Will Self – author, journalist, psycho-geographer, wisecracking television show panellist – has never seemed unduly bothered about critical respectability. His colourful novels are always good fun, and usually in bad taste. But something has changed. Perhaps mindful that he risks appearing to posterity as a writer of mere scatological jeux d'esprit, Self has begun to take his art a little more seriously. In recent interviews he has opined on the high Modernism of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, and his new book adopts their techniques.
Recounted in a series of monologues, Umbrella has no chapters and few paragraph breaks to interrupt the narrative flow. At its centre is Audrey Death, a munitions worker at the Woolwich Arsenal. Audrey manufactures arms for use in the First World War, but later contracts encephalitis lethargica, the sleeping sickness that sweeps Europe in 1918. She remains in hospital, comatose in her "skin prison", until 1971, when psychiatrist Zack Busner manages briefly to restore her to lucidity. (Audrey's tale was clearly inspired by Oliver Sacks' work with encephalitis victims, recounted in his memoir Awakenings.)
There is no linear progression: we move back and forth between Audrey's childhood reminiscences, her wartime experiences and Busner's clinical trials, sometimes in the space of a single sentence. Woven in are subplots involving Audrey's siblings: Stanley, a soldier in the trenches, and Albert, a fastidious civil servant. With so many stories being told in parallel, the novel assumes a polyphonic quality: reading it is like listening to a crackling wireless as the disparate voices fade in and out of the mix. It can be a bewildering experience, and at times one suspects that Self has taken from Modernism only what Malcolm Bowie called "the art of being difficult". But in the end, the form is justified: Self's stream-of-consciousness style allows him delicately to trace connections between war, technology and the mind.
The title and epigraph are lifted from an aside in Joyce's Ulysses – "a brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella" – though Self may also have been thinking of the poet Isidore Ducasse, who described beauty as the "chance meeting of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table". The novel is full of such surreal juxtapositions, which reflect the associative workings of memory: a broken brolly leads Busner to reflect on Audrey's "kyphotic" spine, while the image of a tossed cigarette at a garden party reminds Stanley of a shell spinning above the mud and gore of the Western Front.
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. But perhaps his most authentic gesture to Modernism comes not in his wordplay but in his attention to the minutiae of experience. He renders the texture of Audrey's London, its odours and colloquialisms, in vivid detail.
Perhaps in the story of Sacks' roused patients, Self saw a metaphor for his own attempts to resurrect the past, to give history a distinctive, earthy voice. In this he succeeds beautifully, writing with a new sophistication. The result is a stunning novel, and a compelling Self-reinvention.