Will Self - Umbrella (3 stars)

Will Self - Umbrella

Self's first Booker long-listed work is a challenge to literary conventions

An extravagant beast of a tome, Umbrella’s long-listing for the 2012 Booker Prize – Will Self’s first – suggests a line in the sand being drawn after last year’s panel called for ‘readability’. But someone needs to further represent the voice of populism because this book is hard work.

One 400-page chapter interweaving three different narratives spanning a century – switching between them without warning, sometimes mid-sentence – and employing paragraph breaks sparingly and speech marks not at all, it’s an intentionally disorientating read mirroring the condition of Audrey Death, a victim of a mysterious, catatonia-inducing virus. Self describes attempts by London psychiatrist Dr Zack Busner to treat this long-term mental hospital patient in 1971, while also threading in the narratives of Busner as a retired divorcee in 2010 and Death as a pacifist munitions worker in 1918, in what is essentially a long torrent-of-consciousness riff on modernity.

You have to salute Self’s determination to challenge literature’s conventions so boldly. But the exhausting demands of an author running rings around you with his knotty prose and bulging lexicon while he essentially makes up the rules as he goes along won’t be for all.

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