By Will Self

(Grove Press, $25, 448 pages)

is this author?

He’s British, tall (6 feet, 5 inches), likes to tinker with old typewriters, smokes a pipe, writes columns for British papers, often
appears on TV and once got caught taking heroin on British Prime Minister John Major’s campaign plane in 1997. But Will Self is best known for his six short-story collections, a book of novellas, nine novels published since 1992 and six collections of journalism. Those novels include “Cock and Bull” (1992), “How the Dead Live” (2000), “The Book of Dave” (2006), “Walking to Hollywood” (2010) and his latest, “Umbrella” (2012), which is on the short list for the latest Man Booker Prize, England’s top literary award.

What is this book about?

Zachary Busner, a psychiatrist who doesn’t like playing by the rules and is a newcomer to the staff at a British mental hospital, sees
that many patients there display an odd, repetitive behavior that results from encephalitis lethargica—a brain-damaging sleeping sickness. One patient in particular, an old woman named Audrey Dearth, contracted it in 1918. The doctor becomes fascinated by her case and begins treating her and others similarly afflicted with an anti-Parkinson’s drug. Audrey then briefly recalls her difficult childhood in Edwardian England, her job in a WWI munitions factory and her affair with a married man, and there also are flashbacks involving her brothers Stan, a soldier, and Bert, a civil servant.  Added to these three streams of consciousness are the doctor’s own recollections of his past romances and career.

Why you’ll like it:

The book begins with a quote from James Joyce’s magnificent and often impenetrable “Ulysses” — “A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella.” And that should tip you off that this “Umbrella” will not be easy to open. Be warned that this book offers a  challenge even to the discerning reader. It has plenty of Joycean stream-of-consciousness, a plot and setting that toggles between the present, a mental hospital in the 1970s and Edwardian London and huge helpings of lyrical, feverish, sensory-overloaded prose that often reads more like poetry. Self’s satiric, rhapsodic prose is a mirror of the chaotic swirling of the human mind. This is the kind of book that demands the reader’s full attention. It’s not for everyone, but those who succumb to its charms will find it enchanting.

What others are saying:

“A work of throwback modernism . . . an erudite yet barking mad novel about barking madness. . . . 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. . . this novel locks into moments of ungodly beauty and radiant moral sympathy. . . . 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. . . . Mr. Self often enough writes with such vividness it’s as if he is the first person to see anything at all,” says The New York Times.

“A savage and deeply humane novel. . . . . “Umbrella” is an old-fashioned modernist tale with retrofitted ambitions to boot. . . . Self
has always been a fabulous writer. . . . The result is page after page of gorgeously musical prose. Self’s sentences bounce and weave, and like poetry, they refract. The result is mesmerizing. . . . In its best moments, “Umbrella” compels a reader to the heights of vertigo Woolf excelled at creating.. . . . a triumph of form. With this magnificent novel Will Self reminds that he is Britain’s
reigning poet of the night,” says the Boston Globe.

“A virtuosic performance . . . narrated in the allusive, sensory-overloaded style associated with Joyce’s “Ulysses”. . . . A heady
mixture of closely observed (and deeply researched) period details, colorful imagery, surrealistic juxtapositions, and italicized interjections . . . Self’s wildly nonlinear narrative offers other delights: richly detailed settings that bring the Edwardian era and mental hospitals sensuously alive, kaleidoscopic patterns of symbolism (umbrellas assume all sorts of forms and functions), and
loads of mordant satire,” says The Washington Post.

“If the realist novel welcomes you in, takes your coat, hat (and umbrella), shows you to a comfortable seat and gets you a gin and tonic, this book leaves you to let yourself in, sit yourself down (if you can find room) and get your own bloody drink if you insist on having one,” says The Sunday Times.

When is it available?

“Umbrella” can be opened in the new books stacks of the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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