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Waking Up the Half-Dead


by Will Self
Grove, 397 pp., $25.00
Ulf Andersen/Getty Images
Will Self, Paris, 2001

A strange thing happened last October after the ceremony to announce the winner of Britain’s most coveted fiction prize, the Man Booker. A stock photograph of the nominees, posed in front of the sponsor’s logo, holding their books and wearing the forced smile of solitary authors obliged to sparkle like movie stars at a premiere, went viral on the Internet. Five of the authors, including the eventual winner Hilary Mantel, are dutifully standing in a line, with the covers of their novels delicately poised in front of their chests, just as the publishers’ publicists have, no doubt, instructed. Looming behind them, however, is the immensely tall Will Self. Not content to tower physically above his rivals, he is holding his novel, Umbrella, at the end of his fully extended right arm, so that it hovers way above their heads. In contrast to the strained cheeriness of the other novelists, Self’s long face wears the sepulchral expression of a dead-eyed zombie.

Self’s comic pose is at once a cheeky parody of outrageous self-promotion and a sweetly defensive gesture. He places himself both above and outside the competition, preempting the forthcoming disappointment of Umbrella’s failure to win a prize that many critics thought it deserved. As well as being very funny, this little tableau also captures Self’s uneasy place in contemporary English literature. As his wife Deborah Orr wrote in The Guardian, “Umbrella winning the Booker would have been weird, a category error, like a goat winning Best Sheep.”

Self has indeed been a goat among the sheep of contemporary English fiction, a puckish trickster self-consciously at odds with its middle-class politeness. His disdain for many of his contemporaries is summed up in his declared admiration for J.G. Ballard’s decision to “reject…the English image of the writer as a superior craftsman who wears a tweed jacket with leather arm patches and who stands up after a day’s work and says ‘There’s another good coffee table I have sanded down today.’” Like the Anglo-Chinese Ballard and the part-Irish Anthony Burgess, whose work is another obvious influence, Self is English in a complicated way—while his father was an English professor of political science, his mother was a Jewish New Yorker, and his wit owes more to Woody Allen than to P.G. Wodehouse. His fame as a shibboleth-shaking journalist and dyspeptic TV commentator has gone hand-in-hand with a position as a literary outsider.

This status owes as much to his own efforts as to any conspiracy to exclude him from the ranks of respectable novelists. In coping with a long, now happily concluded history of substance abuse (he has written about “my own past on-off membership in twelve-step programmes such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, and my residence at a Minnesota Method treatment centre for four months in the mid-eighties”), he invented “Will Self” as a public persona, somewhere between Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, and Hunter S. Thompson. In apparent tribute to the latter, he became notorious for snorting heroin in the toilet of the then British prime minister John Major’s campaign jet in 1997.

That persona has leaked into his fiction, which has been both defiantly outré (his early pair of novellas, Cock and Bull, feature a suburban housewife who grows a penis and an inept sports journalist who grows a vagina) and insistently self-referential. In his most recent novel before Umbrella, Walking to Hollywood, the narrator, known as “Will Self,” mentions “my notoriety, which served to make me more memorable to those I had met than I would’ve been otherwise.” The question has long been, however, whether Self the novelist can be truly memorable for more than his notoriety, whether there might be a Will Self outside the quotation marks, one whose formidable cleverness could become sustained fictional invention and whose deft narrative games could be played for genuinely high emotional stakes.

At first, it is hard to believe that Umbrella will be such a book. Indeed, its opening lines cause the heart to sink. Self seems to be embarking on another display of dexterous but by now rather shop-soiled postmodern reflexivity. The opening line is “I’m an ape man, I’m an ape-ape man… Along comes Zachary.” The first phrase is from the chorus of a Kinks song from 1970. Coming immediately after Umbrella’s epigraph (“A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella”), which is from James Joyce’s Ulysses, it creates a smart collision of high and low cultures. But it is also, and here the alarm bells sound, a reference to Self’s own 1997 novel, Great Apes. Hence the “Zachary” of the next phrase, for the psychiatrist Zachary Busner, who is to be the protagonist of Umbrella, is also a central character in Great Apes.

Busner, indeed, has a long prehistory. A pompous, media-savvy, maverick psychiatrist, long gone to seed, he appears sometimes as an odious buffoon, sometimes as a flawed but relatively sympathetic character. Indeed, in the supposedly autobiographical Walking to Hollywood, “Will Self” describes Busner as having been his own psychiatrist from the age of nineteen onward, “who for over a quarter of a century had played a major role in my life—part therapist, part mentor, part friend, part inspiration, part hierophant, part demiurge…wholly suspect.” He and Busner, this “Self” claims, enjoy a symbiotic literary relationship: “For, just as I incorporated him—thinly veiled—into my novels and short stories, so he made use of me in the numerous articles and case studies he published.” (In a typical joke, these case studies are later said to have been collected in Busner’s book, The Undivided Self—the title being a further play on both the author’s own name and on R.D. Laing’s The Divided Self.)

This is why Umbrella seems so unpromising. Self’s regular readers have surely had enough of the psychiatrist. Busner’s back-story in Umbrella is pretty much the same as it was when the character was introduced in the title story of Self’s very first collection of stories, The Quantity Theory of Insanity: part of a clique of prodigously gifted young psychiatrists who demonstrate that insanity is a mathematical constant within society, his early career is marked by an extreme rejection of classical psychotherapy. He presides over a Laingian therapeutic commune, where no distinction is drawn between patient and therapist, and becomes a TV talking head. In a later story, “Inclusion,” he conducts an off-the-books trial of a new drug in the hopes of rescuing his reputation. All of this is subsumed into Umbrella.

Making the success of Umbrella even more unlikely is that, as well as cannibalizing Self’s previous work, it also uses a real-life story that has been well told by other writers. As he appears in Great Apes (where he is a chimp, the book’s conceit being that apes are the dominant species and humans the objects of their scientific interest), Busner is, in part, a satire on the neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks: “Like morbidly ebullient chimpanzee interest stories, Busner’s case histories made great copy and highly entertaining television.” He cruises the intake of patients to psychiatric hospitals “seeking out the kind of cases that would make good copy for his books.” Those books are said to include The Chimp Who Mated an Armchair, an unsubtle parody of Sacks’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

But the main object of Self’s scorn is Sacks’s best-known book, Awakenings, published in 1973. It recounts Sacks’s attempts at Beth Abraham hospital in New York in the 1960s to use the drug L-DOPA to reawaken patients rendered catatonic in the global epidemic of encephalitis lethargica after World War I. Sacks/Busner is said to enliven literary parties by bringing along patients who have been the subject of his case studies, including “Parkinsonian chimps whose arms and legs undulated weirdly from the effects of L-dopa, or brain-damaged chimps whose gesticulatory sallies were imprisoned within the tape-loop of acute amnesia.”

Encephalitis lethargica is a disease that has long interested fabulists and writers. It is deeply mysterious—even now, its causes are unclear. Its symptoms are contrary. The main one is catatonia (hence its common name of sleeping sickness), but many sufferers also became “hyperkinetic.” As Molly Caldwell Crosby puts it in her fascinating history Asleep, “Their bodies twitched and muscles tensed. A broader range of uncontrollable tics occurred.” The unfortunate sufferers might move like “mechanical toys.” They seem at once wide awake and deeply asleep, and they suggest the intriguing possibility of awakening from a decades-long slumber.

Previous outbreaks of encephalitis lethargica may lie behind the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty” (which is referenced in Umbrella), Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, and even Madeline’s deathlike cataleptic trances in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. More recently, the disease entered popular consciousness through the film version of Sacks’s book, with Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, and the theater through Harold Pinter’s A Kind of Alaska, which is explicitly inspired by Sacks and which uses a kind of stream-of-consciousness technique very similar at times to that deployed by Self in Umbrella. To the question of whether we need yet another version of Zack Busner is added a second—do we need yet another version of Awakenings, especially from a writer who has parodied it so cruelly in a previous book?

And yet Umbrella is a brilliant, beautiful, hypnotic, and haunting novel. The knowing, self-conscious, self-referential beginning turns out to be a mercifully false start, as if Self embarked on yet another fiendishly clever but essentially repetitive exercise only to find himself with a story that stripped away all of his defenses and left him with naked compassion. Umbrella begins as hard-bitten satire but gradually achieves an even harder-won humane tenderness. Self’s skepticism remains alive and earns its keep by holding sentimentality at bay. But it is not allowed to tip over into cynicism.

One of the strengths of Umbrella is what initially seems to be its greatest weakness—the return of Busner. In the existing story of the revival of encephalitis lethargica patients by L-DOPA, the figure of the doctor is uncomplicated. He is, after all, Prince Charming to the patient’s Sleeping Beauty. Sacks’s own intentions in Awakenings are, of course, entirely decent. Pinter’s version of Sacks, Hornby, is, perhaps uniquely in his plays, a simple paragon of patience and benevolence. But Self knows his Busner too well for that. He knows his past follies, both professional (that disastrous attempt to put Laing’s theories into practice, followed by his surrender to the task of doling out “barbiturates, tranquillisers, hypnotics, sedatives, anti-psychotics, antidepressants and all the rest of the harlequinade”) and private (he is a useless father and unfaithful husband).

Busner’s motives, like those of Busner in Walking to Hollywood, are both benign and “wholly suspect.” He experiments with L-DOPA in part to help his patients but in large measure, too, out of institutional boredom, a need to rehabilitate his reputation, and sheer egoism. This makes him, no doubt, a less saintly human being but also a vastly more intriguing fictional character. The heroic tale of the godlike doctor awakening the long-silent patient is familiar to the point of dullness. The story that Self tells, of a deeply flawed man bumbling around in other people’s lives and being forced to deal with large questions of time, memory, and human selfhood, most certainly is not.

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