Umbrella

By Will Self
(Grove Press, Hardcover, 9780802120724, 448pp.)

Publication Date: January 2013

Other Editions of This Title: Paperback

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Description

"A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella."—James Joyce, Ulysses

Radical and uncompromising, Umbrella is a tour de force from one of England’s most acclaimed contemporary writers, and Self’s most ambitious novel to date. Moving between Edwardian London and a suburban mental hospital in 1971, Umbrella exposes the twentieth century’s technological searchlight as refracted through the dark glass of a long term mental institution. While making his first tours of the hospital at which he has just begun working, maverick psychiatrist Zachary Busner notices that many of the patients exhibit a strange physical tic: rapid, precise movements that they repeat over and over. One of these patients is Audrey Dearth, an elderly woman born in the slums of West London in 1890. Audrey’s memories of a bygone Edwardian London, her lovers, involvement with early feminist and socialist movements, and, in particular, her time working in an umbrella shop, alternate with Busner’s attempts to treat her condition and bring light to her clouded world. Busner’s investigations into Audrey’s illness lead to discoveries about her family that are shocking and tragic.




About the Author

Will Self is the author of six short-story collections, a book of novellas, eight novels, and six collections of journalism. He lives in London.




Praise For Umbrella

SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2012 MAN BOOKER PRIZE

“A work of throwback modernism . . . an erudite yet barking mad novel about barking madness. . . . You give yourself over to Umbrella in flashes, as if it were a radio station you’re unable to tune in that you suspect is playing the most beautiful song you will ever hear. . . this novel locks into moments of ungodly beauty and radiant moral sympathy. . . . a bitter critique of how society has viewed (and cared for) those with mental illnesses. It’s about myriad other things too: class, the changing nature of British society, trench warfare in World War I, how technology can be counted on to upend everything. At heart it’s a novel about seeing. . . . Mr. Self often enough writes with such vividness it’s as if he is the first person to see anything at all.”—The New York Times

“A savage and deeply humane novel. . . . . Umbrella is an old-fashioned modernist tale with retrofitted ambitions to boot. . . . Self has always been a fabulous writer. . . . The result is page after page of gorgeously musical prose. Self’s sentences bounce and weave, and like poetry, they refract. The result is mesmerizing. . . . In its best moments, Umbrella compels a reader to the heights of vertigo Woolf excelled at creating.. . . . a triumph of form. With this magnificent novel Will Self reminds that he is Britain’s reigning poet of the night.”—Boston Globe

“A virtuosic performance . . . narrated in the allusive, sensory-overloaded style associated with Joyce’s Ulysses. . . . A heady mixture of closely observed (and deeply researched) period details, colorful imagery, surrealistic juxtapositions, and italicized interjections . . . Self’s wildly nonlinear narrative offers other delights: richly detailed settings that bring the Edwardian era and mental hospitals sensuously alive, kaleidoscopic patterns of symbolism (umbrellas assume all sorts of forms and functions), and loads of mordant satire.”—The Washington Post

“Self’s novel is an epic, but also a love story, and even a kind of fairytale. . . . it unfurls in anarchic flux, like an old-school experimental video. There are no chapters and few paragraph breaks. Scenes dissolve in midsentence. Phrases burst suddenly into italics. . . . it holds you fast with a weird charm.”—The New York Times Book Review

“A brilliant, beautiful, hypnotic, and haunting novel. . . begins as hard-bitten satire but gradually achieves an even harder-won humane tenderness. . . . Self discovers a poetic vibrancy and an emotional conviction that far surpass anything in his previous work. . . . Umbrella is not just a revisiting of modernism—it is a reflection on the modern condition itself. . . . [it] shuffles past and present with such mesmerizing rhythm that the distinction between them ceases to matter. Memory acquires the force of reality. The world inside Audrey’s head becomes immensely precious, restoring to her life the richness and dignity it had been so cruelly denied. Writers, too, as Self so wonderfully proves, can awaken the half-dead and reanimate that which has been sunk in oblivion.”—The New York Review of Books

"In these culturally straitened times few writers would have the artistic effrontery to offer us a novel as daring, exuberant and richly dense as Umbrella. Will Self has carried the Modernist challenge into the twenty-first century, and worked a wonder."—John Banville

"Umbrella is his best book yet. . . . It makes new for today the lessons taught by the morals of Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Tin Drum, also García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold."—Alasdair Gray

“Self’s latest novel. . . is a strange and sprawling modernist experiment that takes the human mind as its subject and, like the human mind, is infinitely capacious, wretchedly petty and ultimately magnificent. . . . It may not be beautiful, but it is extraordinary.”—NPR Books

“Written in a style reanimated from another era, Umbrella is a carefully sequenced fugue on the theme of being out-of-sequence. It’s often beautiful. . . Mr. Self’s perceptions are original (“a faint applause of pigeons”), and he is Ronald Firbank-like in his ability to shape poetry from prattle. . . Nostalgic in its literary mechanics, Umbrella identifies forgetfulness as the grammar of power, the blindness bred by its routinization. It is a difficult but profound idea. Mr. Self has dusted off these old devices to do an interesting new thing with his talent.”—New York Observer

“A hefty, challenging stream-of-consciousness story whose engagement with modernist themes and techniques is announced in its epigraph from Joyce’s Ulysses.”—New Yorker.com

“In prose uninterrupted by chapters or line breaks, a twisted version of the 20th century is woven and unpicked again. It is a postmodern vivisection of Modernism, analyzing the dream and the machine, war as the old lie and a new liberation, and rituals sacred, profane and banal. . . . a linguistically adept, emotionally subtle and ethically complex novel.”—The Guardian

“An ambitiously conceived and brilliantly executed novel in the high modernist tradition of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf . . . Its scope is dazzling . . . 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 . . . Umbrella is an immense achievement.”—Financial Times

“Entertaining and enthralling. . . extensively researched. . . . An experimental novel that is also a compassionate and thrilling book—and one that, despite its difficulty, deserves to be read.”—The Economist

“Will Self’s Joycean tribute is a stream of consciousness tour de force. . . . [It] builds into a heartbreaking mosaic, a sardonic critique of the woefully misdirected treatment of the mentally ill and the futility of war and, above all, a summation of the human condition. Despite the bleakness of the message, by the end you are filled with elation at the author’s exuberant ambition and the swaggering way he carries it all off, and then a huge sense of deflation at the realization that whatever book you read next, it won’t be anything like this.”—Daily Mail

Umbrella is old-school modernism. It isn’t supposed to be a breeze. But it is, to use the literary critical term of art, kind of amazing … It may not be his easiest, but I think this may be Will Self’s best book.”—The Observer (London)

Umbrella is not easily forgotten. . . . a brave piece of work.”—Buffalo News

“A story too clawing to avoid.”—Foreword

Umbrella is the result of Self’s surge in ambition.”—The Millions

“A virtuoso performance. . . . Self weaves together disparate voices so seamlessly . . . but there’s more going on here than a display of formal dexterity. . . . [Umbrella] disorients the reader, who experiences identity as porous and permeable, the individual fractured and reconstituted in the twin forges of industrialization and institutionalization.”—The Globe and Mail

“Defies convention and digs deep into the social issues plaguing the 20th century. . . . loaded with heavy critiques of war and mental health treatment. . . . Leaves the reader wondering if the future will indeed repeat the past or if we will finally learn the hard lessons from what we have already painfully known”—ZYZZYVA

“A fascinating read. . . Self’s prose is so beautiful and assured that it feels authentic even as it renders confusion. It’s a funny, sad, surreal novel that aims high and reaches most of its lofty goals. Modernism fans will be glad to see a current author who so strongly captures the form pioneered by Proust, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner, and Umbrella only falls short by comparison with those classics.”—Onion-AV Club

“Brainy and outlandish, though still in the mainstream of modernist fiction, this book captures a number of eccentric voices and sends the reader running to the dictionary. . . . There’s a lyrical, rhapsodic element that continually pulls one into and through the narrative.”—Kirkus Reviews

Umbrella is a magnificent celebration of modernist prose, an epic account of the first world war, a frightening investigation into the pathology of mental illness, and the first true occasion when Self’s ambition and talent have produced something of real cultural significance. . . . [Umbrella] must be recognized as, above all, a virtuoso triumph of emotional and creative intelligence.”—The Spectator

“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.”—The Independent

“Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Self’s sweeping experimental new novel (after Walking to Hollywood) creaks under the weight of chaotic complexity. . . . With snippets of dialects, stylistic flourishes, and inventive phrases loose with meaning, for those that grab and hang on, the experience falls just shy of brilliant.”—Publishers Weekly (boxed review)

“The Edwardian sections are the most lavishly engaging, with Self doing different voices like a schizophrenic music hall act. . . . In the course of the book the umbrella becomes a syringe, a penis, a fetish of the bourgeoisie, as one Edwardian socialist pompously declares it, and the novel itself an umbrella beneath whose canopy all manner of anxieties about technology and the body cram together.”—Daily Telegraph

“Scattered thoughts of patient and doctor add layers of comprehension that a more straightforward telling might miss, and the writing often sizzles with invention.”—Chicago Tribune Printers Row

“This is by far Will Self’s best novel; clever, intense, ambitious and risky.”—The Scotsman

Umbrella is an astonishing achievement, a novel of exhilarating linguistic invention and high moral seriousness. . . . This is a novel which will be read and re-read, as much for its emotional weight as its technical virtuosity. . . . With this book he reveals himself as the most determinedly and delightfully literary novelist of his generation.”—Scotland on Sunday

“[Self] renders the texture of Audrey's London, its odors and colloquialisms, in vivid detail. . . . Perhaps in the story of Sacks' roused patients, Self saw a metaphor for his own attempts to resurrect the past, to give history a distinctive, earthy voice. In this he succeeds beautifully, writing with a new sophistication. The result is a stunning novel, and a compelling Self-reinvention.”—The Independent on Sunday

“There are echoes of Joyce and Eliot, but also of Flaubert. . . . Umbrella is a complexly textured, conceptually forbidding thesis about the modern, its art and their discontents. This being Self, though, there is also a great deal of humor, much of it to do with the dismal, drugged, inhuman pass to which Busner’s patients have come after decades in their psychiatric ‘jail within a jail.’”—New Statesman

“A surprisingly moving story of common people crushed by the state.”—Metro

“If the realist novel welcomes you in, takes your coat, hat (and umbrella), shows you to a comfortable seat and gets you a gin and tonic, this book leaves you to let yourself in, sit yourself down (if you can find room) and get your own bloody drink if you insist on having one.”—The Sunday Times

“This is not an easy read, but it is a major and unforgettable one . . . and, with it, the prolific maverick Self may have written his best book yet.”—Booklist

“Umbrella is a 417-page, sprawling beast of contemporary Modernism, which many are claiming to be Self’s best yet.”—Huffington Post (UK)

“Self fully embraces the fragmented and elliptical form with all its clutter and confusion, depth and dexterity. . . . Some passages trip off the tongue with a speed and ease that delights; others jar the senses. . . . Umbrella is epic in its scope.”—The National

“What Self most brilliantly does is to construct a world antic with new technologies (many of them as bogus as the robotic huckster Enigmarelle) but a world in which the most prolific industrial commodity is that formerly artisanal and lovingly crafted thing degraded by mass production and mass consumption: the human self.”—The Herald

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