Finnegan awakes

Umbrella, by Will Self, Bloomsbury, RRP£18.99, 416 pages

The problem with being a literary outsider is the lack of attention, or, rather, getting the wrong sort of attention. It’s all very well having your novels corralled into the “cult fiction” section of the bookshop or turning up on Amazon lists compiled by individuals with user names like “Nerdy boy”, but after a while such approbation begins to chafe. Our outsider hankers to produce an important doorstopper, the sort of book that will show his establishment rivals, with their prim realism and neatly pruned humour, how it’s done. Thus Will Self’s Umbrella: an ambitiously conceived and brilliantly executed novel in the high modernist tradition of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, which has been longlisted for the Man Booker prize.

Umbrella is about a pair of outsiders. Audrey Death is a working-class woman who takes up radical politics in the early years of the 20th century; Zachary Busner the Jewish psychiatrist who comes across her in 1971 in the sprawling north London psychiatric hospital where he works. The morbidly named Death, now 81, has been incarcerated there for some 50 years. She’s in a catatonic state of withdrawal, her only animation a series of automatic tics that Busner deciphers as the muscle memory of her machine work in a munitions factory during the first world war. The story of her life before hospitalisation and Busner’s attempts to revive her unfold through a series of dizzying but intricately linked slippages through time.

Readers of Self’s previous novels will recognise familiar themes. From his first book, 1992’s sex-change fantasy Cock and Bull, the Londoner has been drawn to gothic realms of madness and perversity. He has a satirist’s disgust at the fleshiness and incontinence of the human body, amply explored in Umbrella’s descriptions of physical decay. Preposterously obscure words stud the prose, a show-offy act of disruption that Self would not hesitate to label sesquipedalian.

Drugs are another Self obsession. Until the unfortunate occasion he was discovered snorting heroin on John Major’s aeroplane while on a journalistic assignment covering the 1997 general election, he was a notorious drug user, the sort of author who would turn up to literary events with a leather briefcase that onlookers would whisper contained his “works” – as in junkie paraphernalia, not a set of handsomely embossed books.

Self is 50 now; the days of drugging and boozing are over. He has never been a dull writer, but a more fulfilling one is emerging as he traverses middle age. Umbrella is his boldest novel yet. It doesn’t so much flatten the cultic contours of his previous writing – the flights into science fiction and fantasy, the influence of JG Ballard and William Burroughs – as elevate them to a new level of seriousness.

Its scope is dazzling. The time frame goes from Death’s proletarian childhood in late-Victorian Fulham to Busner in 2010 looking back at his encounter with the catatonic socialist almost 40 years previously. There are subplots involving Audrey’s brothers, Albert and Stanley, the former a mathematical genius who rises to become a Mycroft Holmes-style civil service technocrat, the latter an artillery man in the Somme, firing the shells that Audrey packs with explosives in her munitions factory.

The switches between perspective and chronology are demanding (there are no chapters), but Self handles them with bravura skill, setting up imagery and phrases that echo suggestively between different episodes. His writing is dense with sense impressions and stray stimuli – song lyrics, italicised asides, quotes: a portrait of consciousness as a churn of memory and contingency in the style of Ulysses. Meanwhile Mrs Dalloway comes to mind in the novel’s deeply felt London-ness, from “the lobby Muzak of electric-blue seat covers” on the top deck of buses to “the sunken stare” of Alexandra Palace’s “cyclopean oculus” overlooking the city.

Buildings and people, the concrete and the organic, collapse into each other. The “cerebral corridors and cortical dormitories” of the psychiatric hospital’s inmates are a mirror image of the complex’s labyrinthine layout, which Busner perambulates humming a Kinks hit: “I’m an apeman, I’m an apeman.” He discovers that Audrey’s condition is not a mental illness but, rather, a brain disease brought on by the influenza pandemic of 1918. A particular drug restores her to lucidity, although the success is precarious. The novel is ambiguous about whether chemistry is the solution. Other impulses complicate life’s circuitry, as exemplified by Busner’s adulterous affair with a colleague. The instincts of the apeman survive in the machine age.

Umbrella’s attitude towards inner life differentiates it from its modernist models. Whereas the likes of Joyce and Woolf were inspired by the speculative interpretations of psychoanalysis, Self frames his action in the mechanistic language of psychiatry. His is a brand of modernism updated for an era of circuit boards and microprocessors, as when Busner, in 2010, finds that a “binary storm rages around him, a blizzard of ones and noughts – why fight it?”

Is there more to life than a succession of ones and noughts, action and reaction? I don’t think Self works out where feelings fit into the novel’s outlook: the ending gives Busner an emotional hinterland that seems jerry-built in comparison with the grand structure of the writing elsewhere. But the complaint is minor, a symptom of Self’s ambitiousness. Umbrella is an immense achievement.

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