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Life Is Difficult But Rewarding Under This 'Umbrella'

Jan 13, 2013
Originally published on January 13, 2013 10:30 am

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."

Copyright 2013 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

What is the best way for a writer to reflect life?

WILL SELF: (Reading) "Umbrella." His strong inclination is to touch the old woman. His touch, he thinks, might free her from this entrancement.

MARTIN: For most of us, it's probably the traditional novel that's most often sat on our nightstands; the sprawling, linear tale - birth to death. For Will Self, the most lifelike is told inside-out from the mind of the characters, without a narrator or a filter, or any explanations along the way.

SELF: (Reading) The upside-down faces me down. The eyes slide back in a way again, but their focal point is either behind or in front of his face, never upon it. Can you tell me which your ward is?

MARTIN: This is Will Self reading an excerpt from his new book. It's called "Umbrella." And he joins me now from London.

Welcome to the program Will.

SELF: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: This book is essentially the life story of a woman named Audrey Death. Can you explain who this person is? What is her story?

SELF: We meet her first in some childhood scenes, in the mid-1890s. 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, she contracts this illness, encephalitis lethargica, which is a real epidemic affecting about five million people. A third of them died. A third of them recovered completely.

And a third of them appeared to recover, but then a year, two, maybe three or four years later, fell into these Parkinsonian catatonic states. And this is what happens to Audrey. She ends up in a mental asylum where she remains until 1971, when an enterprising and maverick young psychiatrist, Dr. Zack Busner, awakens her.

MARTIN: I think it's probably fair to say that it is a challenging read, and it requires an investment on the part of the reader. It's not a traditional narrative. It's non-linear, there are layers of time periods and experiences and characters, internal monologues kind of fade in and out of one another's.

You must have expected this though to be a tough read for some people.

SELF: Right, yeah. I think, like a lot of writers, there are kind of two parts of me. Hell, more than two parts. But...

(LAUGHTER)

SELF: But there are two of the salient parts for this discussion: the part of that writes the books and the part of me that is - as it were - a man of the world or a man of the cultural world. And the part of me that writes the books writes what he wants to write, and always has done. But the part of me that lives in the world and understands the book trade and what people like to read and so on and so forth, 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.

(LAUGHTER)

SELF: You know, this is going to be a disaster, nobody is going to read this book. This is uncompromising, it's difficult.

MARTIN: But do you care if no one reads the book?

SELF: Well, I've got to make a living. I don't have a private income. So at one level, of course, I care. I'm not going to try and plead some higher artistic calling. But yes, I very much thought it would have difficulty finding readers for itself. That hasn't proved to be the case though.

MARTIN: I'd love if you could read a passage, just to give our readers a taste of how dense and intricate this book is.

SELF: (Reading) He wonders: Am I blurring? Ashwushushwa, she slurs. What's that? Ashusha-ashuwa. One of her bright eyes leers at the floor. He says: Is it my shoes, my Hush Puppies? Her eye films with disappointment. Then clears and leers pointedly at the floor again.

MARTIN: So much of this feels like an organic stream of consciousness. Do you have a plan when you sit down at the beginning of the day to write? Is there a structure?

SELF: Yeah, "Umbrella" overall has the structure of an umbrella. It's tightly furled to begin with, it opens out, it shelters. And then in a, I think, rather harrowing scene, the umbrella, like Audrey, is blown backwards as she relapses into this encephalitic coma. So yes, it is structured. Of course, I'm working with several different timelines simultaneously - so yeah, I absolutely need to know what I'm doing when I get up in the morning.

MARTIN: There are no chapters. There are few paragraph breaks, close to 400 pages of continuous prose. Why did you choose to write it this way? There is no place for the reader to kind of take a pause and think about what they've just read. Obviously that was intentional, you wanted people to just keep going.

SELF: Right. This is one of the paradoxes of modernism. There are two main techniques that I employ in "Umbrella" that people think of as distinctively modernist. 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 - He got up and went to the door. She came in. They sat down -in the simple past, you know, with a third-personal narrator.

So in modernist fiction, we chuck out the third-personal narrator and we chuck out the simple past. Instead, everything is in the continuous present. Now, the paradox of modernism is that writers make the decision to work with the continuous present, and to work with thinking eye - or stream of consciousness, as it's called - for emotional reasons. And the main emotional reason is verisimilitude. I mean, this is what surprises people.

You know, life is not in the simple past. You, Rachel, are talking to me now. You weren't talking to me then. You're talking to me right now and you're thinking about it right now. Probably while I'm talking to you, you're probably thinking: I wish he'd shut up, or...

(LAUGHTER)

SELF: ...I wonder if I took the pot roast out of the oven. Or...

(LAUGHTER)

SELF: ...I hope my kid is all right.

MARTIN: All of the above.

SELF: Yeah, all of the above.

(LAUGHTER)

SELF: And those thoughts will be braiding in with your comments and with listening to what I'm saying. That is what life is like - it's all happening now. 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.

MARTIN: How is it that we, though, naturally tend to crave a more linear storytelling? We need kind of communal points of reference.

SELF: Right.

MARTIN: You know, I was born. I got married. I suffered. I triumphed. And this is how we have come to understand a story. But you're just saying that with the layers and making it more nuanced and including internal dialogue, and its circular form, that there is more truth in that.

SELF: There is more truth in it. There are two strands for that. One is people tend to think of their lives as having a dramatic arc, because they read too much fiction and go to the movies too much. So, in other words, they are partaking of a communal shape-creating process all the time. So, you know, the way in which they conceive of themselves is borrowed from those cultural forms, and then reflects back into those cultural forms. So it's a self-perpetuating idea.

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. You know, it just doesn't happen that way. Lives don't divide up into chapters. 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.

MARTIN: Will Self, his latest novel is called "Umbrella." He joined us from our studios in London.

Mr. Self, thanks so much.

SELF: Thanks you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.