Ken Kesey, the author of that great American novel of mental illness One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, once cited with approval a precept of his father's: "Good writing ain't necessarily good reading." I held that observation in mind while fixed to my chair by Will Self's brilliant but chaotic and word-choked new novel, Umbrella, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize. Like Kesey's novel, it mostly takes place in a psychiatric ward. Like Kesey's novel too it broods over the tenuous line that divides the sane from the insane.
Self's stream-of-consciousness narrative – it's about an elderly woman who awakens in 1971, with the help of a new drug, from nearly five decades of stupor – is stuffed with so much "good writing" of a furious and knife-scratched sort that it will spindle and mutilate your ideas about what good reading might be. Kesey's father would, I suspect, be appalled by it.
Umbrella is a work of throwback modernism. It has no chapters and few paragraph breaks, those pit stops for the mind, as John Updike called them. It shuffles points of view without warning. It is freckled with Joycean neologisms ("shivergreen," "saltsplash," "splutterance"); it hiccups with spastic interjections; it's an erudite yet barking mad novel about barking madness. It's as much performance piece as novel. It will force you to hold contradictory ideas in your head. Among those that flickered through mine were "This is the best and most ambitious thing Self has written" and "It puts him on a new level as a novelist" and "I hope never to read it again."
You give yourself over to Umbrella in flashes, as if it were a radio station you're unable to tune in that you suspect is playing the most beautiful song you will ever hear. Just when you are ready to give up on it entirely, this novel locks into moments of ungodly beauty and radiant moral sympathy. It tests your patience. It tests your nerve. You will not always be convinced the effort is worth it. You're familiar, by now, with Will Self. (What a hatchet of a name he has. At birth he was William Woodard Self.) He is the man who inherited, from Martin Amis, the burden of being Britain's difficult literary boy toy – louche, mischief making, tabloid beckoning.
His early fiction, especially the short story collection that put him on the map – The Quantity Theory of Insanity (1991) – squirmed with striking grotesques. Self seemed to roam the moors, subways, pubs and salons like one of his own characters, or like a loping werewolf.
Umbrella pivots frequently in time, most often between Edwardian London and a suburban mental hospital in 1971, where an elderly woman named Audrey Death (or De'Ath) has long resided in a state of suspended animation. When we first meet her she is appraised this way: "Her posture is ... bizarre, @the spine curved and rigid – give her a push and she'd rock. Her pinched face is not a face but a mask of greasy seborrhoeic skin, her lips are stretched rubber bands that pull away from crumbled gums set with two or three stray teeth." Still, she possesses blue, "frighteningly mobile eyes." Audrey is catatonic when she isn't exhibiting jarring physical tics. She is heavily sedated. She drools. A new psychiatrist, Zachary Busner, wonders if her ailment hasn't been misdiagnosed all these years. He wonders if he can unlock her and others like her. As it turns out, he can. We've met this Zachary before. He's a recurring weirdo in Self's oeuvre, a doctor who seems to be a contorted blend of R. D. Laing and Oliver Sacks and Boo Radley. That he's a hero in Umbrella adds to this book's swerves and perversions.
We've entered similar territory with Self too. His novel The Book of Dave (2006) dealt with mental illness; it's about a cabdriver whose mind is coming unstitched. His How the Dead Live (2000) was about the afterlife of an old woman.
Nothing Self has previously written prepares you for the polyphonic scree of language that is Umbrella, however. This novel is a bitter critique of how society has viewed (and cared for) those with mental illnesses. It's about myriad other things too: class, the changing nature of British society, trench warfare in World War I, how technology can be counted on to upend everything.
At heart it's a novel about seeing. Zachary is the first person to see Audrey clearly in a very long time. And Self often enough writes with such vividness it's as if he is the first person to see anything at all. The human mouth here is a "pink cement mixer." He catches a car's smooth "Thalidomide wingmirrors." In the asylum we are taken "foaming down the salmon runs of the staircases." Small, perfect observations lead to large, nearly perfect ones. Old age is a form of institutionalisation, Self notes. "It deprives you of your identity and supplies another, simpler one." It "takes your food and purees it, takes your drink and reverses its distillation."
Citing the excellent things in Umbrella is easier than citing the less excellent. Self's prose is often arch and self-consciously choppy; he's frequently more interested in producing eccentric rhythms than in getting anything said. He doesn't try to work himself out of dead ends; he simply pretends they don't exist.
The word "umbrella" carries a lot of freight in this novel. The book's title derives from a line from Joyce: "A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella." Audrey works, when young, for an umbrella manufacturer. We read about the "umbrella of chlorpromazine," an antipsychotic drug. A night is "an umbrella with starry holes torn in its cover." The effect of this powerful but stilted novel is that of having an umbrella taken from you. You're left to stand in the acid rain.