Abandoned: Umbrella by Will Self

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Umbrella Shortlisted for 2012 Booker Prize

Five words from the blurb: people, victims, patient, truth, dense

Will Self is an author I’ve wanted to try for a long time and so I was quite pleased that the Booker Prize encouraged me to pick up one of his books. Unfortunately Umbrella didn’t work for me and I wonder if I’d have been better off starting with another one of his books?

Umbrella spans an entire century – following a feminist in 1918, her treatment with a psychiatrist in 1971, and the reflections of the psychiatrist in 2010.

The book is written in a stream of consciousness writing style (something I often struggle with) but I found this book particularly difficult to engage with. The thoughts meandered all over the place and I failed to find a hook to keep me interested.

Try as she might to prevent herself, Audrey has asked him whether their relation is physical – although he disdains the idea: Venetia? M’dear, she’s a baby, she’s shwaddled in the eternal childishness of wealth, shponged and pampered by her nursing maids and wet nurshed at houshe parties….That may be so, yet for Audrey the closeness between the society lady and the  socialist is insupportable, especially here, where a portrait photograph of her attired as Diana the Huntress stares down from a nearby whatnot…it’s the umbrellas. Aha, the umbrellash, the fruitish of your labourish…….She counters: I don’t make umbrellas, Gilbert, or brollies, or garden tents, or portable pavilions for the bloomin’ beach – I’m a typewriter, I make words.

The writing was outstanding, with beautiful phrases sprinkled throughout the text, but finding them was hard work. There were also a substantial number of obscure words – something made all the more infuriating by the fact that half of them appear to have been invented by the author. It took extreme concentration to make it through each page and after 2 hours of this torture (75 pages) I decided I couldn’t endure any more and abandoned it.

If you enjoy a stream of consciousness writing style and like to concentrate on symbolism and the beauty of individual phrases then I’m sure you’ll enjoy this, but I prefer books that are more engaging.

Have you read anything written by Will Self?

Are all his books written in a steam-of-consciousness writing style?

Do you think I’d enjoy any of his other books?


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37 Comments

  1. john problem says:

    Read some, didn’t like them much. But, as an essayist and commentator, he is excellent.

    1. Jackie says:

      John, Yes – I’ve seen some fantastic pieces he’s written for the press. Perhaps I’ll stick to his non-fiction essays.

  2. I have not read any books by this author but I am going to see what else he has written now. :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Sheila, He has written some books which sound interesting, but I’m now a bit scared to try them. Hopefully someone will come along and recommend one soon.

  3. Laura says:

    I have absolutely no desire to read this one (and your review reinforces that, thank you very much!). I hope it doesn’t win the Booker Prize or I will be very conflicted, indeed, because I have a “thing” about reading all the winners.

    1. Jackie says:

      Laura, Yes. I hate that conflicting feeling too. I’m already feeling guilty for abandoning ‘Wolf Hall’. I can see it happening again this year, but I try to reassure myself that I at least have a rough idea of their themes/styles.

  4. … and here was I hoping this could be the Will Self novel I could engage with!

    1. Jackie says:

      Annabel, maybe next time he’ll surprise us with a gripping page turner?!

  5. parrish says:

    I’m interested in this one as I’ve enjoyed previous books by him, including The Book of Dave and The Quantity Theory of Insanity

    1. Jackie says:

      parrish, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this one then – I’d love to know if it is much trickier to get through than his others. Hope you get to it soon.

      1. Parrish says:

        Jackie, if you felt like trying another one sometime, The Quantity Theory of Insanity is a collection of short stories that will give you an idea of his work in a shorter form, if interested here is my post on it –
        http://parrishlantern.blogspot.co.uk/2010/08/there-is-only-so-much-insanity-in-world.html
        I described it at the time as a mad dark satire that disturbs at the same time as it makes you laugh.

  6. markbooks says:

    Hmm, I’ve never read anything by him, other than bits I’ve read in bookshops. I always think I’ll give him a shot, but have never quite got round to it. Maybe one day…

    1. Jackie says:

      mark, He is one of those authors you feel you should try. I hope you have better luck with him than I do.

  7. nomadreader says:

    I’m intrigued by the premise of this one, but I tend to fare best with stream of consciousness when I can devote a lot of time to it, and with the length of this book, it’s still sitting on my shelf. I hope to at least sample it before the Booker announcement.

    1. Jackie says:

      nomadreader, Yes, this book needs a lot of time and a lot of concentration to appreciate it. I’ve never got on with stream of conciousness, but if you do enjoy it then you may well fall in love with this one eventually. Good luck!

  8. Simon T says:

    I love stream of consciousness in the hands of a master (or mistress!) like Woolf, but Will Self seems proud of the fact that his writing is unreadable. The line between experiment and readability is really intriguing, but I think an author has to be trying to find that line, rather than cheerfully wandering off into unreadability.

    1. Jackie says:

      Simon, Yes – I’ve seen Self’s interviews in which he is proud so few people can finsh his books. Seems a bit weird to me. I think the perfect book should be accessable to all, but reveal greater depth when re-reading.

  9. Jenners says:

    Stream of consciousness can be a challenge … I have to be in the mood for it and it can’t be too nutso or I just don’t want to work for the story that much.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenners, I have enjoyed SoC sections within a book, but I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed an entire book written that way. I can’t see you enjoying this one, but who knows!

  10. I’ve not read any of Self’s other books and I’m crossing this one off my TBR list. I can seldom hand;e stream-of-consciousness-type writing. My own consciousness is quite enough!

    1. Jackie says:

      Debbie,
      “My own consciousness is quite enough!” LOL! Mine too!

  11. Chinoiseries says:

    Oops, yet another Booker Prize contender falling short of meeting its expectations :/ Stream-of-consciousness writing is not my thing at all, so I might give this book a skip. I wonder whether Will Self’s other books are written in the same style? Are there any that you would recommend, Jackie?

    1. Jackie says:

      Chinoiseries, I haven’t read any of his other books so I’m afraid I can’t help you with that one. I’d be interested to know if any of his books are more readable because he sounds like such an intelligent man and I’d love to have a bit of insight into his ideas.

  12. No, I don’t like stream of consciousness. At all. So I won’t try this book. Unless I’m on a desert island and I need a book to tide me over for a week or so. :-)

    1. Jackie says:

      Judith, LOL! This would make the perfect desert island read! It would provide you with something to do for weeks. Perhaps after a few months of reading it everything would make sense?

  13. Jennifer says:

    SOC writing isn’t my thing :( I’ve heard that if you read it aloud it can be easier. But…doesn’t that seem like a lot of work? LOL I love books that make me think, not books that make my head ache.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jennifer, “I’ve heard that if you read it aloud it can be easier” Perhaps that makes it a good candidate for an audiobook? If it wins I might try to get hold of the audio version and see if it makes more sense that way.

  14. Oh No…I tend to have trouble with this style as well, and do have this one as an eGalley.

    1. Jackie says:

      Diana, If you already have a copy then it won’t take much for you to read a few pages and get a general idea of the style. You’ll know whether or not it is for you within a couple of pages. Good luck!

  15. Bellezza says:

    I haven’t read anything by this author in particular, but I have often been confounded by books who were eligible for, or won, the Booker. They often seem to required quite a lot of perseverence, at least for me, to complete. I don’t always feel rewarded for my effort. But, a stream of consciousness style of writing does appeal to me, so you’ve piqued my interest there!

    1. Jackie says:

      Bellezza, I often feel as though I’m not rewarded for my efforts either. I think the best books are easy to read, but have a greater depth if you investigate them further. Such a shame that so many literary fiction authors think their books are only good if half the population can’t make it through the first chapter :-(

  16. I loves it (despite having a history of struggling with SOC and previous Self books) but suspect the minority I am in shrinking rapidly!

    1. Jackie says:

      Alex, Yes – I saw your glowing review. It is always good to see that someone outside the Booker judging panel sees something good in each book. It will be interesting to see if it goes on to win.

  17. Charlie says:

    I want to give it a go, because it’s everywhere at the moment and I’d like to know what it (or rather Self) is about, but I’m not sure whether I’ll like it or not. And that’s partly for the reasons you’ve given for your abandonment. I’m torn over that quotation.

    1. Jackie says:

      Charlie, I chose that quotation because it was one I liked, but I think it does a good job of showing the problems of the book. Such great words, buried beneath lots of long, meandering sentences. I’m torn over that one paragraph, but combine it with 1000s of similar ones and I’m lost. :-(

  18. This was my first Will Self outing (I’d been interested in reading him and thought the Booker nomination the best place to start)…and I have to admit that I’ve also ‘parked’ it for the time being. Read the first 15 pages, perservered through to page 50 and then put it down. I found the stream of consciousness, lack of punctuation and intermittent moves between time periods a little difficult to get used to! Will revisit soon…(hopefully).

  19. Peter T says:

    I like his points of view on Radio 4. But having tried to read a few pages of Umbrella I thought, oh my God unreadable. It seems there are two Will Self’s. One that can’t do DIY and put up a bookshelf and the other that is quite astute on abstract matters. he also didn’t bother to respond to a personal request.

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