiche late nineteenth-century novel to the Thatcherite readings classes as if it were a new thing. It did very well. With Self’s Umbrella we’ve moved thirty years forward in actual time, and thirty years forward in Literary Heritage time. The result is perfectly Wilsonian: the technical facility of its pastiche can’t be faulted; it fails to come alive in the same sorts of ways; it has done very well with the Cameronian reading public. It’s a shadowy, brown-stained novel: ‘that smell, faecal certainly, but antiseptically chemical too, with a sharp tang of floor polish … his moustache wet wiv beer and tobacco-stained … Mboya’s face is a teal whorl with deep, yellowy creases spreading out from full pink lips … a sea of speckled tan-coloured linoleum … it’s not food—it’s faecal … the air darkens and darkens : a smutstorm in lurid yellow suspension from out of which swim the castellated battlements of the Westminster Hospital … netherworld of sewage farms and shitty little fields …' I could go on; I’ve barely got started. It’s all brown and shadowy, ombre and grim, shitty and nasty, and despite its many vividnesses and moments of striking intensity it doesn’t really work. Brown coloured and unsucceeding. Now that it's raining more than ever/Know that we'll still have each other/You can stand under my Umber-failure





Nicola Vincent-Abnett said...


Adam Roberts Project said...

Yes. I know. Hmm. I read it; I sat down in Costa to write up a review, looked through my notes, and ... this is what came out.

If you're looking for more concision, here is what I tweeted after finishing it:

"Finally finished Self’s “Umbrella”: a slow read. My verdict: it’s very brown. Not in a POC sense; in a ‘Windsor Soup/Shit/Mud’ sense."


"Self’s Umbrella may be the brownest book ever written: a lengthy, faecal-smelling psychiatric-hospital corridor painted municipal brown."

Nicola Vincent-Abnett said...

I rather enjoyed the long version, but it didn't hurt that I was sitting in the bar of the Randolph with nothing to do but watch the World go by, and anticipate the very welcome return, after a long day, of my lovely husband.

That's probably why I couldn't manage anything more than the comment above.

On the subject of umbrellas, I'm something of a connoisseur. On the grounds that I won't leave it anywhere, because it's too expense to replace, I was gifted a gorgeous Italian number in blue and cream silk stripes with a polished bamboo handle. It is glorious.

Kathy said...

I couldn't even finish it, to be honest (it was no.8 for me on the list and the only one I've given up on). But I love your review. You have perfectly captured the dense, torpid, incomprehensibility of it.

Adam Roberts Project said...

Thanks, Kathy. She's too modest to mention it, but Kathy's own reading of the longlist can be found here.

mdlachlan said...

Very funny Adam. Will Self may not be a fraud - I dislike his writing so intensely that I can't get through enough of it to form a supportable view on that - but he sounds like a fraud in interviews.
Here's one on NPR that I felt moved to comment on.
He says so much about literature that's just immediately, conspicuously wrong to anyone who has, er, ever read any that you wonder if he's actually taking the piss.

Adam Roberts said...

Thanks, Mark. Your NPR comment is very much to the point. It's a style (see how long this blogpost got! It happened, as I wrote, quickly and spontaneously) that is, I think, more enjoyable to write than to read.