Wizard Contrivances

Jon Day

  • Umbrella by Will Self
    Bloomsbury, 397 pp, £18.99, August 2012, ISBN 978 1 4088 2014 8

‘I have forgotten my umbrella,’ Nietzsche wrote in the margins of an unpublished manuscript. Whether he wanted to remind himself of the phrase, which he put in inverted commas, or of the umbrella itself, isn’t known. ‘It is always possible that it means nothing at all or that it has no decidable meaning,’ Derrida commented. ‘What if Nietzsche was only pretending to say something?’ The forgetability of umbrellas – as Will Self suggests in his ninth novel – tells us something about modernity. ‘When did the umbrella first become an article to be routinely forgotten rather than assiduously remembered?’ Self asks. ‘Surely, to begin with, they would’ve been expensive items, invested with strong affect and not to be casually abandoned,’ as they are nowadays, ‘given their cheapness and ubiquity’.[*] Umbrella finds its title in Ulysses (‘A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella’) and it bulges with the objets trouvés of the early 20th century: shells, radios, kinematographs, advertising slogans, telegraphs and omnibuses. Umbrellas seem appropriate objects for Self’s attention, with their combination of engineering elegance and absurdity. They lurk in the wings of 20th-century history: the Hindenburg, a cloth bag stretched over metal struts, was essentially an enormous, gas-filled umbrella; in 1971 the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was assassinated by a pellet of poison shot from an umbrella as he crossed Waterloo Bridge. With its lightness, strength and tricksy mechanism the umbrella has many of the qualities of Self’s prose.

The plot of Umbrella is a fictional reworking of the events described by Oliver Sacks in Awakenings, when patients who had spent decades in a catatonic state after contracting a virus after the First World War were temporarily woken up by a new drug, L-Dopa. In Self’s version of events, the administrator of the wonder drug is not Sacks but Dr Zachary Busner, a character who has appeared in several of his earlier books. In Walking to Hollywood (2010), Self described him as ‘the consultant psychiatrist at Heath Hospital, who for over a quarter of a century had played a major role in my life – part therapist, part mentor, part friend, part inspiration, part hierophant, part demiurge … wholly suspect’. Busner’s marriage is failing, and there are hints of a brother who has succumbed to madness, but these sadnesses are kept in the background. As Umbrella begins he has recently left the Concept House, an R.D. Laing-inspired anti-psychiatry commune in Willesden in which he guided patients on LSD-fuelled trips of self-discovery, for Friern Hospital, a hulking Victorian mental asylum in a North London suburb, which was formerly known as Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum. Friern had six miles of corridors, surfaced with bitumen, and a ward round was said to take five hours. ‘These are roadway distances,’ Busner thinks, ‘a hundred yards, a hundred feet, a hundred more, a North Circular of the soul.’ Until 1993, when it was sold off as a result of the Community Care Act, the hospital housed several thousand patients. I used to go past it on the bus to school as it waited for redevelopment, an embodiment of the suburban gothic that is Self’s most pronounced Ballardian inheritance. The gates, which had always stood open, are now locked: the asylum has been turned into a block of flats called Princess Park Manor.

Back in 1971, Busner arrives at work:

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. I’m an ape man, I’m an ape-ape man, oh I’m an ape man … The lawns and verges are soft with dew, his arms and his legs are stiff – a rigor he associates with last night’s tense posture, when I aborted the fumbled beginnings of a non-committal progress. While Miriam fed the baby in their bed hawsers and pipelines coiled away into milky, fartysteam – the enormous projectile retracted into the cradle of my belly and thighs … I’m an ape man, I’m an ape-ape man …

Self has invoked Joyce many times in his fiction, most obviously in How the Dead Live (2000), in which a woman called Lily Bloom, transported to the Hades of the London Borough of Dulston, channels the spirit of her namesake Molly in an extended interior monologue on life, death and the city. Joyce’s fingerprints are all over Umbrella.

At Friern Hospital, Busner has a patient called Audrey Death, and we soon drift into her consciousness. Audrey recalls her childhood in East London and her Jewish father’s perambulations around the changing city. He worked on the buses: ‘Over there, madam, you may espy a Thornycroft ’bus,’ he says. ‘Yonder, by the portico of the Apollo, that there is the Fischer ’bus.’ Audrey works in an umbrella factory and falls in love with an ineffectual radical called Gilbert, under whose influence she becomes a socialist and a suffragette. When the war begins she starts work as a munitions girl at the Woolwich Arsenal. Stanley, one of her brothers, a romantic idealist and reader of pulp science fiction, joins political discussion groups and falls in love above his station. Audrey’s other brother, Albert, is a human computer, a man-machine lacking empathy who is repeatedly struck by the stupidity of the mob. Albert is the one character whose inner life we do not have access to, presumably because he doesn’t have one. This makes him curiously compelling. Stanley is sent to the front while Albert ingratiates himself with the establishment over a round of golf, calculating the trajectories of the balls as though they were the parabolas of shells. He gets a job running the munitions factory where Audrey works. Stanley is killed in the trenches and enters a purgatory reminiscent of the no-man’s-land inhabited by deserter-troglodytes in Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory.

Audrey succumbs to encephalitis lethargica, the ‘sleepy sickness’ that swept Europe after the First World War. Constantin Von Economo, who first described the condition, called its most extreme sufferers ‘extinct volcanoes’ but Self uses the illness as a symbol and symptom of modernity: Audrey’s festinations and pulsions become a metaphor for the tics of the machine age and anticipate the binary code of the digital future. She is committed to Friern in 1922. The year is significant: the annus mirabilis of literary modernism during which Ulysses, Jacob’s Room, The Cantos and The Waste Land were all published.

Fifty years later, Busner intervenes. With the help of a savant-like mental health nurse called Mboya, and much to his superiors’ displeasure, he gives Audrey large doses of L-Dopa. Audrey wakes up, and turns out to be articulate and funny, and to have mysteriously absorbed what has happened in the world since 1922: ‘I am not a fool and nor have I been in a complete swoon these past years,’ she says. ‘If you wish to form some idea of the constitution of my mind, it may well aid you to think of me as a sort of soldier but recently returned from the Front, and afflicted with a very peculiar case of shell shock.’ ‘If this Eldoughpa stuff continues to do its bit,’ she adds, ‘then perhaps I will have the opportunity to tell you quite how extraordinary it has been for me.’

And so the novel unspools, four hundred uninterrupted pages in the present tense. Self told an interviewer that he couldn’t accept ‘the arbitrary divisions of chapters and line breaks’ because ‘life doesn’t resolve itself into chapters, nor is it punctuated by line breaks. Continuous present is all we have.’ But stream of consciousness can seem just as artificial as conventional realist narrative. The stream of consciousness novel has difficulty registering the passage of time (the ‘Time Passes’ section of To the Lighthouse is an exception) and, without chapter or headings, Self sometimes has to drop some pretty heavy hints to tell the reader she has entered a different period. In 1971 Busner thinks about decimalisation; in 2010 he listens to Jenni Murray on Woman’s Hour.

Self has a wonderful ear for accent and idiom, and uses this to signal changes of time or perspective. When she’s recalling her youth Audrey speaks (but doesn’t always think) in a pared-down version of the phonetic mockney Self perfected in The Book of Dave (2006). Her lover speaks with a lisp. Accents tell us a great deal about their users in Umbrella. When Stanley falls in love his veneer of respectability is stripped away along with his accent, a reverse Pygmalion. Audrey’s status as a self-made woman is signalled by what might be seen as lapses of tone but are intended to demonstrate ability to inhabit different registers. ‘We called them grottoes, Doctor Busner – lots of children made ’em when I was a girl in Fulham,’ she explains, blending cockney with anthropological authority. ‘No one, as I recall, ever hazarded an explanation – it was just something we did, a folk custom … maybe t’do with the seasons, ’cause we’d dress ’em with spring flowers.’

And then there are the italics. When Self’s characters remember things, or when they think figuratively, or when they inhabit the first-person pronoun more firmly – when they do anything ‘literary’, in other words – they do it in italics. When Busner adds his own thoughts to the third-person narrative, especially when he is being euphemistic – ‘and the cabbagey puff when he was last down there’ – italics are used to mark the interventions. Busner himself wouldn’t describe a failed fuck as the ‘fumbled beginnings of a non-committal congress’, but he might think, with all the self-censorship involved in recalling sexual failure, that he had ‘aborted’ it.

Self wrote that he developed this technique in Walking to Hollywood ‘to convey the implausibility of this reconstructive memoir, and indeed of the genre as a whole’. In Umbrella the italics signal typographically those moments when characters wrest control from the puppetmaster and assert: ‘This is how I think.’ This is Self’s way of dealing with what Hugh Kenner called the ‘Uncle Charles Principle’. Wyndham Lewis criticised Joyce for describing Uncle Charles ‘repairing’ to his outhouse in A Portrait of the Artist, arguing that ‘people repair to places in works of fiction of the humblest order.’ Kenner argued that Joyce had used the word ‘repair’ because it was the sort of word Uncle Charles would use himself: one of Joyce’s great innovations was to close the gap between narrator and narratee so that, as Kenner wrote, ‘the narrative idiom need not be the narrator’s.’ In italicising these instances Self makes the minds of his characters easier to read, but doesn’t allow for ambiguity. When Busner gropes for a word his equivocations are explicit: ‘Paraldehyde … paral- … parados! That was the word for it.’ At times Busner’s thoughts strike you not so much as those of a Bloom-like everyman, but an everyman who has read Ulysses.

Self has argued that the orderliness of the naturalistically rendered mind, with its ‘he thoughts’ and ‘she was struck bys’, amount to a clunky simulacrum of the way we think. ‘The minds of some of our most beloved and believed in fictional characters,’ he said in a 2008 lecture, ‘have as great a resemblance to the reality of the psyche as stick figures do to human anatomy.’ Modernism was supposed to show us what our minds were really like by exposing the messy, fragmented and dirty aspects of our psyches. It did this by deploying internal monologue, free indirect discourse, ellipsis and allusion. But it often tended to infantilise its characters, or, worse, to make them seem crazy. The unpunctuated sections of Ulysses, Wyndham Lewis complained, were ‘merely a device for presenting the disordered spurting of the imbecile low-average mind’. Joyce’s ‘inner method’ and Gertrude’s ‘Stein-stutter’ were, he felt, suitable only for the portrayal of the thoughts of ‘(1) the extremely aged; (2) young children; (3) half-wits; and (4) animals’. Self shares these anxieties: ‘Set down on the page in the continuous present all the little twists and displacements of quite ordinary consciousness take on a looming and pathological quality.’ His use of italics makes of the insane ego something distinct and separate. ‘The me-voice,’ Busner schizophrenically thinks to himself, ‘the voice about me, that’s me-ier than me … so real, ab-so-lute-ly, that might not self-consciousness itself be only a withering away of full-blown psychosis?

Self has written a lot recently about modernism. In an article for the Guardian he argued that the English literary establishment has studiously ignored modernism’s lessons. The novels he grew up with ‘seemed as fusty as Victorian drawing-rooms cluttered with over-stuffed furniture, and glass domes beneath which once-fluttering thoughts had been imprisoned’. Writers like McEwan, Barnes, Amis and Hollinghurst produce novels which succumb to a form of prep-school realism, stealing modernism’s fart gags and toilet humour but ignoring almost everything else:

The dominant school of fiction, still more so in Britain than in the States, remains character-driven and narrative-ratcheted, and whatever the changing nature of its cast and content – the underclass of Irvine Welsh, the denizens of Rushdie’s fables and those of other postcolonial Booker shoo-ins – it remains unperturbed by the idea that modernity simply cannot be accommodated in such securely cosy forms.

When people say a contemporary novel is modernist they usually mean that it is set in the early 20th century – like Tom McCarthy’s C – and contains one or more of the following: a narrative distancing which makes us work hard to assign thoughts, feelings and perceptions to particular characters; an unwillingness to present things directly; a commitment to what Ian Watt called ‘delayed decoding’, describing objects in unfamiliar terms so as to ambush the reader with the shock of recognition. Such works are essentially nostalgic: the techniques once hailed as assaults on literature’s tired codes of representation have themselves been codified.

Self’s argument that modernity can’t be ‘accommodated’ by the cosy forms of naturalism is equally backward-looking. The modernists themselves weren’t particularly interested in what their methods were taken to be representing. Joyce didn’t much care whether Ulysses was any better at getting closer to what Self calls ‘the texture of lived life’ than what had gone before. ‘From my point of view,’ he told Stuart Gilbert, ‘it hardly matters whether the technique is “veracious” or not; it has served me as a bridge over which to march my 18 episodes, and, once I have got my troops across, the opposing forces can, for all I care, blow the bridge sky-high.’ Rather than finding new ways to describe the old world, Joyce was creating a new style for its own sake. All his efforts to keep the professors guessing were meant to draw attention to the work itself, rather than to the world it described. ‘His writing is not about something’, Beckett said of Finnegans Wake, ‘it is that something itself.’

It is Umbrella’s historical consciousness that makes it such a curiously unmodernist book. Suffragettes in petticoats ride safety-cycles and people break off to discuss ‘the martyrdom of Davison’ and the ‘bombshell’ dropped by Emily Pankhurst. Self’s characters are aware they are living through a transitional epoch: ‘After all, this is a new century now, ain’t it,’ Stanley observes, ‘no need to wait any more is there? Time, distance … our wizard mechanical contrivances have them altogether ee-lim-ee-nated.’ At one point Audrey sees oil-swirls on a river ‘within which stretch and curl the weird designs of those Futurists whose own oils she had seen with Gilbert Cook at the Manor House Gallery before the war’.

In her polemical 1923 essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, Woolf criticised her Edwardian forebears – Bennett, Galsworthy and Wells – for putting too much matter into their novels, documenting social and economic conditions but ignoring the inner life of Mrs Brown. Joyce’s research for Ulysses was conducted in the present tense: he asked his aunt Josephine whether it was ‘possible for an ordinary person to climb over the area railings of No 7 Eccles Street’. His method was, Eliot argued, to use a mythical scaffold as a way of ‘giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history’, but that history happened elsewhere. In Umbrella Self isn’t so much interested in making it new as in exploring our collective cultural memory of that thing called modernism.

[*] Oddly, the statistics tell a different story. According to the London Lost Property Office, 87,356 umbrellas were lost on the Underground in 1934 (when records began); last year the figure was 7798.