Saturday, 15 December 2012

Umbrella, by Will Self

I started reading Umbrella by Will Self a few months ago, but only managed 50 pages or so before I had to take to back to the library. Granted, it was a pretty busy time for me, and due to its popularity I only could borrow it for two weeks, but I struggled through those 50 pages. Not quite willing to give up on it though, I requested it again, this time finishing the book. It is an audacious, exhausting and eventually compelling read.

Umbrella follows a few characters over different periods of time. Dr Zack Busner is a psychiatrist working in post-World War II London, and an elderly man in contemporary London. Audrey Death is a working class girl in London’s east end, who becomes a munitions worker in World War I, and eventually one of Dr Busner’s patients. Her brother Stanley Death enlists as a soldier in World War I, and is sent to the front as a gunner. Audrey has languished, in a catatonic state, in psychiatric hospitals for decades before Dr Busner suspects some of the patients are misdiagnosed encephalitis lethargica sufferers and treats with them with new medications - bringing them back to awareness. This is based on real life events familiar to many through Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings.

Self’s novel meanders around this backbone of character and plot. It is a stream of consciousness novel, told in third person and present tense with no chapters. The focus of the novel can shift even mid-sentence, from Audrey to Stanley or so-on. It is at times maddening, one cannot mindlessly drift through the pages. It is a remarkable achievement though that you are always clear whose thoughts you are following. Throughout the text are italicised words or phrases; these seem to represent conscious thought on behalf of the characters, the words they are hearing within their own head. Self’s style is particularly effective in the blurring of Stanley’s own mind between his wartime experience and ‘normal’ life.
We’ll have to reposition! He orders the section at the end of a long burst - and Adeline abandons the cover of the low wall to go forward and reconnoitre. Look at Her! Her skirts dragging through the muck, her proudly hatless head held high….Stanley rises and floats back to the madness of the tea party.
I did think that the sections on Stanley later on in the war were, well odd. They weren’t badly written - in fact they were clever and even amusing in their own right - but I wasn’t sure what they meant. Whether they were real or not. Whether it was even Stanley telling us this story. Against the intense realism of the rest of the novel they just didn’t seem to fit.

At times you could almost imagine Self had just spewed ideas out onto his typewriter. It is a very deliberate novel though: while it seems to be overflowing with ideas, towards the end everything begins to come together. The encephalitic patients have ’tics’ or regular repetitive movements. In Audrey’s case she is repeating the movements she made as a factory worker; in a sense her tics become emblematic of the mechanisation of our world that has occurred since her birth. Family breakdown, women’s lib, the blurring of the class system, it all adds up to a summation of the 21st century. Reading Umbrella can be compared to reading a puzzle: at first it seems like a big pile of thoughts, random and messy, but slowly a shape begins to form and everything finds a place until you are left with a complete picture.

Will Self was widely tipped to win the Booker prize that went to Hilary Mantell’s Bring Up The Bodies. I’m sure he was disappointed not to, as this is a brilliant novel. Had he published it the year before I doubt it would have made the shortlist with the controversial focus on ‘readability’ the Booker panel emphasised that year. I had to make an effort to read it at first, but my persistence paid off.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Chrysalids, by John Wyndham

As a teenager I read the usual dystopic novels: The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, A Brave New World. Somehow I managed to omit John Wyndham from my nerdy reading list. What a mistake. Thanks to my favourite nerdy TV show (ABC‘s First Tuesday Book Club) I picked up The Chrysalids, and I’m glad I did. It is an inventive post-apocalyptic story that had me completely hooked.

The Chrysalids is set a few thousand years in the future, after what is strongly indicated to be a nuclear disaster. It is a coming of age story of David Strorm. David lives on a farm, on something akin to a frontier landscape, society having being reduced to a pre-industrial form. There is a memory of the ’old people’, a technologically advanced society who were all but destroyed by what they know only as ‘Tribulation’. Wyndham creates a strong set of rules that David’s community live by; they practice a fundamentalist form of Christianity, one that is obsessed with the ’true image’. Genetic mutation is common, but also hunted out and destroyed. Nearby are the fringes: land that is wild, where no pure strains can be found. Humans that are found to be mutations are sterilised and abandoned to the fringes. David and a small group of other children are telepaths, something they realise they must conceal if they are to avoid that fate.

David’s father, a prominent man in his community, takes his religion seriously, hunting out genetic mutation in his crops and household with zeal. We learn the fate of some of those not lucky enough to fit the norm; in particular the story of a mother whose newborn has a small mutation is a heartbreaking moment. As it is told through the eyes of a young boy we are spared the gruesome details, nonetheless, the sense of danger Wyndham creates for his protagonist feels very real. Wyndham also hints at a wider world - different communities in other places who also survived ‘Tribulation’. David’s uncle (and confidant) Axel, has travelled as a sailor, and is unable to follow the orthodoxy of their community.
most of them - whether they have seven fingers, or four arms, or hair all over, or six breasts, or whatever it is that‘s wrong with them - think that their type is the true pattern of the Old People, and anything different is a Deviation….You start asking yourself: well, what real evidence have we got about the true image?
Wyndham’s world building is excellent, but it is his characterisations that really make this book interesting. David himself is an atypical lead in that he is often unable to do the right thing, occasionally cowardly, and unprepared when he really shouldn’t be. It is the small characters though, that really make this book. Wyndham imbues minor characters with a sense of humanity, and creates real pathos, such as the aforementioned mother and child. One of the most interesting examples of this are the other telepath children: despite making only the briefest of physical appearances, some have a strong presence.

I’ve agonised a little over the ending, not being completely satisfied as it is dangerously close to deus ex machina. When I began to see it coming I felt bitterly disappointed. Thankfully Wyndham saves the book by not tying up every storyline neatly. While for some characters the ending is happy, the reality that others are left to face is dark and dangerous. Even the ‘happy’ ending leaves us asking some moral questions.

While it is certainly a novel of its time, it also asks questions that are relevant today. While we probably aren’t so concerned about nuclear apocalypse, we do face huge environmental challenges that could have similar impacts. Wyndham also asks us to think about who we will tolerate in our society: where does mutation end and evolution begin? How ‘superior’ are we as beings? Crucially, how do we treat those we deem ‘lesser’ beings to ourselves? Religious fundamentalism is probably even more of an issue in our society than it was when the book was written. People like David’s father are on our news every night.

When so many science fiction classics date badly, Wyndham’s imagined future seems horribly plausible. The book is short and fast paced, and the characters are strong. It is an enjoyable read, that still makes you think about the society we live in, or want to live in.