Zack Busner, the naïve neurologist in Will Self’s new novel, Umbrella (Grove Press, 448 pp., $25), thinks he can use the drug L-Dopa to cure a disease called Encephalitis lethargica. It last broke out during World War I, and its sufferers have been catatonic for 50 years, but Busner predicts “miraculous” results. “In the upper storeys of these rundown minds,” he thinks, “true sentience remains.” This hunch is vindicated when the “enkies” wake up to the ’70s and start displaying Edwardian attitudes. Audrey Death, the liveliest enkie, calls her Kenyan nurse “the blackie.” Unfamiliarity induces raptures as well as racism—another woman spends whole days being amazed by a light switch. A novelist might envy the enkies’ responsiveness to life, like a Martian’s or an infant’s in its rawness. Yet there’s a witty scene in which Busner corrals “his guinea pigs” for an outing to a church. As cultural tourists, they fall into the usual clichés of curiosity, unconsciously parodying their awe at the new world by faking it for the old one: “they stop to marvel at the enormous organ, with its three-storey-high pipes.”
Umbrella is a novel that ceaselessly contrasts real wonder with sham versions. Even encephalitis is like this, a travesty of regard for the basic propositions of being human. A risen enkie recalls his catatonic inner life as a run-on sentence of hysterical repetitiveness: “a dreadful copybook sort of arithmetic … I am what I am what I am.” Umbrella spans a century but repeats its themes. When Stanley Death, a soldier, sends telegrams to his sister Audrey from the Battle of the Somme, all that they say is “I am.”
The novel fictionalizes an episode from the life of the English-born neurologist Oliver Sacks: while consulting on a chronic ward in the Bronx in the ’60s, he awoke a group of enkies with experimental doses of L-Dopa. But as the enkies adjusted to the drug, their symptoms resumed and they sank back into “sleepy sickness.” They were like Rip Van Winkle in their renewal, like Eurydice in their relapse into darkness. In 1973, Dr. Sacks published Awakenings, a book that mixed case studies with numinous guesswork, to global applause (W.H. Auden: “A masterpiece”). Awakenings inspired a one-act play by Harold Pinter as well an Oscar-nominated 1990 film that took its name. “The human spirit is more powerful than any drug,” said Robin Williams in his role as “Doctor Sayer.”
Mr. Self once wrote a novella about a rugby player who grows a vagina in his knee. He’s an old hand at the outré, and is the first artist to appropriate the enkie story while abjuring melodrama. He also abjures chapter breaks and, for the most part, paragraphs. Umbrella consists of four interior monologues that alternate mid-sentence and jump-cut across time. The conscious Modernism can seem daunting, yet Mr. Self has his reasons. Written in a style reanimated from another era, Umbrella is a carefully sequenced fugue on the theme of being out-of-sequence. It’s often beautiful, notwithstanding its author’s compulsive grisliness. Describing a fat neck as a “pimpled wimple of flesh” is characteristic, but Mr. Self’s perceptions are original (“a faint applause of pigeons”), and he is Ronald Firbank-like in his ability to shape poetry from prattle. An enkie compares his period of catatonia to an empty picture frame: “This is me … the framing of nothing, I had lost the general idea of what it was to have … a general idea!” Some puns are merely bad, others so bad that they’re Beckettian. A janitor notes a spree of suicides-by-hanging: “[T]his decade is proving quite as swinging as the last!”
Mr. Self’s deviations from the facts are few but telling: he has set his novel in North London rather than the South Bronx. Friern Hospital, the real-life London madhouse where Busner’s new on staff, was bombed in the Blitz before becoming a condo complex in 1993, and Mr. Self makes its story the anchor for a plot that covers a lot of history. This history is entirely English and is quirky in its foci, a bit lopsided with theorizing. Rupert Brooke comes up once, but for the most part the gossipy possibilities of the historical novel are forgone.
The book sticks with its monologists: Busner, Audrey and her two brothers, Albert and Stanley. Albert is the eldest, a savant with few scruples who gets into arms manufacturing in time to profit from World War I. Albert has his star turn in Umbrella’s greatest set piece, thrashing two industrialists in a golf game as he calculates the parabolic arcs of “the dimpled moonface.” His younger brother, Stanley, is his opposite—a Fourierist. A tide of stylized ennui takes him from the bed of an older woman to the front lines of the Battle of the Somme. The “flame-haired” middle child, Audrey incarnates their contradictions. She’s a suffragette who sleeps around, and a munitionette who makes bombs in one of Albert’s factories. This makes her more interesting than either of her brothers, whose symbolic yokes leave them little agility to surprise, though it may also be what drives her insane. She’s a modern woman—i.e., a woman undone by modernity, “beset,” like the London she inhabits, “by [her] own contrariety.” Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Mechanism and humanism contend for her soul.
Umbrella casts a wide net of allusion, but sometimes the richness of its weave points up a threadbareness in the characters captured within. The enkies “were the war’s bumper crop”; “L-Dopa is our tank.” When Audrey surfaces from her catatonia, she tells Busner to “think of me as a sort of soldier but recently returned from the Front.” Such lines make you miss the randomness of fiction less concerned with its symbolic standing. Mr. Self’s high-minded Modernist style distances him from the drama of his plot—that Audrey will crack up and L-Dopa disappoint is never doubted—but that style is also distanced from itself by coy nods to its own historicality. Yet just as all maps beget “maps of maps that were themselves only the maps of all this … fucking confusion,” so all self-awareness is an arch through which gleams that untraveled world … of more self-awareness. If Umbrella relies on a pastiche imposture, it also makes of imposture a motif. Albert tweaks his last name to “De’Ath,” Audrey is misidentified as “Deeth” and “Dearth,” the enkies twist backward in kyphosis—a physical imposture—while in the background London churns through a hundred years of venal makeovers. Diagnosis, too, is distortion. “The post-Encephalitics have borne the brunt of every successive wave of psychiatric opinion,” Busner thinks, each of them “historically synchronized and so entirely arbitrary.”
It’s one of many lines that suggest Mr. Self has been keeping up with his Foucault. This would help make sense of the title. “A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella,” reads the novel’s epigraph (it comes from Ulysses), and images of umbrellas recur throughout, fairly twinkling in their keenness to be interpreted. Mr. Self tips his hand halfway in: “When … did the umbrella first become an article to be routinely forgotten rather than assiduously remembered?” This is where Modernity begins; hence the modernism. Nostalgic in its literary mechanics, Umbrella identifies forgetfulness as the grammar of power—forgetfulness of family and history, but mainly of wonder before technology, the blindness bred by its routinization. It is a difficult but profound idea. Mr. Self has dusted off these old devices to do an interesting new thing with his talent.