Umbrella is undeniably difficult reading, although I found it less and less taxing as I went, a phenomenon that had something to do with the book teaching me how to read it, but probably more to do with a slight easing of Self’s stylistic zealotry somewhere around page fifty. I had the sense that, despite himself, Self became invested in conveying a story. Scenes became longer; characters had decipherable conversations; events caused other events. Any sentence might end by teleporting you from 1971 to 1918, but once you got your bearings, the plot picked up more or less where it left off the last time you’d been in that particular era.
There’s a slightly defensive tone to Maggie Shipstead’s review of Will Self’s modernist novel Umbrella, but it’s nevertheless interesting to note the way in which Self
lets narrative intrude on his experimental opus. The sequences I enjoyed and admired the most were invariably those in which characters engaged in recognisable action and dialogue with each other; turning points in ‘the story’, rendered more or less as conventional ‘scenes’, but composed in the (mostly) uncompromising style that this novel demanded Self invent for it.