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What is the best way for a writer to reflect life? For most of us, it's probably the traditional novel that has sat on our nightstands the most: the sprawling, linear tale, told from birth to death. For Will Self, the most lifelike story is told inside out, from the minds of the characters, without a narrator, a filter or any explanations along the way.
His new novel, Umbrella, is set around a mental asylum in North London in three different time periods. It's a sprawling, fragmented, stream-of-consciousness story, centered on Zack Busner, a psychiatrist at the asylum, and one of his patients, Audrey De'Ath (whose name becomes Death and then Dearth as the book progresses), who's been catatonic for decades due to encephalitis lethargica — the "sleeping sickness" that Oliver Sacks wrote about in Awakenings.
"We meet her first in some childhood scenes, in the mid-1890s," Self tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "Then comes the First World War, by which time Audrey has become a feminist, and in the First World War she becomes a munitions worker." At the end of the war, Audrey is struck down by the encephalitis epidemic that was raging across Europe, affecting millions of people. "A third of them died," says Self, "a third of them recovered completely, and a third of them appeared to recover completely, but then a year, two, maybe three or four years later, fell into these Parkinsonian catatonic states, and this is what happens to Audrey," who remains in an asylum until 1971, when Dr. Busner awakens her with an experimental drug.
Umbrella is a challenging read, requiring investment on the part of the reader. It's intensely nonlinear, layering experiences and time periods on top of each other, laced together with the characters' internal monologues. "The part of me that writes the books writes what he wants to write, and always has done," Self says. "But the part of me that lives in the world and understands the book trade and what people like to read ... all the time that the writer was writing this book, I was standing at his shoulder, looking over his shoulder and thinking, 'My God, you've really blown it this time,' you know, this is going to be a disaster, nobody's going to read this book." But, Self adds, Umbrella seems to be finding an audience with relative ease.
And Self says he did have a structure in mind when he sat down to write the book. "Umbrella overall has the structure of an umbrella," he says. "It's tightly furled to begin with, it opens out, it shelters, and then in ... a rather harrowing scene, the umbrella, like Audrey, is blown backwards as she relapses into this encephalitic coma." Self adds that working with several different timelines at once means he absolutely must have a clear idea of what he's doing.
Umbrella has no chapters, few paragraph breaks — there's almost nowhere for the reader to pause and reflect on what's going on in the narrative. You just have to soldier on. "This is one of the paradoxes of modernism," Self says. "There are two main techniques that I employ in Umbrella that people think of as distinctively modernist, and they're techniques that writers will be severely warned off on their creative writing programs, where in fact they'll be largely taught to write terse, Hemingway-esque sentences ... in the simple past, you know, with a third-personal narrator."
Modernist fiction, Self says, gets rid of the third-person, past-tense narrator. "Instead, everything is in the continuous present. The paradox of modernism is, writers make the decision to work with the continuous present, and to work with ... stream of consciousness, as it's called, for emotional reasons, and the main emotional reason is verisimilitude. I mean, this is what surprises people: Life is not in the simple past." Thinking and speaking, he adds, are happening now, not in the past — and all at once, in a grand mix-up. "And in order to try and express that on the page, stream of consciousness and continuous present are, to my way of thinking, very, very powerful techniques."
But many readers crave a more linear form of storytelling, with common points of reference — birth, love, triumph, death. "People tend to think of their lives as having a dramatic arc, because they read too much fiction," Self says. "So, in other words, they are partaking in a communal shape-creating process all the time ... but the reality of our life, our lived life, is very few people's lives have a linear structure, and almost nobody's life majorly turns on a coincidence, the way that most plots do. It just doesn't happen that way.
"Lives don't divide up into chapters," he continues. "People don't just talk, while nothing's going on in their head, and then respond. You know, none of these things actually happen. But it is enormously reassuring, and a good ordering principle for the kind of ghastly incoherent and largely inchoate mess that human consciousness is. And I'm inclined to think that all we actually have is experience."