Will Self’s modernism: Umbrella

Tuesday September 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

I am still somewhat troubled by Will Self’s new novel, Umbrella, and its overt modernism. The first thing to say is that it is a really incredibly well-written book, from what I have read thus far, and in its way, a page-turner. There are moments when I have been left smiling at the inventiveness of the language, or the sheer rightness of a description or an image. On its own terms, this is shaping up to be a great book. 

However, it is those terms that leave me a little wary. Because this is a recognisably ‘modernist’ novel. Those features that most people would accept as representing high modernist technique – the broken diction, the close grammar, the fractured, dilatory narrative, and the foregrounding of linguistic invention – are all there. The plot, such as it is, is a story told across three time periods (and naturally the novel flicks between them, sometimes at random and mid-sentence) concerning a young woman called Audrey Death who in the aftermath of the First World War, owing to a worldwide epidemic, enters a coma. The novel narrates the period of her life before her coma; the attempts of a doctor, Zak Busner to cure her during the 1970s; and then finally the elderly Busner of the present, recollecting his time treating her all those years ago. 

I suppose my wariness is owing to a number of factors. One is that for all its accomplishment, this novel feels like something of a throwback. It really does read like a modernist novel – in the sense that you feel, if it were not for the present day sections, that it could have been written at any point between 1920 and 1930. Which is fine, but it raise questions as to what modernism might usefully be considered to represent now, or more accurately (and pompously), what is its legacy. By so faithfully replicating the techniques and methods that characterised literary modernism in the 1920s it situates those techniques as museum pieces, that can be lifted out and dusted off. It freezes modernism in its moment so that it ceases to be the sum of its intellectual concerns, and instead becomes the accumulation of a range of narrative devices. 

Which is unfair to Self. I suspect he shares those intellectual concerns (which, for what it is worth, interest me too) and it is those concerns he is seeking to explore and resolve. But what makes me wary is that there does not seem to been an acknowledgement of the fact that those techniques are of a time. Which isn’t to say that they can never be used again, or that they have a kind of expiry date. But there does not appear to have been development of the ideas underpinning them. 

To come at it from a different tack, I believe there is a clue to this in the novel’s setting. It is partly a historical novel after all, and whilst there were modernist texts that cut between different time periods, or that were partially set in the past (Ulysses for example is set some twenty years before it was published, and Woolf has novels that span generations, The Years and Orlando most obviously) a good many were very much set in their own near present. The fact that the historical period of Umbrella is the cusp of the high modernist years is also telling. It reinforces in my mind the sense that this is more a homage to, rather than a development of the modernist novel. 

Related to this, I think the novel also closes down our working definitions of what modernism is, fixing it as I say above in a very clearly defined set of techniques. But why should a novel that shares modernist concerns about narrative, and about the ways in which we think we know our world, employ broken diction. Have circuitous grammar. Fracture time at the level of the sentence, and foreground linguistic agility within it. What are its longer horizons? 

Its all a bit harsh on Self. He hasn’t, anywhere I’ve seen, said that his book is the definitive guide to, or representation of modernism (although he has given several interviews pinning his personal colours to the modernist mast, which suggests he is in this novel trying to signpost an affinity to a certain notion of modernism – implicitly of course the one presented and enacted in Umbrella). But these are some of the questions that reading his book have prompted for me.

Encyclopaedic Realism

Monday July 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Is a phrase I have been mulling for some time, originally because it seemed to describe aspects of a specific project I was working on at the time, and that of a friend, but more recently because it neatly describes a mode of writing, or more accurately a means of organising the materials of writing, that I think could be worthwhile.

I mean ‘encyclopaedic’ in the sense of it being comprehensive, but also as a term meaning more than this, as a term describing the structure of knowledge, the way in which it is arranged, and then eventually accessed. To borrow, selectively, three differing definitions encyclopaedic that I think are particularly useful:

1) covering all branches of knowledge or, less commonly, all aspects of one subject;

2) Origin 1530, meaning “course of construction”;

3) enkyklios (ἐγκύκλιος), meaning “circular, recurrent, required regularly, general” + paideia (παιδεία), meaning “education, rearing of a child”;

There is something in each of these that I like. In (1) the comprehensiveness; in (2) the metaphor of ‘construction’, implying the necessary building of structure. And in (3) it is really this notion of it being ‘circular’ and ‘recurrent’ more than anything else.

Because what has nurtured my interest in this notion of ‘encyclopaedic realism’, and what I think will help me begin to elucidate its principals, is that I believe it reflects the ways in which we increasingly interact with information. There is so much of it available, and we search it in circuitous ways. One find leads to another, one link takes you to the next, and whilst it is not possible to exhaust a topic or thread, it is certainly possible to exhaust your interest in it.

Wikipedia is just one (very obvious) example of this. Footnotes can be clicked and pursued, and what is more, previously invisible or unavailable sources excavated. The efforts made by all sorts of organisations and institutions to digitise and make available online their catalogues, their inventories, their databases has greatly enriched and widened the channels of data available, and in a manner that often illuminates the previously unconsidered, but sometimes rich and complex relationships that exist between them.

This is why I like the terms ‘circular’ and ‘recurrent’. It is suggestive of the idea that you can go around and around a given world; that you can walk its perimeter, broach its limits.

How does all of this relate to fiction? Well, clearly it doesn’t have to. This is just my speculation and theorising. But the way I mean it to relate to fiction is to say this: that there exists the potential to develop a fiction that allows for these same modes and methods of inquiry, and that makes possible the same speculative experiences. In short, a fiction that reflects the epistemological enticements we take for granted in our everyday interactions with knowledge as we find it.

How might this work in practice? I’m not really sure yet. But my first, and main thought is this: that it might entail a fiction whose worlds run deeper, and which are able to sustain a greater number of readings at more varied and variable levels.

This is not simply about bringing forward the index into the text itself, by way of hyperlinks (although why not – this is almost upon us now anyway with eBooks), but about crafting an alternate reality which itself (i.e. before we even encounter the problem of its artistic or aesthetic representation) is altogether more robust and rigorously coherent. And I don’t just mean in terms of simple continuity.

By way of example – perhaps it is no longer enough to say of a character that he wrote a novel a few years ago which was successful, but that his subsequent novels were less good, and that he has consequently lived off the success of that original book ever since. Because we are (arguably) in the habit of saying now: what were those other books? What were they called? Why were they less successful? What are the ways in which we understand them to be less successful? Were they badly reviewed (where, and by whom are the reviews?) and did they sell badly (can we discover how badly)?

It is in this way that I mean that fictions might be made deeper. There is an enormous hinterland to be populated, if only because we are become accustomed to exploring such hinterlands for ourselves every day in our ordinary researches into other topics. The questions I pose above would be answerable if we were to look up the novels of a real writer.

There are limits to this, and clearly it would not be possible to create an entire alternate reality. But why not try harder, given that we understand how the mechanisms of such a world, our world after all, operate?

When I was a kid, telling myself stories playing football in the garden, I was never entirely satisfied imagining that this or that team (whoever I was pretending to be at the time) would win a particular game, or competition. I would wonder, of this world I was creating, whether that team had won it the previous year or not? And if they didn’t win it the previous year, then who did, and why did had a different team won it this time around anyway? Just precisely how had the latter supplanted the former? What were the implications of this for the future of my world?

The worlds I imagined aspired to this level of depth and complexity, and in aspiring to this spawned new and often unexpected subplots. If you have read this far, I suspect that one thought you may be having is this: surely novelists possess and even require such a level of understanding of their own worlds? Don’t they know all this already, even if only a fraction (artfully selected and expertly parsed) makes it into the finished work? Isn’t that selection and parsing the art and practice of fiction?

Maybe. Not being a novelist I don’t know, although my instinct would be to answer ‘yes’. But I don’t think that contradicts what I am thinking here. Perhaps it is simply a case of realising a means of making more of that world – perhaps already held in the novelist’s head – visible and accessible.






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