Teasing Threads – Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: ‘Umbrella’ by Will Self

Chris Palazzolo feels his way through Umbrella by Will Self, Bloomsbury, 2012

UmbrellaRoland Barthes makes the distinction between the ‘readerly’ text and the ‘writerly’ text – the readerly text, which is the kind of text we encounter most commonly in everyday life, is where transparency of meaning is what all of writing labour is devoted too. Newspaper prose is the perfect example of ‘readerly’. When we skim a newspaper article, we get no sense of the industry that has gone into its production, neither the physical labour of writing the raw copy, from research, note taking, and 3am keyboard bashing, to the yanking and twisting of that raw copy into grammatical sentences that flow clearly and legibly – the text is ‘readerly’ because ease of reading and the transparent and limpid conveyance of meaning from text to reader’s mind is what the whole industry is about.

The ‘writerly,’ on the other hand, are those rarer, usually poetic as well as modernistic and experimental prose texts, where the labour of writing demands a more equal share of labour on the part of the reader. James Joyce described the ‘writerly’ when he said a novel should take as long to read as it took to write (it took him 7 years to write Ulysses, and took me 14 months and a considerable chunk of a scholarship from Murdoch University to hack my way through it – writerly indeed! I felt I had to ‘write’, that is to say inscribe into my brain, every word of that book, before it yielded meaning).

Will Self’s Umbrella is such a book, which is to say, its mysteries are not accessible to the casual reader. Nonetheless if one is prepared to put in the effort (in my case a kind of six pages forward, four pages back kind of reading, so that with each session I would progress two pages) it will open up. The challenges it puts in your way are features such as no chapters and no paragraphs so the book is one exhausting block of text (there are paragraph-like indentations every ten or twenty pages or so, but they’re not really paragraphs because many of them are continuous sentences), and sudden shifts of subjectivity which are also often in the middle of sentences. In the broadest sense it is about the pot-bound nature of institutionalised memory; the memories centre on a patient in a specialised hospital, and how those memories, both the patient’s and others connected to the patient, are tangled together.

Because the book is one unbroken roll of text we can think of its memory scheme as pleats of fabric folded over and tangled in to form a kind of rabbit warren of funnels leading to chambers and gaps of lost time. If I was to iron out that fabric in order to put all of its events into the proper (chronological) order, the story would look like this – London, 2010, the disgraced and pensioned-off former psychiatrist Zachary Busner, takes a bus trip down to a new block of swanky apartments built on and around the site of the hospital where, in 1971, he conducted the experiments that got him struck off the register. Those experiments involved the use of a powerful hallucinogenic drug called L-Dopa to revive patients made catatonic by encephalitis lethargica. One of the patients, Miss Audrey Death, had been in the hospital since 1920, but when revived her memory and language was so clear it was as if the fifty years of catatonia had been no time at all (she remembered, among other things, all the factories she worked in before she was hospitalised, including a munitions factory and an umbrella factory). Nonetheless, something had happened during her hospitalisation; her sensory deprived subjectivity had found, through a hole of what can only be described as familial and race memory, passageways to the contemporary experiences of her two brothers, both of whom in different ways, were destroyed by the First World War.

The hospital is the ruling sign of this book. It is both a setting for all the crucial action, and a metaphor for the crabbed-in depth memories its very walls induce in its residents. And rabbit warren is the way a nurse once described Royal Perth Hospital to me. This aging facility, over a century old, has had so many additions to it; new wards, new passageways linking wings, which themselves were added to and modified decades later, that the hospital has become a labyrinth of imperfectly matched styles, steps, slopes and entrances to other entrances, each bearing the imprimatur of rational trends and assumptions current at the time of construction. This strange, anachronistic, four dimensionality serves a single purpose; the containment of sickness, its cure, or ease of death, onto the body of the patient. But the patient’s subjectivity is another rabbit hole within this warren. Friern-Barnet Hospital, where Audrey Death resides and Dr Zach Busner conducts his brilliant and career destroying experiments, is a kind of hermetic container of personal and racial suffering (its patients are all Jews). Like Royal Perth Hospital it has that rabbit warren structure of ad-hoc additions. Contained in the middle is the warren of Audrey Death’s memories, and, confoundingly, her communings with her brothers even after they’ve died. Where does her subjectivity stop and theirs start? What wall was knocked out, what passageway, what entrance opened up deep inside her mind that led to the infinite interlocked chambers of her brothers’ subjectivities? This is the deepest mystery of all.

– Chris Palazzolo


Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world.

Will Self has a website http://will-self.com/

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