Umbrella by Will Self
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I slogged through this in order to say I had read all of the Booker shortlist before the award was announced, for once. Let's make one thing clear - without that compelling reason, I would not have kept with it.
There is a difference between difficult writing and good writing. I personally thinks Will Self careens toward difficult without giving a thought to the reader. Oh, I'm not just complaining because this is hard to read. I get many of the references and imitations, I just didn't think they were necessary to do all at once. As Self himself said on page 86, "simply wishing the madness away won't make anyone regain their sanity."
First of all, you have the obvious comparison to Ulysses by James Joyce. In fact, just in case you dared to miss the comparison, he starts with a quotation from Ulysses - "A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella." This quotation comes back to haunt the reader towards the end of the story, but I won't ruin that particularly moment for the two other readers who will make it that far.
Ulysses has something very important that Umbrella does not - variety. It morphs between storytelling styles and points of view, with a rise and fall that keeps the reader interested. Umbrella goes FULL SPEED AHEAD with no chapters, no paragraphs (maybe a few indented starts), no dialogue signs, no breaks. Characters have dialogue and internal thoughts in the same breath, and italicized words aren't one or the other but are frequent throughout the book. There are three time periods covered by the novel but you never know where you are. Is an event being remembered or narrated? Are we moving linearly or going back and forth? Who are all these people? Ha.
Also, if this is Ulysses, this is if Ulysses took place in a mental institution in a Cockney accent. Oh yes. Before I forget, a good portion of the spoken words in this novel are Cockney slang. Good luck.
Suddenly, I got to page 138. And a character said "We're'erebecausewe're'ere." All in one word, no spaces, and repeatedly, and I thought, "Where have I heard that before?" I thought it was either Lem or Huxley, and guessed right by rereading my review of Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, where one of my favorite bits was people chanting or singing "We're HERE because we're HERE because we're HERE because we're HERE!" Woah. Okay. So a reference to Lem, interesting. So it must be okay that I don't know where I am and nothing makes sense.
I do think it would have been nicer to hide in a bathtub than to force myself to finish.
I took to a deep skim of the rest. If you try to pick out the important bits, you uncover a story that isn't that different from Awakenings, where a psychiatrist treats a patient with Postencephalitic parkinsonism. Audrey Death, the patient, appears throughout the novel in her youth, in her mental hospital self, and everything in between. As far as I can tell the characters DO things but don't feel anything. It is impossible to connect with anyone when you're being bombarded with the songs they have in their head.
I sound impatient. I feel impatient. I read some lovely books this year that were nominated for the Booker. I'm worried the judges will select this one because they don't understand it, because it intimidates them, and therefore it must be good. I hold that this technique itself is not a bad idea, but would be far more interesting in smaller doses.
Up next: I'm going to write a summary post about my Booker reading, and pick my own winner!