MARCH 9, 2015
A LITTLE BUZZ, a Booker shortlisting, a return to quiet … the response to Will Self’s proposed trilogy (the first two novels, Umbrella and Shark, are already published) seems at odds with the novels’ ambition. In America, the main strand of reaction has been mere politeness; in Britain, a similar politeness has been exaggerated to the point of a charmed golf clap. They’ve been nodded to as good but difficult novels, the type of trudge somehow mysteriously worth it, yet have been mostly ignored, glossed shallowly, or shown the door when draped in the form of their other avatar: polemical public interventions.
Around the time of Umbrella’s publication, Self took to the pages of The Guardian and the stages of book festivals with a visible agenda. He wrote an article called “Modernism and Me” and hosted a series of events called “Modernism.” He referenced Gabriel Josipovici’s Whatever Happened to Modernism? and despaired of realism’s ongoing hegemony over literature:
[T]he simple past in which she did this and he did that; the omniscient and unnameable narrator who moves she and he about on the page as if these pronouns were chess pieces; the assumption of discernible motivations for these characters; and despite, as much as because of, the sprinkling of Freudian ‘depth psychology’ across their features, the pathological woodenness of these fictive pawns — all of this was not irksome to me, but painful.
He waved away the postmodern novel as a regressive reaction against more serious, high modernist works, and lumped postmodern literature with postmodern architecture as a movement dominated by pastiche and the repurposing of older styles, a safe collage of the past without innovations of its own. He continued to disperse his prolific ephemera widely (diatribes against London’s 2012 Olympic games; lashes in the face of current architecture practice; Gonzo dispatches from his long walks through forbidding, typically car-navigated urban landscapes), and yet it felt as if much of it were now being pulled together by a centripetal force. It was time, he wanted us to know, to recall the lessons of modernism.
This flurry in defense of modernism came mostly in 2012. For the moment, with his second book in the trilogy, Shark, having been published in the fall, Self seems content to let the novels do the talking. Not that his journalistic output has tapered off. It seems to me that America today has no public figure quite like Self. He can be found on television, playing a snarky, melancholic jester surrounded by the usual hack pundits and politicos; the radio, where he was once in talks to be BBC Radio 4’s writer-in-residence; the papers, where he writes two columns for The New Statesman, one about food and one about crowds, along with essays and book reviews for The Guardian; and the smart literary journals, or rather The London Review of Books, for which he’s a not infrequent contributor. He writes so much I feel bad for him, but that’s something I feel about most people who write. What I’m not as used to — perhaps because I’ve come of age in a post-Mailer world — is having the guy who taunts idiots on television also be a serious novelist.
Two years ago, in his high-journalist mode, Self puffed up and then deflated Britain’s most exciting young architecture critic, Owen Hatherley. The Marxist Hatherley champions a densely urbanized, Brutalist, built environment: concrete, high-rise postwar modernist housing “fortresses,” with indoor “streets in the sky” prefiguring new forms of communal living. Hatherley hopes to reconceive this postwar vision of a futurist, avant-garde architecture for the working class “as part of a specific collective project.” But this is where Self, while distantly agreeing, had also to diverge. Actually existing high-rise housing projects, for Self and many others, were too often compressed centers of oppression — inconvenient, overcrowded, and exploitative. “To long for a social-democratic — or even outright socialist — Britain, with an architecture that would truly serve the commonweal, while also enacting a thrilling and avant-garde urbanism is perfectly laudable,” wrote Self.
What isn’t so reasonable is a steam-punk retrofitting of the past to create an embolism of what might have been. Hatherley understands the dangers of this “nostalgia for the future,” but unfortunately he’s already too far gone in its surging rhythms to pull out.
Is it crude to note a strange echo? Self’s essay on Hatherley was written in 2012: the same year Umbrella was published, the same year Self campaigned on behalf of literary modernism. His indictment of Hatherley’s celebration of a discarded 20th-century modernist avant-garde, running in uncomfortable parallel to his own similarly backward-looking, modernism-hailing literary critique, makes one wonder. Doubtless Self noticed the sympathy, faintly as he may have considered it. Hatherley, he finished, “has mistaken a historical moment … for an eternal condition.” Isn’t Self’s justification of literary modernism something of the same?
Modernism’s sins, it has been said, include a perceived elitism and an alleged exaggeration of the degree language and self-consciousness control how we experience life. The dismissal of the first — by saying the difficulty of modernist works is not showy but functional, and that its cause is the radical, dislocating otherness involved in entering the pathways of another’s thoughts — only invites the second. But this in turn can be rejected, due to the difficulty of striking the right balance of phrase-turning consciousness and sensory perception, or blankness in thought — which is not to say it can’t be done, or that modernism hasn’t brought us closer to seeing what such an achievement might look like.
Self’s solution in Umbrella and Shark actually serves as an ingenious example. Descriptive third-person passages (“there are further oddities, such as a globular rattan chair dangling from a chain attached to the ceiling, and a new-model colour television set plumped on a leather pouffe, which is switched on with the volume mercifully turned down”) snap and fold into free indirect discourse (“mercifully,” in the quoted line above, shows the subtle intrusion of a character’s judgment, as, I would argue, does “plumped”), before veering into italicized interruption. Italics in the novels reveal a character’s stream of consciousness, often captured in vernacularisms (“snide as a nine-bob note,” “squiffy masks of lippy and mascara,” “an’ stuffed it in ‘is gob”), but also in literary flourishes or allusions. They shoot out mid-line, written in the “me-voice,” the private words characters say to themselves, so that a field is described as “jolly sunlit patches of grassy sanity,” with “grassy sanity” being the characters’ phrase and the rest the more stable, artificial, authorial touch. Italics porously divide interior verbal thought from perceptual awareness and third-person authorial control, slipping one into the other; they also serve — through voice, pace, balance of observation and types of inner speech — to distinguish one character from the next, something useful in novels that rarely provide much in the way of back story or road markers.
It’s been said by those indulging ungenerous moods that modernist stylists make their characters sound demented, like people thinking in scattered, decontextualized thought loops. Self’s characters, however, are comparatively grounded, only occasionally taken in by obscure trains of thought — and this despite the novels being about psych wards, experimental anti-psychiatry communes, the traumas of war and industry, and featuring, in the late pages of Shark, a memorable acid trip. Stream-of-consciousness writing doesn’t dominate to the degree it does in certain chapters of Ulysses, instead threading through lines, quietly or otherwise, depending on the character. The crucial lesson Self has smuggled from modernism isn’t that we’re continually being feverishly jolted through a self-conscious maze of references and word games, but that the focus, if one’s going for a realistic representation of lived experience, should be foremost on the present.
Modernism describes a code of literary artifice in the way realism or any other mimetic form does, and for some of its practitioners, the literariness of the artifice mattered more than its connection to life. Jon Day, in a review of Umbrella, relays how Joyce said of modernism, “it hardly matters whether the technique is ‘veracious’ or not; it has served me as a bridge over which to march my 18 episodes, and, once I have got my troops across, the opposing forces can, for all I care, blow the bridge sky-high.” The comment could be extrapolated to the obvious conclusion that all representations are artificial, as implied by the shifting chapter styles of Ulysses or the postmodern cut-ups of Burroughs. But what’s provocative about Self is the same thing that made me wonder in the first place whether he’s not caught up in a naïve nostalgia, à la his critique of Hatherley. For him, modernism matters because its disruptions and its mimetic streams of consciousness — while doubtless, as Day chides in his review, now codified as literary conventions — are still closer to the perennial now of modern lived experience than any other method of representation. Lukács wrote about how certain types of literature could live on, past what should have spelled their historical demise, like ghosts; Self is here agreeing by saying the opposite: some innovations can have their lives cut prematurely short, and should be brought back.
It’s nice to have Self directly or indirectly refocus these debates — over modernism, over life and form, over representation — at a time when we’ve supposedly turned post-theory. And it’s nice to have someone contemporary write — in the third-person — two good, large-scale, innovative novels more about the present of lived experience than the slippery idol of narrativized first-person memory. And yet I’ve begun to wonder: is there really anything innovative about Umbrella and Shark, in the wider catalogue of modernism? The immediacy of modernism’s focus on the present, it’s been argued, constrains literature’s scope. Everything narrows, fragments, and internalizes, and it becomes harder to connect all of society with a Dickensian sweep. This is what Fredric Jameson meant when he said modernism “appears to have been constitutively incapable of generating the totalizing retrospect that defines a true historical novel.”
The tense here — “to have been” — is interesting, slyly suggesting modernism’s end, and it becomes more interesting when considering what Self is writing: a trilogy of modernist historical novels, or more exactly, Zeitromans, which flap all the way across the 20th century and up to the present. Umbrella reaches back to WWI, when Audrey Death takes a job at a weapons manufacturer. Her brother Stanley goes to the trenches; her brother Albert is a machine-like savant who uses his cold brilliance to become director of Audrey’s military-industrial factory.
The novel then fast-tracks to the 1970s, jump-cutting through time by way of a tottering historical bridge: the ellipsis. One moment you’re in a WWI battle scene and the next, as you gradually become aware, you’ve been plunged into the world of late-20th-century psychiatry. In these episodes, Self fictionalizes Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings, a chronicling of encephalitis lethargica patients who woke from decades of sleep with the aid of the drug L-DOPA. Audrey, in the aftermath of her work at the factory, develops a tic “that occurs precisely once in every seven yanks on the invisible headstock lever,” her hands involuntarily twisting nonexistent wheels and handles. Decades later she’s hospitalized with the disease and, under the care of Dr. Zach Busner, contorting in fits and spasms between long paragraphs of sleep. A trial of L-DOPA brings back her brilliant clarity, but then the drug begins to fail. She becomes “animated by the most extreme ticking Busner had ever seen,” yelling out “strange cries, spontaneous jactitations . . . Buy! Buy! she had cried, and: Sell! Sell!” Her last words before freezing up, once again, as a sleeping shuddering statue, are
a string of nonsensical fractions — eighteen over four-point-two, ninety-four over thirty-point-seven, sixty-six-point-three over thirty-three-point-three recurring — that, even as he accepted the futility of the exercise, Busner had tried to fit into some conceptual framework. Were they, perhaps, the numerical analogue of her brain chemistry’s intro-conversions between the discrete and the continuous, the quantifiable and the relativistic?
Busner takes up more heady theorizing in the 21st century, visiting the site of the former mental hospital, now turned luxury flats. He returns to a thought that had been “too radical a hypothesis to entertain: that embodied in these poor sufferers’ shaking frames was the entire mechanical age — that […] the post-encephalitics’ akinesia and festination had been the stop/start, the on/off, the 0/1, of a two-step with technology.” It’s an illuminating, even thrilling finish: how many novels pull off telegraphing their theses so brazenly, and in such stylish, almost academic end-of-book fashion? And yet I think it’s also meant to be read as mystical — a serious but too tidy conclusion that collapses under its own historical weight.
The same fleeting symmetry, the bracing finish of a pattern luminous and paranoid marks the last movement of Shark. Busner is back again, featured in the years preceding his time with the post-encephalitics, as co-founder of the Concept House — an experimental, R.D. Laing-inspired anti-psychiatry commune where patients aren’t defined by specific diagnoses or even really considered patients. One of the residents, Claude Evenrude, is a survivor of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the ship torpedoed by the Japanese after delivering parts of the bomb later dropped on Hiroshima. Claude, tossed overboard and circled by sharks, hallucinates a walk with his father; later, Busner’s co-founder gives the whole house acid and Claude blooms into clear-headedness. (Again, shades of Umbrella: a short-lived magical psychic fix that only delays a relapse.) The next time we see him he’s hospitalized in austerity-era London, under the care of Genie, a character whose history we’ve become acquainted with. Raised by an alcoholic mother, Genie, a cleaned-up heroin addict, is given a hospital job by Kins, an old family friend who avoids the war while his brother, Michael, becomes an intimate member of the A-bomb operation. These stories bend in and out, culminating in another of Busner’s epiphanies.
Five years before, revolving in LSD’s dinky sink with nothing to hang on to, he’d still managed to grasp this: the punishment meted out to Claude Evenrude and the men of the USS Indianapolis had been a collective one, with the sharks as Mother Nature’s revengers, summoned from the deep in anticipation of a blow that was yet to fall. … Busner understood all this at the time, but, in common with so many insights bestowed on the psyche through the rainbow door, it took only a sudden shower to expose the pot of revelation for what it truly was: grit of rotten enamel and the glint of amalgam — fool’s gold.
In both Umbrella and Shark, theories wrested from the incidental threaten to form a whole, a total picture that finally dissipates from its own excessive tidiness and mysticism. A view of history rarely advanced by the historical novel is being conveyed here. The classic historical novel, as theorized by Lukács and practiced by Walter Scott, endorsed the idea of history as progress. As it moved into the 20th century, the historical novel became bent on questioning this idea of progress, injecting subjectivity — often through pulling the rug out from under any teleological narratives. Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!, one of a limited number of modernist historical novels, repeatedly reminds readers that its epic of the South is being invented in the present, a myth taking place within a storytelling frame. And postmodernism’s barrage of historical titles shares one dominant trait: a willingness to play games with history, in order to, as Perry Anderson lists, “freely mix times, combining or interweaving past or present; parade the author within the narrative; … propose counterfactuals; strew anachronisms; multiply alternative endings; traffic with apocalyptics.” These novels project history onto a screen of unreality, to the point where any understanding of history as actual past events vanishes.
Self is doing something subtly different. The reality of history isn’t thrown into doubt; it’s there, conveyed in the present — a technique that, by the way, allows the novels to mostly avoid the nostalgic antiquarian inventory that blights much historical fiction. The novels register history’s subjectivity by refracting it through a character’s thoughts and perceptions, by interiorizing, in the modernist way, the historical moment. What’s viewed skeptically isn’t history but any tidy moral — history is presented as something as confusing and closely felt as the present. In both novels, multiple plot threads climax at once, as if seen from the vantage of Benjamin’s angel of history: “Where a chain of events appears before us, [the angel] sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet.” Certain phrases show up over and over in Shark: “went round annaround,” “again annagain,” and, perhaps coincidentally, “the angel.” The true touchstone here isn’t Joyce’s Ulysses — references abound, and critics usually bring these up — but Virginia Woolf’s late, less frequently read novel, The Years. Self’s novels have the same reach from history to the present, the same mix of third person and stream of consciousness, the same open examination of whether history’s fragments can be pieced together.
It’s here — at the end of a long, praising review — that I suddenly feel the need to turn the table and fart out a coda of ambivalence. It’s horrible form, and yet it can’t be helped. Self is a writer of such facility, such distinguishable vocabulary and attention to sound and pun (many bad, some quiet and good), that I often feel the need to read him slowly, as I would the work of a poet. The paradox is that his trademark is speed, noise, onomatopoeia, and an aggressive physicality: things that, along with his eschewal of line breaks (Shark is a single paragraph; Umbrella is very few), rush you along and make his writing feel overstuffed and over-caffeinated, a cocained, zoot-suited prose where the switch is always thrown on, the sensibility always dialed up. An extreme example is:
She bucks a bit more, and the small movement turns a crank that pulls a chain that opens a trap that releases a ball-bearing that scours round a spiraling groove and drops through a hole on to a pressure-sensitive plate that tilts a lever that withdraws a cork unleashing water down on to a wheel connected by rods to the two tiny figures deep in the brick-lined shaft of Gordon Square . . .
But others aren’t hard to find. A train doesn’t let people off, it “throws up its breakfast of commuters”; speech is “vomited out”; and a physical, medical sentence like this — though occurring during an acid trip — is still more or less par for the course: “Such is the mouthy howl and the screechy vibration of all these epiglottises that Zack assumes he must’ve shouted aloud.” Self’s motor hums through the verb: “champing,” “gobbling,” “bellying,” “fish-bowled,” “finger-flickering,“ “ping-pinging,” “tink-tonks,” “chukka-chukka-chop-chops.” For all the skilled distinguishing of one character’s stream of consciousness from the next, each bears an excess of Selfian traits. He said recently that he’s tired of being a caricature, and it’s easy to see what he means. There is too much Self in the novels, to pun in his tradition. He’s best when distanced, reportorial, objective, describing the physicality of things (cities, rooms) without undue force. At the end of “Modernism and Me,” his 2012 Guardian article, Self wrote that Umbrella feels like another failure. For many writers, this would sound like a romantic pretension: just another artist playing at Kafka. For Self, it feels like a truly tortured admission of mediocrity in the face of huge ambition. The ambition, the writing chops: Self seems to me not so far from producing something magnificent, something worthy of his scope. It hasn’t been done yet, but the trilogy’s first two installments seem to me to deserve more than a golf clap, even as I put two fingers to my palm.
William Harris is a columnist for Full Stop who has also written for The Point and Enaegon Magazine.
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