Review: Will Self's "Umbrella"

How should we approach the literature of mental illness? On the one hand, these texts provide a natural entrée into the sort of transcendental awareness and limit-experience which some would make the very mission of the novel – especially when outfitted in the full panoply of modernist prose. On the other hand, as Marco Roth warns in “Rise of the Neuronovel,” indulging in modernist experimentation under the aegis of exploring the psyche of the mentally disordered risks stigmatizing such formal experimentation and thwarting its wider application. “The very act of medicalization,” he writes, “marginalizes the experimental impulse, marking any remnant modernism as a case for abnormal psychology.”

Moreover, Mr. Roth adds, novels that focus on characters suffering from conditions like Capgras syndrome or Tourette’s tend to offer an ultimately regressive and impoverished view of the formation and nature of the self. They embody a “shift away from environmental and relational theories of personality” and toward “the study of brains themselves, as the source of who we are,” making for less complex, less interesting novels. Mere “neurology” replaces the substantive examination of self, society, and history, just as the “deep logic of the story” is reduced to the haphazard contingency of an arbitrary “neurological condition.”

It is no slender achievement, then, that Will Self’s Umbrella (2013), shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, succeeds in avoiding the pathologies of the neuronovel so trenchantly diagnosed by Mr. Roth. The plot of Umbrella unfolds over three distinct time frames, which have been ingeniously spliced with one another. In the first, Audrey Death works as a WWI-era munitionette under exploitative conditions by day and frequents socialist and feminist circles by night. Meanwhile, her brother Stanley goes off to fight in France and Belgium, subsequently joining an international community of motley troglodytes lurking in the no-man’s land between the trenches. (With regard to that last detail, Catch 22 and Gravity’s Rainbow are clearly important influences here.) Finally, Audrey’s other brother Albert, the talented careerist, does his best to scramble up the Table of Ranks. Eventually, Audrey falls into a catatonic state after contracting encephalitis lethargica, aka the “sleepy sickness.”

In the second time frame, Zack Busner, a doctor at a mental hospital—and a basically good-hearted, vaguely intellectual, all-around schlump—experiments with the drug L-DOPA, which has begun to produce miraculous effects when administered to certain of the hospital’s residents. Among these patients is Audrey Death, who has been catatonic for almost half a century. In the third time frame, Busner reflects on the failure of L-DOPA and attempts to assemble the fragments of his mostly wasted life into some kind of meaningful whole. The hospital from the second time frame has been renovated and partitioned into condos.

The character of Zack Busner is not a new one for Mr. Self. Busner also appears in Mr. Self’s short stories “The Quantity Theory of Insanity,” “Ward 9,” “Grey Area” and “Dr Mukti,” as well as the novels Great Apes (1997) and Book of Dave (2006). Busner’s recurrence is less signifcant than one might think: we’re not exactly in Yoknapatawpha County. Busner functions in Mr. Self’s oeuvre not so much as an independent, multi-faceted character who ripens and develops in complexity with every appearance, but rather as a sort of convenient scaffolding or persona suitable for a series of essentially similar, but not perfectly coherent, exercises on a theme.



The magical-pharmacological resurrection of catatonics in Umbrella is clearly based on the same historical episode memorialized in Oliver Sacks’s 1973 book Awakenings, subsequently made into a movie, as well as in Harold Pinter’s play, A Kind of Alaska. But unlike Mr. Sacks—a genial, quirky humanist—Busner is a disaffected veteran of the anti-psychiatry movement; his real-life associates would have been R.D. Laing, Félix Guattari, and Franco Basaglia (among others). Indeed, the “Concept House” so frequently recalled by Busner, a place where the patient/doctor distinction was abolished and many heterodox modes of therapy were put into practice, is clearly based on the revolutionary experiments that took place in Kingsley Hall under the authority of Laing.

Umbrella is not a straightforwardly anti-psychiatric novel in the mode of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Nevertheless, anti-psychiatric themes preponderate. For instance, one character denies that madness is a purely medical or neurological phenomenon, suggesting instead that it may have a social character: “The patients are poor, and they’re mad—and… many of ‘em are mad precisely because they’re poor.” Regarding the overuse of the drug chlorpromazine to tranquilize unruly patients, Busner reflects on how “the drug saturates the hospital in the same way that paraldehyde formerly soaked the asylum.” The intimation here of a subterranean continuity between the asylum, a mythical fortress of horrors, and the hospital, that ostensibly humane and enlightened facility, is surely no accident. A profound skepticism of progress (the “real delusion,” a colleague of Busner calls it) in the treatment of mental illness pervades the book.

Mr. Self is particularly attuned to fashionable alterations in psychiatric jargon masquerading as progress: “the diseases, historically synchronized and so entirely arbitrary…the moral ament becoming, on his next go-round, the mentally deficient, on his third, retarded, fourth, mentally handicapped.” For Mr. Self, the diffuse mendacity of institutional idiom is something of a bête noire in general; qua author, he appears to have a special animus toward this particular corruption of language. The distrust of official idiom extends even to the idiom of architecture: repeated mention is made of the mental hospital’s “flanking campaniles in which no bells have ever rung, as they are only disguised ventilation shafts designed to suck the rotten fetor from the asylum.”

The untrustworthiness of language touches other issues in the practice of psychiatry. For Busner, the categories of scientific psychiatry are at best ad hoc expedients, hastily erected to manage an otherwise ungovernable chaos. Busner sees the “diagnostic framework” as a mere “life-preserver,” and he sees himself as “bobbing among the drowned and the saved, although distinguishing one from other was as futile as naming a wave.” Yet the chief and most offensive lie of systems has to do with the way they petrify and exploit the human subjects forced to instantiate their constituent terms. Busner refers to this phenomenon at one point as “epithetic psychiatry”—i.e., the classification of patients according to some set of eternal “types,” whether “hysteric,” “melancholic,” “generalized paralysis of the insane,” or “personality disorder.” These epithets mystify their objects even as they scientifically delineate them. The problem with epithetic psychiatry is that it holds a static conception of personhood in preference to a narrative conception of personhood within which causality, freedom, and the pressure of society and history all have roles to play.



In each of his three time frames, Mr. Self vividly evokes a specific period and milieu through a dense, mostly stream-of-consciousness narrative. Here Ulysses is undoubtedly the key prototype, though Mr. Self’s prose lacks the relentlessly allusive and intellectual character of Joyce’s, particularly the Irishman’s playful instinct for poetic apothegm. What Joyce in Ulysses and Mr. Self in Umbrella do share, though, is a sensitivity to the meandering rhythms of consciousness, to the sway between absorption and distraction in the mind of someone who is doing something or walking somewhere. Both, additionally, share the complete penetration of narrative subjectivity by ambient ephemera like jingles, songs, and slogans. Indeed, what Mr. Self excels in bringing out is the enduring if gentle dissonance potentially born of this encounter, how the world may all the while coax and corrode and twist its hidden suasions within us. 

The stream-of-consciousness narrative style of Umbrella is general to all characters, with the exception of those who are catatonic. Roth’s worry, then, that modernist techniques may be marginalized as the mere traces of an “abnormal psychology” is dispelled. Indeed, it is the appearance of these modernist techniques which is precisely the condition of normality in Umbrella. Those transfixed by catatonia have no words at all, only symptoms.

The main narrative of Umbrella alternates between the three different time frames as well as between the streams-of-consciousness of different characters within the same time frame. There are neither chapter-divisions nor any other impediments obstructing the flow of the book’s 400 pages. The transitions between “streams” are abrupt and unpredictable, usually occurring mid-sentence and typically set off with only a heroic dash or an overstressed comma. However, the reader may learn to discern a sort of poetic logic underlying these switches. For instance, the narrative might switch from one stream to another based on the presence of tea in both.

Apparently contingent swerves between different streams commemorate secret correspondences between them. The narrative cuts from Stanley watching a dying man writhe on the ground (“his hands and feet sketching possible trajectories in the dirt that follow some map or plan long since encrypted in his otherwise jumbled mind”) to the pedestrian navigations of Busner’s colleague in the 70s (“Marcus must’ve come in by the main gates, turned right off the roundabout and puttered along the preposterously named Western Avenue, passing…”). Similarly, a motion the recently awakened Audrey makes with her head is enough, along with the presence of fabric and the metaphors to which they give rise, to recall the wartime experience of Stanley over fifty years before: “she lets her head fall back so the mighty drapes of sky-blue chiffon may sweep into her Up there a white needle—sharp, unwavering—draws a fraying thread through the heavens, a godly thimble drill that culminates in an unholy boom!” 



A steering wheel in Umbrella is repeatedly described as “kyphotic” (having a curved spine). The hand motions of a youth using an electronic device (“one arm and its dependent hand held rigidly extended, the other arm crooked, its hands fidgeting”) are compared to “pill-rolling” (Parkinsonian tremor), while his “utterly vacant” gaze is likewise compared to “oculogyric crisis” (an upward eye-roll associated with many mental illnesses). Busner stares at a row of “twitchers, wearing themselves away as opportunity hammers at the inside of the television screen and applause comes in monotonous waves.” Mr. Self is nothing short of obsessed with the precise detailing of so-called hyperkinetic movements typical of the mentally ill—e.g., chorea, athetosis, myoclonus, tics, and dystonia—in a manner reminiscent of J.G. Ballard’s anatomical mania. Furthermore, just as Ballard explored all possible modes of polymorphous encounter between bodies and machines, so Mr. Self devotes his energies to illuminating the latent presence of hyperkinetic movements in nearly everything, especially sex and labor.

This is particularly acute in the case of Audrey. The novel strongly hints that her repetitive ticcing retraces the ritualized series of motions she performed with her hands while working as a lathe-operator, a typewriter, some kind of seamstress, and a munitionette (putting together explosive shells). In other words, her symptoms are the physical manifestation of the history of her exploitation at the hands of industrial and military interests. These patterns of exploitation have literally been etched into the somatic rhythms of her very organism. What’s more, these forms of repetitive movement and existence, the novel seems to suggest, don’t just influence mental illness, but rather they are already a form of mental illness. As Busner puts it near the very end of the book, “embodied in these poor sufferer’s shaking frames was the entire mechanical age.” 

This radical move on the part of Mr. Self— portraying neurological disorders as special cases of the general trends of material civilization along with their attendant modes of labor and associated kinetic habits—rescues him from the more serious component of Mr. Roth’s critique. Mr. Self avoids the descent into mere “neurology” because he relocates the locus of disease from the “brain” to the “age,” crediting the latter as “the source of who we are.” Likewise, the “deep logic of the story” need not devolve upon a merely neurological contingency. Instead, it may be found to embrace a kind of macrocosmic contingency—i.e., the way the world is and has come to be. Analyzing, mourning, and opposing this contingency have long been among the tasks of art.



 This review has been drawn from the February / March issue of the American Reader.