The delight of Will Self’s “Umbrella”

Will Self; what a name, I thought, almost like will I be myself. I went into the bookshop – and the only book left on the back shelf was his Umbrella. The shopkeeper sitting there, sipping a latte, I’ma ask ya to put ya da bag down, the words were louder than a speakerphone. Kerchunnng! The cup fell through the air, filled with book dust … shattered in dark fragments.

Imitating Self’s stye isn’t just fun, it’s instructive. I felt slightly winded after writing the above paragraph. Self makes Umbrella seem like it’s several times its own length, yet he doesn’t seem to labor at it – which of course is an illusion (I love the italics for emphasis; there’s a good sentence where, after going through all the permutations of a character’s surname – Death, De’ath, Dearth – the speaker says “or whatever the fuck her name was“). The book has a relentlessness all its own – like the best novels, going through its pages is a self-contained experience, during which it’s unappetizing to think about anything else and the reader tries to match the author’s ceaseless one-idea-after-another inspiration with similarly flash-bang page-turning. Yes, it’s against all odds a page turner – a chapterless, suspensless, endless page turner.

One of the innovations about Umbrella – probably unintentional, but critics aren’t really in the business of determining intent, are we – is that it can be read right to left. I don’t mean backward, only that I’ve opened the book a few times oh I think I’ll read a few pages while’I’m on da blue line and forgot where I left off, bookmark notwithstanding. Starting on the right page rather than the left, then ADDing my WAY BACK ACROSS the dividing line and seeing oh I didn’t read the left after all because I forgot. Opening up to almost any page of Umbrella yields an italic, ellipsis, or dog-biscuit of thrown-aside poetry (“Emerging blinking and wanton in the daylight”).

It’s a book, running left-to-right or right-to-left or what difference does it make. Like checking my phone or godforbid my watch I can go in even without meaning to and find something to knead the brain’s dough. The best thing about the book, I recalled, is that it made me feel justified, oh yes, confident even in free-flow creativity. The short story I’m working on, The Lightning, draws a lot upon Self, and myself. Once it is finished I will do a postmortem, writing it to pieces in a mirror-reflection review.

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