The betting line on this year’s Man Booker Prize predicted a final face-off between Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, the eventual winner, and Will Self’s Umbrella.
I tried Mantel’s entry first, but I didn’t like it all that much. Cromwell as a 21st century COO was too anachronistic for my taste, which seldom runs to historical fiction in the first place.
Now I’ve read Self’s novel, and I’m not any more enthralled, for reasons that are quite different but in one way quite the same.
Mantel’s prose struck me as being overly-stylized, a too transparent effort to be richly written. Self’s book is all style, and an old style at that. I felt that I’d seen it all before — and read it all before.
Umbrella is an unabashed throwback, a “neo-modernist” novel that owes much more than its title to James Joyce. Reading it took me back to my student days in the 1960’s, when I first encountered stream of consciousness, when it felt fresh to a 20-something reading it for the first time.
Reading Umbrella is definitely not to read it for the first time, and I couldn’t overcome the thought that I was reading not so much a novel but an exercise, a technical realignment of words, a rejection of postmodernist and post-postmodernist fiction in favour of a way of writing retrieved from the good old days of the turn of the century — the previous century.
At the same time, Umbrella has some impressive elements. The story’s parts overlap and self-reference cleverly. The state of mind of the institutionalized characters reflects and comments ironically, sometimes comically, on the state of present-day culture. This is not at all a mere copy, a student’s exercise in writing like James Joyce.
Yet I couldn’t escape the feeling that while critiquing the recently passed in terms of the further past may yield a work of considerable skill, an opportunity to create has been declined in favour of a kind of retrenchment.