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Waking Up the Half-Dead

Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo/Art Resource
Georges Seurat: The Wet Nurse, 1884–1885

At the same time, Self’s existing familiarity with Busner gives him a secure platform from which to leap into wholly new territory. The great creation in Umbrella is the consciousness of Busner’s encephalitic patient, Audrey. She has been in the vast suburban London mental hospital, Friern Barnet, for almost fifty years, from 1922 to 1971, and is now eighty-one, “a moth—not dead but hibernating and growing more and more desiccated with the years.” Her identity has slipped away, her name recorded variously as “Miss De’Ath, AKA Miss Death, AKA Miss Deeth, AKA Miss Deerth.” She cannot communicate, but she is not asleep. On the contrary, Audrey is locked in a “daymare” of sporadic repetitive motion.

These manic movements, as Busner gradually begins to grasp, are themselves embodied memories—of her operation of a lathe in a munitions factory during the war, of her typing in the office of the umbrella factory where she previously worked, of the “hours of thimble drill at the National School in Fulham” when she was a girl. And behind these outward, involuntary enactments of memory, Self recreates Audrey’s equally quick-racing mind. Unable to acquire new experiences, she runs through old ones in precise and vivid detail like movies playing on a loop.

It is in this terrain of memory that Self discovers both a poetic vibrancy and an emotional conviction that far surpass anything in his previous work. All the enclosed, postmodern ingenuity, all the entertaining tricks, are left behind and in their place we get the immediacy of a thoroughly imagined life. It is a life very different from Self’s own—that of a working-class London woman in the early decades of the twentieth century. Self evokes it superbly in nonsequential passages that alternate with Busner’s thoughts: a vaguely sinister trip through the city with her father; the world of wealthy Edwardian radicals in which Audrey and her brother become entangled; her comically ineffectual, absurdly utopian lover Gilbert; above all the awful, dangerous drudgery of the munitions factory. Self conjures these memories in the kind of detail that might indeed be excavated by a woman locked inside her own head, with nothing to do but refine and polish past experiences. In themselves, these passages are enthralling. They live up to Busner’s reflection that “a universe comes to life when you shiver the mirror of the least of minds.”

Where Self’s achievement becomes extraordinary, though, is when he injects another set of memories—those of Audrey’s beloved brother Stanley, fighting on the front in World War I. These experiences are now themselves literary clichés, but Self gives them a fresh coat of phantasmagorical horror. Are these, though, Stan’s actual experiences or products of Audrey’s fervent wish-fulfilling imagination? We discover the truth toward the end of the novel, but in the meantime the uncertainty adds a layer of drama and mystery that prevents the narrative from being imprisoned in Audrey’s own helplessness. The internalized world of the mental hospital is convincingly connected to the vast madness of the twentieth century’s founding catastrophe.

Umbrella isn’t just about Audrey’s reawakening, it is itself the rousing of a lethargic literary form. Just as Busner’s administration of L-DOPA brings Audrey back to life, Self injects his own revivifying drug into the somnolent body of literary modernism. Umbrella enters the lair of modernist fiction’s most fearful giant, Ulysses. It does so boldly and unapologetically, through its Joycean epigraph, its refusal (for the most part) of paragraph breaks or chapter headings, its delight in arcane vocabulary (“vermiculated quoins,” “selenian serenity,” “resipiscence,” “cachexia”), its use of onomatopoeia (the “fssschk-chk-fssschk-chk” of an electrified train, the “kerchunggg!” of Audrey’s typewriter, the “tap-tap” of an umbrella on the ground that deliberately evokes the sound of a blind man’s cane that is registered by Leopold Bloom), its promiscuous mixture of popular and high culture (Umbrella, alongside quotes from King Lear and Robert Browning, is as stud-‌ ded with pop songs as Ulysses is shot through with light opera), above all its shifting internal monologues.

This might have been a showy exercise in literary retro, but it is much more. Self’s extensive narrative, stretching between the turn of the twentieth century and April 2010, when Busner returns to visit the hospital, now (as in real life) converted to luxury apartments, is very different from Joyce’s single, minutely catalogued day. His return to Joyce’s techniques is amply justified by his return to the Edwardian world that Joyce was attempting to capture.

Most importantly, Umbrella is not just a revisiting of modernism—it is a reflection on the modern condition itself. Running through the book is the question of what modern life—which is to say life in a society dominated by technology—has done to humanity. This is essentially the question asked by Self’s hero J.G. Ballard, but he grounds it in an imagery that is all his own.

Two images recur throughout the book. One is the umbrella of the title. It becomes, through repetition and variation, an emblem both of forgetfulness and of being, like Audrey, forgotten. It links the idea of personal oblivion with the industrial world’s invention of disposability. In the early part of the century, when Audrey works in the office of Thomas Ince and Company, the umbrellas they make are significant, expensive, and well-wrought objects. They are rhapsodized as “dewy mushrooms,” and Gilbert points out to Audrey that the first implement the archetypically English castaway Robinson Crusoe makes for himself is an umbrella.

By 1971, Busner spots in his office an umbrella “he has no recollection of having bought, borrowed, or taken up. But that, he thinks, is the way of it: umbrellas are never contracted for, only mysteriously acquired, to be fleetingly useful, then annoying and cumbersome before eventually being lost.” The image may be commonplace, but Self expands its resonance, from the “umbrella of chlorpromazine” that keeps restless mental patients sedated to the “pink umbrella” of Stanley’s foreskin, to the soldiers at the front imagined as “umbrellas clustering in the muddy gutter, then lofted over the top into the buzzing rain” to a final image of Audrey herself, “her thin metal ribs and struts all furled in the stained folds of her old silken skin.”

The other potently recurring image is that of jerky tic-like movements and mindlessly repetitive gestures. They are, primarily, Audrey’s involuntary twitches. But they become a symptom, not of her disease alone, but of the taking over of the human body by the movements of the machine. Audrey remembers seeing the Enigmarelle, a supposed “automaton” (in fact a cleverly costumed performer) who terrified early-twentieth-century vaudeville audiences.

This idea of robotic humans runs through the book. The spasmodic movements are the death throes of soldiers at the front: “that final and extreme myoclonic jerk: the arms flung backwards, the spine bowed by the shockwave.” They are the paroxysms that continue to run through Stan’s arms after he has ceased to fire his machine gun. They are the twitches and shudders of a shell-shocked officer who “lies in spasm on his side, his hands and feet sketching possible trajectories in the dirt that follow some map or plan long since encrypted in his otherwise jumbled mind.” They are the movements of people exercising in a gym in 2010: “several pairs of legs going back and forth, back and forth.”

The reawakened Audrey adds the frenzied repetitions of the trading floor to her repertoire of tics: “Buy! Buy! she had cried, and: Sell! Sell!” Busner comes to see in her mad movements the infection of the body by the machine: “embodied in these poor sufferers’ shaking frames was the entire mechanical age…the stop/start, the on/off, the 0/1, of a two-step with technology.”

Busner says at one point that the world of the encephalitics like Audrey is “both of this time and escaping from it, of now and then.” This is a good description of Umbrella itself, a book that shuffles past and present with such mesmerizing rhythm that the distinction between them ceases to matter. Memory acquires the force of reality. The world inside Audrey’s head becomes immensely precious, restoring to her life the richness and dignity it had been so cruelly denied. Writers, too, as Self so wonderfully proves, can awaken the half-dead and reanimate that which has been sunk in oblivion.

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