A Merry Dance: Will Self Takes on Modernism

By Ben HamiltonFebruary 12, 2013

Umbrella by Will Self

WHEN WILL SELF PUBLISHED his first short story collection, 1991’s The Quantity Theory of Insanity, British critics heralded the book as if it signaled the abolishment of hangovers or rain. Readers now might wonder at the high praise, but at the time Self’s odd mix of Ballardian themes and hyper-vivid sentences, all puffed along by gags and goofy tropes, registered like an electric shock. (The US press, in contrast, seems to have been immune — in 1995 The New York Times criticized the excessive dourness of the collection, and included the almost Selfian sentence: “To be alive and British, it seems, is as unattractive and dull as being dead.”) The British critics, however rapturous at first, didn’t extend their adulation to his follow up efforts, such as 1997’s Great Apes. “[A]fter 300 pages of 'Chimpunity'; 'Grease humans', 'Anton Mosichimp' and so on, faith in the sustained satiric purpose of the fantasy may give way to the view that the main difference between the chimp world and the human consists in an abundance of puns,” wrote Sam Leith in a review of Great Apes. He was still a fine prose writer, they agreed, but Self’s cheaper tricks were wearing thin.

The attention Self received from his early success set him up for a highly publicized nosedive. Though it pains me to bring up the same old trivia, in 1997 Self was caught taking heroin on the private jet of John Major (then Prime Minister), marking his switch from literary wunderkind to tabloid touchstone. He was fired from his job at The Observer, even though it had been playing on his gonzo image for months (“Will Self Back On Drugs Again” ran one front page). Self quit drugs for good in 1998 and embarked on a second career as a television personality. I first saw his face when he appeared on Shooting Stars, a surreal comedy panel show that used to be on the BBC. As a teenager I liked him because his persona was borderline depressive, a black hole in the middle of the carnival. I also remember marveling at his name, which sounded too good to be real — I was certain it was a comic pseudonym, like Mr. Bean.

To this day, Self is recognizable as a “personality” first and foremost in Britain. Even my mum, a reliable litmus test for celebrity, knows his name, though she assumed he was a stand-up comedian. When I told her I was reviewing one of his books she said “Oh, he’s written a book has he?” Up until recently Self’s readership has remained relatively small. A burp on BBC One is worth 1000 pages of finely wrought prose.

Perhaps because of this imbalance of exposure, Self has chiefly kept to the written word in recent years, edging away from mainstream celebrity. Always a prolific journalist (he has two columns in the New Statesman, reviews books for The Guardian, writes numerous features for other magazines and periodicals, and is even in talks to become BBC Radio 4’s “writer in residence”), his fictional output has been equally numerous. Early novels like Cock and Bull, Great Apes and How the Dead Live were modern day satires (Jonathan Swift was an acknowledged influence) filled with a jovial loathing of human physicality. For a while it seemed as if Self wanted to provoke our disgust as well as our cringing laughter. A particular moment in Great Apes sets the tone:

His arsehole was sending him internal memoranda on his own mortality — and it leaked. Bowel movements were no longer discrete, his bowels seemed to move all the time, telegraphing him fart bulletins, and faxes of shit-juice that soiled the gussets of his pants in hideous ways. And thinking this Simon paused to hoick at the girding of his waist, trying to give his persecutor a little more air to foul.

Clever as these books are, they are often leaden rather than penetrating. His threadbare plots are less effective in the longer novel form. Great Apes and How the Dead Live weigh in at 400 pages each, which is too long for novels that don’t progress far beyond their original conceit (man awakes to a world of apes; the dead continue their afterlife in London). Imagine if Swift had kept Gulliver in Lilliput for the duration of his travels.

His prose style, too, is often problematic in the service of storytelling. It is sometimes gloopy, often tactile, but almost always slow. When he has some plot to convey he seems almost resentful, his sentences becoming overworked and frustrated. His novella The Sweet Smell of Psychosis contains a final twist too clearly telegraphed by the dragging build up, which is not helped by writing like this: “I’m staying up, he deliberated deliberately, as he focused on the precise point at which piss exited from his penis.” That isn’t a one-off, either: “Bulgarian wines were poured down the neck from the neck, in the bottlenecks by the makeshift bars.”

In 2005, Self published The Book of Dave, a novel about a London cab driver who experiences a domestic (and psychological) breakdown, leading him to write a book for his son — full of misogynistic, bigoted, oddly tender ranting — which is then dug up 500 years later and used as the basis for a primitive society. Divided into two distinct periods — Dave’s life in contemporary London and the city as a post-apocalyptic drowned world — the novel was Self’s most successful extended fiction yet. The chapters set in the future, with the dialogue rendered as an exaggerated cockney dialect called “Mokni,” were by some distance the less interesting segments of the book, but the other half was exquisite. The Updikean observation was sharper: Dave’s “two front teeth niggled at each other, one bony knee trying to cross over the other.” Paragraph after delicious paragraph scud by. To pick one fascinating character sketch:

Benny was still alive — but only just. He stopped at home behind nets distempered with nicotine and chuffed on his oxygen mask, lifting it now and again to insinuate a Woodbine beneath his walrus moustache. Benny’s left leg had been amputated below the knee, and there was talk of the right hopping along too. When Dave went to see him, his grandfather waggled the stump at him like a gesturing hand, turning it out to express bemusement, karate-chopping for finality. Prised from his cab — which, although it stank of cigarette fumes, was always beautifully clean — the old man took on the appearance of a smoked oyster on Tubby Isaac’s stall, then a soused whelk, until finally — most unkosher this — he dwindled to a pickled winkle.

Self has said that with The Book of Dave he had made a cowardly move by only writing the dialogue in Mokni — the future-set portion of the book, in his view, should have been written entirely in Mokni. We can be thankful this didn’t happen, but the willingness to shirk off readers has always been at the core of Self’s fiction.

2010’s Walking to Hollywood reached the zenith (or nadir) of overindulgence, seeming to kick the stool out from under the momentum of The Book of Dave. Split into three parts, it was an unclassifiable mash of insights and themes, a surrealist memoir and travelogue, partly concerned with the decline of cinema as the predominant art form. On the bright side, at least Self isn’t sparing any thought for commercial expectation (a bitter simile sticks in the mind from an early short story called “Ward 9,” as patients in a psychiatric ward collect their pills with a paper beaker of water, “which had a pointed base, rendering it unputdownable, like a best seller”). But Walking to Hollywood, even with its occasional moments of interest, felt more like an excuse for recreational typing. In a moment of doubt, he comes close to admitting as much: “I now wrote books with the workmanlike despatch of a carpenter turning out tables.”

With Umbrella, Self breaks the workmanlike, automatic production of fiction. Perhaps we have a new set of influences to thank. While his earlier work leapfrogged modernism, moving from Swift and Wilde to Ballard and Burroughs, Self’s latest novel looks to the older, but some would say underexplored, tradition of early 20th century modernism. (How the Dead Live, a lush monologue of a book with a protagonist named Lily Bloom, seemed to be following James Joyce, but in 2004 Self said he had never even read Ulysses all the way through and didn’t consider it an influence.) This time Self has explicitly stated his influences: not just Joyce, but also Paul Fussel’s The Great War and Modern Memory and Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings. Much like Tom McCarthy’s recent novel CUmbrella is partly an argument for extending the tradition of early 20th century modernism. We have been looking the wrong way in how we write and read contemporary fiction, Self argues. Writers such as Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and David Jones, were really on to something, and since then we have been experiencing a slow motion fall from grace, with a few spikes of redemption along the way.

What separates Umbrella from C, however, is that the argument is not the most interesting element of the book. Self’s novel works as a novel, one that consciously slips into modernism’s shoes without being entirely imitative. It also helps that Self is channeling a much more rambunctious strand of modernism than McCarthy. whiffs of continental Europe and academic theory — the text sometimes feels translated out of a much frostier language. Umbrella, by following Joyce and Woolf, is given license to be more playful, with nods to the great masters like the nods you may find to Hammett or Chandler in detective novels. In a Ulysses-influenced set-piece, Audrey Death, the fulcrum character of the novel, wanders London with her father, passing “Little Dublin” near Drury Lane (also — and this might be more reflective of my own mind than anything else — this particular section takes place in 1904, the year in which Ulysses is set; while we’re at it, Audrey is admitted to hospital in 1922, the year of Ulysses’s publication). There is the occasional burst of Joycean exuberance in the language, too: “Urchins scamper into the road to grab harnesses then pirouette for a flung copper, as the stand-pipes of toppers somehow join in Audrey’s mind with the droppings underfoot and the gulley-slops in the gutters.” Several times during the book a surreal sensation may fall on you: that this is high modernism as genre fiction.

If that seems inappropriate, or even heretical, let us remember that writers are under no obligation to be reverential. Why not use modernism as other novelists might use private eyes or spaceships? One of Self’s constant themes has been the inability to suspend disbelief. Much of his work draws attention to itself, as if he is a magician who wants you to see every sleight of hand, every secret. Of course they aren’t really secrets, and readers are rarely as interested in postmodern rug pulling as all the tired and jaded novelists in smoke-filled studies are. In Walking to Hollywood, Self catalogues how creating fictions has ruined his (or his fictional persona’s) ability to enjoy what other people create, how “hauling on the strings of my own puppets meant I couldn’t help seeing everyone else doing the same tricks.” In Great Apes the protagonist — who will later be part of the most surreal situation imaginable, waking to a planet full of the wrong primates — can’t even engage in sexual congress without spoiling it all. “He could no longer suspend disbelief in the genre of sex, or the medium of the body.”

This being the case, the narrative of Umbrella is both easy and difficult to summarize. It is set in three semidistinct periods — 1918, 1971, 2010 — which detail, respectively, Audrey Death’s early life as a suffragette and munitions worker and her brother Stanley’s involvement in World War I. Dr Zack Busner’s “awakening” of her and other victims of the encephalitis lethargica epidemic with the drug L-DOPA; and Busner’s reflections as an old man. This is blurb material and doesn’t really communicate anything about the novel. When reading, the temporal divisions are by no means distinct. Gnomic sentences about the illusion of time are scattered throughout the beginning of the novel, such as, “Stuck in the present’s flesh are the looking-glass fragments of a devastating explosion: a time bomb was primed in the future and planted in the past.”

Encephalitis lethargica is, in itself, fascinating. Aside from Sacks’s book, the illness was used as the basis for Harold Pinter’s play, A Kind of Alaska. It broke out in Europe just after World War I, although the details of its origin are still fairly mysterious. Otherwise known as sleeping sickness (or “sleepy sickness” in the UK), the disease killed some of its victims and mangled the lives of many others. The list of ailments that could follow a bout with sleeping sickness — sometimes many years later — is extensive and various, but includes deep coma-like states and symptoms associated with severe cases of Parkinson’s disease. Sometimes postencephalitic patients could be locked in the same physical and mental position for years, unable to move and unable to think a progression of thoughts. In 1927 the physician Ivy McKenzie wrote of the disease: “There is nothing in the literature of medicine to compare with the phantasmagoria of disorder manifested in the course of this strange malady.” Oliver Sacks, in Awakenings, wrote:

These post-encephalitic syndromes were very variable in course: sometimes they proceeded rapidly, leading to profound disability or death; sometimes very slowly; sometimes they progressed to a certain point and then stayed at this point for years or decades; and sometimes, following their initial onslaught, they remitted and disappeared. This great variation of pattern is also a mystery, and seems to admit of no single or simple explanation.

Such a condition resists the pat phrase or stale metaphor. Importantly for Self, it also disrupts the casual definitions and arbitrary diagnostics of the medical profession.

From the start of his career, Self has been interested in the psychiatric profession and how it names and defines our disorders. Zack Busner, a character who has inhabited Self’s fiction from the very beginning, returns for Umbrella, but his placement in the novel is almost a red herring. In Walking to Hollywood, Self describes Busner as “part therapist, part mentor, part friend, part inspiration, part hierophant, part demiurge. . .wholly suspect.” He has always had something of the Ballardian “hoodlum scientist” about him — the kind of man you wouldn’t trust with your sanity. In Umbrella he is a more rounded figure, even vulnerable. We learn about his childhood, and “all the grosser abuse he had suffered at boarding school — the anti-Semitic taunts, his underpants torn from him in the changing room.” Previously he was scarcely concerned by the torments of his patients; in The Book of Dave it is said of him that “nothing pleased him more than a complex delusional apparatus.” But by the end of Umbrella he is a man filled with guilt, bearing the madness of others on his shoulders. He is the stand-in for Sacks (as far back as Great Apes he is clearly modeled on the popular neurologist, publishing books of case histories for a general audience with such titles as The Chimp Who Mated an Armchair) and like Sacks he is frustrated by the limits of treatment: “It is, he knows, impossible to write a prescription of this form: Constant and sympathetic assistance towards effective mobility is to be taken ALL DAY — and so he only tiredly scrawls tetracycline in a fixed cycle.”


As with many works of the high modernist period, Umbrella gives the impression that something vital is out of the frame. Even the title is teasing — quotidian but full of resonance. In The Book of Dave, the shotgun that leads to Dave’s demise leans by the front door, “as commonplace as an umbrella.” “Umbrella,” according to recent interviews with Self, also describes the novel’s structure, although it’s not obvious when reading. Narratively we know it can’t be random but the design is beyond us. The peril of this is that it can make the reader feel stupid — the sickening feeling that you’ve spent your life reading the wrong books — but the style of Umbrella is so ingrained that it doesn’t feel haughty or pretentious.

This is not to say that the novel isn’t brashly intimidating. There are no chapters and few paragraphs. The sentences are knotty — they sidestep conventional rhythms. Often they are interrupted by the insights of a character, in italics; sometimes there are snatches of song: as the novel opens Busner’s mind is riddled with “Apeman” by The Kinks. It is an associative prose style, one that leaps from mind to mind. Self’s recent digital essay on Kafka, “Kafka’s Wound,” is explicit about this tendency. In fact “Kafka’s Wound” is almost an abstract roadmap for Umbrella. As Self writes at the end of the essay, “I am guilty of associative thinking, and I am sentenced to be my own search engine.”

At its best the density of association is simultaneously involving and alienating. Deep into the novel, a particular moment freezes the reader with its crystalline beauty. Stanley Death, in the trenches, is under attack when he sees a British-made shell coming his way. The passage is worth extensive quotation:

He hears the first salvo of the resumed barrage quite some time after registering the shell’s scream, and so he dithers: is the noise more piercing in his right or left ear? He twists in the sap, compelled to turn first up, back and to the left, then up, back and to the right — it’s pointless anyway, because as it homes in on him the rising Eeeeeeeeeee! bores into the absolute core of his brain spores glow dried-out dandelion head and he knows he would have to go over the top to evade the shell that stops precisely where his gaze locks […] Umbrellas Re-covered and Repaired on the Premises, Umbrellas Re-covered in One Hour, 2/6, King Street opposite the Temperance Hotel. [] If only he had availed himself of this service, because when all was said and done you should never go out without one. […] The arrested shell sings a hundred feet above the trench in a cloud of penny novelettes, and the turning of its fuse cap and detonator plug, the brazing of its smoothly seductive haunches — all the scores and hundreds of repetitive motions that led to its triumphantly short-lived embodiment are there, plain to his exophthalmic eye. And Stanley Death understands, even as the rest is over, and the angelic feet begin once more to pump the pedals, the perforations are engaged by the ebony pegs, and the pianola resumes its plummet Doo-d’oo, doo d’doo, doo-d’-dooo, doo-d’-dooooooooooooo [] that upon impact all of its strings, hammers, levers, cogs and screws will blast across the shattered terrain in wave upon wave of tics, jerks, yawns, spasms, blinks, gasps, quivers, pursing, bobbing, pouts, chews, grindings, palsies, tremors and twitches, sending them dancing from mind to mind, so animating body after body to perform choreography that will stand in for civilisation unprompted, matinee upon matinee — evenings as well — a merry dance []

There’s nothing friendly about prose like that, and perhaps a lot of people will close the book before they arrive at that passage, but for admirers of Self’s work it seems like an ecstatic summary of his gradual progression. He is still happy to use a word like “exophthalmic” as a buzz killer, but the brilliance of “triumphantly short-lived embodiment” is a fair trade. Somehow the details don’t accrete in the conventional manner, but it still has undeniable forward propulsion. For once the urge to step away from the scene, to lose belief in the genre, serves Self’s art instead of deflating it.

There is no single theory or idea that dominates Umbrella, and unlike Self’s earlier novels, it doesn’t have the taut surface of an elasticated short story. It stops short of being tendentious, reaching for theories and arcs and then letting them go. Technology and progress are hammered from all angles but no sustained argument emerges. Busner considers sleeping sickness a premonition of the “binary blizzard that would blow through humanity’s consciousness,” yet this is almost certainly the professional psychiatrist showing his face, endlessly compartmentalising. We know things are more complicated than that. Metaphysical ideas, too, such as fate and eternal recurrence, are teased but never calcify into a philosophy. The metaphor of a pin standing on its point is evoked (taken from Sacks) and perhaps this best shows the decentralized, go-anywhere feeling of Umbrella. After two decades of trying to classify and totalise contemporary society, Self has turned his attention to something more interesting: a paradoxically restless acceptance of a multiform and fluid world.


LARB Contributor

Ben Hamilton is a freelance book critic from England. He has written for numerous online and print publications, including The Millions, Bookslut, the Times Literary Supplement, the Financial Times and The Spectator.


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