Will Self’s devilish details

Whenever I reach the end of a novel – and I mean the very end, when the second set of proofs have been corrected, and the button at the printers, for good or ill, has been pushed – I find myself plagued by a very particular and almost hallucinatory condition that I’ve dubbed – with exactitude if not felicity – “everythingitis”. The distinguishing feature of everythingitis – which it shares with certain bizarre mental states that afflict the overly zealous adepts of Zen meditation – is an obsessive need to review the content of the entire world, both physical and psychic, to check whether it has been incorporated into the text just completed. Are there puddles in the novel? Do adolescent girls flsick back their hair at least once? And, if so, have the lobes of their ears – or lack of them – been described? I must stress: everythingitis covers everything, and as any novel that is genuinely ambitious tries to be a synecdoche of the world, so the malaise ramifies and ramifies: the novel may be set among disaffected teenagers in Zurich in 2006, but following its inexorably pathological logic, might there be a case for including at least a faint echo of the impact of the fall of Constantinople in 1453 on the Byzantine aristocracy?

As you can imagine, it is in the crannies between the details that the most pernicious anxieties of the novelist fester and grow. No matter how highly specific to the novel some things are, there is a myriad of other information – about clouds, sky, smells and bodily functions – that’s essential to the depiction of all possible human worlds. Have I included too much of the latter and not enough of the former (in which case the scenario will seem stretched thin and unconvincing)? Or, contra-wise, have I included too much devilish detail about the Zuricher brats’ text messaging, which will make the whole effort seem ponderous, freighted and, ultimately, just as unconvincing? For we’ve all had that experience of picking up a novel, beginning to read it with some enjoyment, but then setting it aside after a while because of the disagreeable sensation that its author – having suffered many many hours in the library reading up on goat herding, or possibly even days in the field interviewing actual goatherds – has felt compelled to cram all this extraneous and devilish detail into her essentially slight tale of forbidden love in the High Atlas.

So, lying behind everythingitis is its equally upsetting pathological sequel, acute research anxiety (or ARA); it’s all very well cleaving to the old adage “write about what you know”, but there comes a time in every writer’s life when she wants to expand her knowledge precisely through the medium itself, uniting her own experience with that of characters whose media res is radically different. And since the art of the novel in a large part consists in performing just these imaginative leaps – and making it possible for readers to make them too – the time comes when a novelist not only can, but must do some research.

Over the years I’ve developed a number of strategies for researching novels that, while I cannot necessarily recommend them wholeheartedly to other writers, seem to just about work for me – which is not to say that I’m free from ARA, oh no, but they make it manageable. To take my latest novel, Umbrella, as a case in point, this is a book the action of which stretches across 120 years, it involves numerous characters from very different social and cultural niches, but the protagonists are a long-term patient in a mental hospital, her bumptious psychiatrist, her two brothers – one a feckless dreamer who ends up on the Somme battlefield, the other a punctilious civil servant at the Woolwich Arsenal – and their omnibus conductor father. In the novel I wanted to evoke the sensorium of Edwardian London as vividly as I could – sounds, smells, colours, textures – through the mental states of my characters; just as I wanted to do the same for the western front in 1915–1916, the milieu of Friern Mental Hospital in north London in 1971, and for north London overall in the week immediately preceding the general election of 2010.

A tall order perhaps, and what was worse, to realise the themes of the novel – which include the remorseless pathologising of everyday life in the 20th century, the equally inexorable advance of mechanisation into people’s lives, and the extent to which warfare itself can be seen as the site of primary infection for both these seeming diseases – called for a large amount of both esoteric and arcane knowledge as well as specialist jargon. To somehow felicitously unite the realms of psychiatry (and neurology, for my main protagonist is actually a victim of the Encephalitis lethargica or “sleepy sickness” epidemic that swept the world in the final years of the First War), warfare, municipal transport and munitions manufacture in prose that said a lot but never too much, would vitally depend on the right research, rightly incorporated.

I’d never written anything set in a significantly different period before – in the past, certainly, and recency makes its own strange demands on a writer – and I had strong feelings about the way other novelists tended to approach these very different realities. Of course, verisimilitude is ultimately impossible for any era, but in my view most novels suffer from a tedious circularity of artifice, being as they are written by people who read too many novels, for readers who – by definition – read too many novels, about characters who themselves read too many novels. I wanted my Edwardian characters – working-class Cockneys – to be properly of their time, not denizens of a littérateur’s Neverland. One of the graceless little notes that gave me a way in to this was an aside in Jack London’s brilliant book about the East End of London in the 1900s, The People of the Abyss; referring to the swearing of one of its denizens he writes: “He used the worst epithet imaginable, which is employed constantly in all possible ways by everyone.”

This intimation that the underclass of London in 1902 said “f*** this” and “f***ing that” with quite as much frequency as their descendants opened up the past to me in this key way: the conventional approach to the past is through the written word, and yet the greatest linguistic component of a living mind is comprised by the verbal, moreover in an era before working-class people published, history was written by the bourgeoisie. Moreover, we are far more what we see than what we read – so I resolved to eschew the diaries, newspaper reports and other writings that usually make up the period novelist’s copy, and instead to pore minutely over the superb “Lost London” series of books, working my way visually into these vanished urban street scenes via superb and haunting photographs, and thereby into the mindset of my characters. By seeing what they saw and imagining what they heard, smelt and touched, perhaps I’d be in a better position to know what they thought – and thoughts were key, for I had resolved to write this novel using the stream-of-consciousness technique of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

Colney Hatch Lunatic Aslyum (in 1907), whose history Will Self drew on for his latest novel, 'Umbrella'

The other main area of research I needed to tackle was the mental hospital where my catatonic protagonist, Audrey Death, was to be confined for half a century. I already knew I wanted this to be Friern Hospital (formerly Friern Mental Hospital, and before that Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum). This was partly because of its location – I’m very much a writer of place, and Friern was on my north London patch – and partly because I liked the folk resonance of the asylum, which was the original Victorian “booby hatch”. But rather than approaching the former asylum directly – it is, of course, now in the way of these things, a luxury flats development – I decided instead to engage a researcher to visit it for me and write a report. I’ve often done this in the past: I find that placing my material at this kind of a remove prevents me from becoming bogged down – some detail is delicious, too much can be devilish – and so over-researching with the disastrous results I’ve outlined above. In fact, while the report my researcher wrote was perfectly adequate – giving me the history, the construction and the overall shape of the vast asylum (which had the longest corridor in Europe at the time of its construction: 1,700ft long), his report pointed me to an astonishing book on Colney Hatch, Psychiatry for the Poor, written by two psychiatrists who had worked there. I bought the book, read and noted it thoroughly.

However, I was still lacking the human element to my story, which takes place in the summer of 1971, when my second protagonist, the maverick psychiatrist Dr Zack Busner (who has appeared in many of my novels and short stories over the years), arrives at Friern Hospital and realises that among the inmates are 20 or 30 of the sleepy sickness victims. He resolves to “awaken” them with a new drug he has read about: L-Dopa. This element of the novel draws heavily on Oliver Sacks’s celebrated account of his own use of L-Dopa with post-encephalitic patients in a New York hospital in the early 1970s – and I make a full acknowledgement of that here. But I also had another rich source of insight into mental institutions of that time, a remarkable woman, Dr Ruth Rappaport, who was our neighbour and my mother’s friend when I was a child. I got in touch with Rappaport, who’s still living in the same house a half century on, and was privileged to be able to go and interview her over two afternoons about her work as a psychiatrist in mental hospitals during the second half of the 20th century. Rappaport’s wisdom, insight and eye for the telling detail were invaluable when it came to my developing a mind’s eye for my maverick shrink.

Part of the 1,700ft corridor, once the longest in Europe, at Friern Hospital – now a residential development

I myself only went to the old Friern Hospital once; it was on a brilliantly sunny day in April of 2010, and so I decided to turn this into the day that Zack Busner, now a valetudinarian in his early seventies, revisits the scene of his tumultuous experiment. So, like Busner in the novel, I found the vast Italianate building transmogrified into a luxury residential development – a common enough fate for an asylum, following the discharge of the patients in the early 1990s, patients whose own fate was the oxymoronic “care in the community”. Like Busner, I was fortunate enough to meet up with the daughter of the original developer, still engaged in showing prospective tenants around; and like my fictional creation, I too heard her eerie anecdotes of how, as a young girl, she had wandered the recently deserted asylum, alternately gripped by the pathos of toothbrushes left propped in mugs, and freaked out by the padded cells. Unlike Busner, I was also fortunate enough to encounter the architect responsible for the conversion work, himself now elderly and retired, but oddly attached to his creation of moneyed domesticity out of the institutionalisation of deprivation and despair.

The old architect couldn’t keep away – but I’ve found that a single physical exposure to a place, a person, or a phenomenon that I may then inhabit psychically for more than a year is sufficient: it’s better to have a vivid snapshot internalised than to continually update the mental file, for, when you’re attempting to get it all down on paper, that way madness – or at any rate everythingitis – lies. Which is by way of saying that this survey of my research and its methodology has been by no means exhaustive. When I said I didn’t want to base my realisation of the 1900s – or the 1970s for that matter – on the written word, I didn’t mean that I eschewed book learning all together. Far from it; I probably read at least 20 books in the course of researching the novel, and referred continually to a score more, the most significant being Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, which gave form to my inchoate thoughts about the first world war as a machine for the manufacture of ironic consciousness in the 20th century. Then there was Norman Douglas’s book of London children’s street games and songs, and a volume on London’s Edwardian popular culture sourced by Michael Christie, who also did valuable research for me on the music of the era. Donna Poppy researched Edwardian light manufacturing, with special reference to – you guessed it – umbrellas. Jonathon Green’s monumental Dictionary of Slang (the only one based on full historical principles) was key when it came to establishing non-anachronistic idiolects for my characters, and I also read widely in the popular fiction of the late Victorian period, using it to search for vocabulary and locutions rather than anything else.

What I wanted to achieve more than anything else was a text that suggested the unknowability of the past. Just as too many novels are written by people who read too many novels, so novels set in the past inevitably define that past by what their writers – and by extension, their putative readers – know of that past. Yet if we could access the consciousness of someone in 1950 – let alone 1900, or 1850 – surely we would find it full of evanescent ephemera – cultural references, nuances, sensory apprehensions – that meant nothing to us. So I have wilfully included many such referentia, the fruit of all that research. Is this wilful obscurantism? I think not, because the paradox of today’s fiction is that never before in history have readers had the ability, at their fingertips, to decipher the very texts they are engaged in. This means, surely, that we are entering a new era of writing set in the past, one in which novelists can be more courageous, daring their readers to enter that foreign country more fully, and do things entirely differently there. That readers of Umbrella, flicking between the text and the web, might themselves fall victim to a kind of everythingitis is only fitting – to adapt Neil Innes’s fine gag about Bob Dylan’s caterwauling: I’ve suffered for my learning – and now it’s your turn.

“Umbrella” by Will Self is published by Bloomsbury on August 16. It is one of 12 selected novels on the Man Booker prize longlist

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