The inclusion of Will Self on the Booker long list was like a flashing neon sign pointing towards 'Serious Literature' and away from last year's much criticised populism. In a recent interview in the Observer, the columnist, cultural pundit, professor of contemporary thought at Brunel University and novelist asserted 'I don't write for readers.'
Anyone brave enough to pick up Umbrella (at once a reference to James Joyce, to anti-shell device in the trenches, to a retracted foreskin revealing a prepuce, to an intra-muscular syringe and to the structure of the novel which spans out from a single scene) would find, as Mark Lawson in the Guardian also put it, 'no textual divisions, speech represented without quotation marks and scarcely any line indentations … a single paragraph of 397 pages and around 120,000 words'. But Lawson thought any hard work necessitated was amply rewarded as 'through the polyphonic, epoch-hopping torrent we gradually construct a coherent and beguiling narrative'.
Indeed most felt the modernist form of the novel matched the content. Umbrella is Self's take on encephalitis lethargica, the sleeping epidemic which struck after the First World War, previously treated by Oliver Sacks in the non-fiction work Awakenings (1978) and Harold Pinter in the play A Kind of Alaska (1982). Though the heroine, who is finally roused by a psychiatrist in 1971, is asleep during precisely the period in which modernism comes to the fore, Self's stream-of-consciousness narrative acts as a fitting echo to the chronological disruption of her life. Ludovic Hunter-Tilney in the Financial Times (£) thought it an ‘immense achievement’ as the narrative style suited its epoch perfectly; while Joyce and Woolf ‘were inspired by the speculative interpretations of psychoanalysis, Self frames his action in the mechanistic language of psychiatry'. Only Matthew Adams in the Literary Review (£) called Self's meandering arcane prose simple window-dressing: 'For all its apparent formal inventiveness, Umbrella is actually a fairly conventional novel, dressed up to resemble something radical.'
But Matt Thorne in The Independent, among others, praised Umbrella as both an important culmination of Self's previous work and a new departure:
'Though the novel, like all of Self's books, is largely a combination of the dryly comic and grotesque, there is a new stateliness apparent in Umbrella. The influence of Self's alternative canon of Ballard, Burroughs, science fiction, Kafka and Lewis Carroll's whimsy is absent here, as is his relish of decadence. There is a contemplative quality to the prose that feels new ... but the content remains familiar: a Swiftian disgust with the body; a fastidious querulousness about human sexuality; a forcing of attention on human frailty ... Undoubtedly Self's most considered novel, as much a new beginning as a consolidation of everything he has written to date.’
Despite the challenge Umbrella poses to the poor reader perhaps this attack on medical ethics and meditation on the senselessness of war will give us something to talk about now the Olympic circus has left town. In fact, Will Self may just have written the Booker’s most interesting contender.
Fleur Macdonald is editor of The Omnivore.