In or around 1915 something changed in certain human brains. An epidemic of encephalitis lethargica – known as “sleepy sickness” – spread around the globe, sucking victims into somnolence, torpor and coma. The outbreak lasted until the mid-1920s, and is the subject of Oliver Sacks’s 1973 book Awakenings, in which he describes his efforts to rouse encephalics from their decades-long slumbers. These patients had not merely spun down into slow-mo; they had been seized first with a variety of tics and tremors, clawing motions and darting eye movements. In this sense, as Will Self discerns, theirs was a suitably modern, even modernist, affliction. For what was the art of the first decades of the 20th century – in fiction, dance, film and painting – if not a generalised eruption of the gestural sphere? When it was not obsessively slowing movement and time, that is, to something approaching catatonia.
Umbrella is as much a novel about the historical slump of modernist fiction – and its potential reanimation – as it is about the fates of encephalics. At its heart is one Audrey Death: lathe operator at the Woolwich Arsenal, former umbrellafactory worker, and focus for a deal of energetic labour on Self’s part to capture the demotic futurism of early-century London. Audrey is a socialist, feminist and enthusiast of the century’s first wave of free love. She is also assailed, like Leopold Bloom and Clarissa Dalloway, by the fleeting shocks and pleasures of the city, its jerky, cinematic modernity. The novel matchcuts across a hundred years; in the early 1970s Audrey is a tic-ridden institutionalised “enkie” under the care of Dr Zack Busner (readers may recall the self-aggrandising psychiatrist from Self’s Great Apes and The Book of Dave), who hopes to unfreeze her from her half-life.
Audrey’s illness, Self tells us, is “a time bomb primed in the future and planted in the past”. Something of the same temporal perplex animates his prose. There are echoes of Joyce and Eliot, but also of Flaubert, who in Madame Bovary set in italics the stock phrases used by his characters. Self does the same with such period clichés as “love-struck moon calf” and “plucky little Belgians”, but also with Busner’s aspirantly novelistic formulations: his patients’ beds are “guano-dashed rocks in a sea of speckled- tan linoleum”; Audrey’s symptoms are “bones ploughed up from a battlefield”. The vaunted modernist stream of consciousness was never a matter of headlong flow, more a question of abrupt shuttling between disparate voices or registers. Self has knowing fun with timing his historical shifts to the rhythms of technology; a shop window in 1918 becomes a 1970s television spewing game-show prizes.
Yet Umbrella is not exactly a pastiche of modernist styles, nor (though this might have been more ambitious) an effort to recharge those modes at one century’s remove. Like Tom McCarthy’s C – set in the same era of networked tech-frenzy, and a novel with which Self seems to be in sly dialogue – its relationship with modernism is as much a matter of historical allegory as structural or textural affinity. Despite himself, the clinically cack-handed Busner works out that Audrey’s machinic tremors derive from grappling with new technology as a youth, making her a robotic cousin to Chaplin’s agitated drone in Modern Times. “Goaded by some neural whip”, she is a victim of the modernity that she incarnates through her sexual and political energy. And the evidence of that convulsive history has had to be hidden away at Busner’s asylum for 50 years.
All of which suggests that Umbrella is a complexly textured, conceptually forbidding thesis about the modern, its art and their discontents. This being Self, though, there is also a great deal of humour, much of it to do with the dismal, drugged, inhuman pass to which Busner’s patients have come after decades in their psychiatric “jail within a jail”. There is an absurd discovery regarding the patients having founded the asylum themselves as a utopian phalanstery, in which they were later incarcerated. This antic institutional backstory feels like a slightly panicked shirking of the more immersive strangeness of the earlier phases of the novel. On the other hand, this may be how we revisit the creative madness and terrible optimism of modernism today: as a revolution in everyday life devolved into farce, domesticated like an asylum turned into luxury flats.
Brian Dillon is UK editor of Cabinet magazine. Umbrella is published by Bloomsbury, £18.99