CLS: Umbrella, by Will Self

I only read 30 pages of this; – not very much, you might say – but enough for me to know I’m never going to get to the end, or be anything than utterly bored reading it.

Reviews of the book gave the impression of a great modernist undertaking (oh so contrary to today’s c19th novelists): there are three separate but intertwined stories, which Self switches between without warning; it is, apparently, difficult but worthwhile. According to the blurb on the inside cover, “in his latest and most ambitious novel Will Self takes up the challenge of Modernism and demonstrates how it – and it alone – can unravel new and unsettling truths about our world and how it came to be”. (All grist to the mill).

I felt intrigued by these separate narratives which might at times switch mid-sentence (although, in the first 30 pages, there are clear paragraph breaks), since it reminded me of a Claude Simon novel, Conducting Bodies, which I’d read last year (or the year before). Now that Claude Simon novel sure was hard; and its author really did change mid-sentence all the time, often a few times per page; and there were about twenty narratives rather than three; and it was hard to see what the connection was between any of them.

Self’s novel presents no such difficulties; in fact, for a stream-of-consciousness book, it probably rates on the easy side. Though I find it mentioned in no reviews, the most interesting aspect of his style was the fact that some words and phrases were in italics, and it wasn’t entirely clear why: I concluded, for my own part, that this was some sort of layering of consciousness – moments when consciousness forms itself into specific words and phrases. (This was a fairly interesting idea).

Aside from this, what intrigued me was why it was so dull and unengaging, and why I felt no inclination to read on. I’m not entirely sure what the answer is, but I’m guessing it’s the same answer to the same question which arises whenever I read a contemporary novel – and so in this, it seems, Self is no different, by adopting his modernism, to any non-modernist writer. One feels Self has nothing to say and has no interest in entertaining the reader.

One of Obooki’s criteria for measuring contemporary literature was:

Irritating Factors. Is there anything about the work which irritates the hell out of me? (Usually, it’s using nouns as verbs – a common “poetic” effect, usually much applauded)

And here’s some critical applause from The Independent:

Self plays with language throughout: inventive verbs (“toothpasting”, “cartooned”), similes (ageing skin cells “pop like bubblewrap”) and slant rhymes (“sea-sluggishly through the greeny-briny”) abound.

And here are some more examples which I picked out as I was going along (some of which, indeed, are the same):

p.3 his splayed shoes crêping along the floor

p6 where he had student-foolishly inquired, What’s that smell? …. All this had jetted Busner forward sea-sluggishly through the greeny-brine

p7 their eyes cartooned by the wonky frames of their National Health glasses

p11 Was it Busner who had been time-travelled here … or … they who had been op-art-spiralled

I feel a violent antipathy towards this usage of language, which I personally find remarkably lazy (here‘s my version of the beginning of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, as translated by Tibor Fischer, to demonstrate how simple it is to do). The trouble, I find, is that coming upon one of these poetic inventions, it can’t help but stop me for a moment, and draw my attention to how silly and indeed unpoetic it sounds.

I wish, rather than writing their literary histories of such made-up ideas as modernism, some literary critic would write a book on this specific usage of parts of speech as other parts of speech, contrary to the natural application of the language, and how it can be linked historically by the degeneration of culture.


2 thoughts on “CLS: Umbrella, by Will Self

  1. I haven’t read Self’s book – and probably won’t after reading this – but I’ve been meaning to enquire if you ever read We Need To Talk About Kevin. I was rather looking forward to your dissection.

  2. Never fear. I will try to get to it soon. I read the first page and found it so laughably bad that I was struck by the usual dilemma: is Shriver just a laughably bad writer, or is she just evoking a narrator who is laughably bad at writing? – I’m sort of looking forward to it myself.

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