Does Will Self Work the Reader Too Hard?

The Evening Standard (London, England), August 16, 2012 | Go to article overview

Does Will Self Work the Reader Too Hard?


Byline: TALITHA STEVENSON

UMBRELLA by Will Self (Bloomsbury, [pounds sterling]18.99) WILL Self plainly wants to teach the reader who's boss. Umbrella, which is long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, is a 397-page novel almost devoid of paragraph breaks. This is not a book to be read on the Tube, nor was it written for exhausted mothers or overworked webdesigners.

But those who are sufficiently young, rich or fanatical about reading to be convinced of their immortality will have every reason to adore it.

Self bolts out at a gallop with a depiction of his main character, psychiatrist Dr Zachary Busner, driving to work at the Friern Hospital. Right away the distinction between Busner's past in 1971 and his present in 2010 is hurled into the wind, and the time-schemes unfold concurrently. But Self's more striking disposal is of the genteel inhibitions of his chosen third-person form.

Third-person novels which focus, like Umbrella, on the perspective of more than one character tend to announce the shifts politely, with a new chapter, or a gap in the text. But Umbrella darts frenetically in and out of its frenetic minds without notice and often within the same sentence.

A reflection on an object -- a stethoscope, a coin, by one character -- meets with and tumbles into its meaning for another, and all these meanings seldom relate to the present day alone.

Self is a connoisseur of cerebral hustle. His lavish use of italics -- "his dentures fiddling in their skin bag" -- sets his characters in a world of unremitting personal significance. This, along with the sporadic mingling of their identities, makes for a high-impact effect: an eco-system of interdependent minds. But, though this is the flip-side of a sumptuous contrivance, it's often tough to know who's who -- and when things are going on.

Despite their Impressionistic development, Umbrella's characters inspire real compassion. Friern patient Audrey -- "Or-dree" in the cockles and ale cries of her pre-1917 memories -- retains her humanity, even in delirium. …

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