Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press


by Will Self

A history of the entire twentieth-century’s technological searchlight refracted through the dark glass of a long-term mental institution.

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 416
  • Publication Date October 08, 2013
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2202-5
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $17.00
  • Imprint Grove Hardcover
  • Page Count 416
  • Publication Date January 08, 2013
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2072-4
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $25.00

About The Book

“A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella.” —James Joyce, Ulysses

Radical and uncompromising, Umbrella is a tour de force from one of England’s most acclaimed contemporary writers, and Self’s most ambitious novel to date.

It is 1971, and Zachary Busner is a maverick psychiatrist who has just begun working at a mental hospital in suburban north London. As he tours the hospital’s wards, Busner notes that some of the patients are exhibiting a very peculiar type of physical tic: rapid, precise movements that they repeat over and over. These patients do not react to outside stimuli and are trapped inside an internal world. The patient that most draws Busner’s interest is a certain Audrey Dearth, an elderly woman born in the slums of West London in 1890, who is completely withdrawn and catatonically tics with her hands, turning handles and spinning wheels in the air. Busner’s investigations into the condition of Audrey and the other patients alternate with sections told from Audrey’s point of view, a stream of memories of a bustling bygone Edwardian London where horse-drawn carts roamed the streets. In internal monologue, Audrey recounts her childhood, her work as a clerk in an umbrella shop, her time as a factory munitionette during World War I, and the very different fates of her two brothers. Busner’s attempts to break through to Audrey and the other patients lead to unexpected results, and, in Audrey’s case, discoveries about her family’s role in her illness that are shocking and tragic.

Written with incredible flair and craft, Umbrella is a rich work peppered with Self ‘s trademark wit, dark humor, and stylistic idiosyncrasies.

Tags Literary


“A savage and deeply humane novel. . . . . Umbrella is an old-fashioned modernist tale with retrofitted ambitions to boot. . . . Self has always been a fabulous writer. . . . The result is page after page of gorgeously musical prose. Self’s sentences bounce and weave, and like poetry, they refract. The result is mesmerizing. . . . In its best moments, Umbrella compels a reader to the heights of vertigo Woolf excelled at creating.. . . . a triumph of form. With this magnificent novel Will Self reminds that he is Britain’s reigning poet of the night.” —John Freeman, Boston Globe

“A virtuosic performance . . . narrated in the allusive, sensory-overloaded style associated with Joyce’s Ulysses. . . . A heady mixture of closely observed (and deeply researched) period details, colorful imagery, surrealistic juxtapositions, and italicized interjections . . . Self’s wildly nonlinear narrative offers other delights: richly detailed settings that bring the Edwardian era and mental hospitals sensuously alive, kaleidoscopic patterns of symbolism (umbrellas assume all sorts of forms and functions), and loads of mordant satire.” —Steven Moore, Washington Post

“Entertaining and enthralling. . . extensively researched. . . . An experimental novel that is also a compassionate and thrilling book—and one that, despite its difficulty, deserves to be read.” —The Economist

“A work of throwback modernism . . . an erudite yet barking mad novel about barking madness. . . . You give yourself over to Umbrella in flashes, as if it were a radio station you’re unable to tune in that you suspect is playing the most beautiful song you will ever hear. . . this novel locks into moments of ungodly beauty and radiant moral sympathy. . . . a bitter critique of how society has viewed (and cared for) those with mental illnesses. It’s about myriad other things too: class, the changing nature of British society, trench warfare in World War I, how technology can be counted on to upend everything. At heart it’s a novel about seeing. . . . Mr. Self often enough writes with such vividness it’s as if he is the first person to see anything at all.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“A hefty, challenging stream-of-consciousness story whose engagement with modernist themes and techniques is announced in its epigraph from Joyce’s Ulysses.” —New Yorker.com

“Self’s novel is an epic, but also a love story, and even a kind of fairytale. . . . it unfurls in anarchic flux, like an old-school experimental video. There are no chapters and few paragraph breaks. Scenes dissolve in mid-sentence. Phrases burst suddenly into italics. . . . it holds you fast with a weird charm.” —Judith Shulevitz, The New York Times Book Review

“Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Self’s sweeping experimental new novel (after Walking to Hollywood) creaks under the weight of chaotic complexity. . . . With snippets of dialects, stylistic flourishes, and inventive phrases loose with meaning, for those that grab and hang on, the experience falls just shy of brilliant.” —Publishers Weekly (boxed review)

“Joycean in its rhythm and style”this is not an easy read, but it is a major and unforgettable one. . . . the prolific maverick Self may have written his best book yet and may gain well-merited recognition.” —Booklist (starred review)

“An undeniably daunting slab of high modernist prose, without such concessions as speech marks or paragraph breaks, it’s also a brilliantly absorbing and audacious meditation on madness, consciousness, technology, war and the mess of the 20th century. As the highbrow panel dropped the previous year’s demands for ‘readability’ in favor of complexity and the sheer pleasures of innovative prose, it looks for a while as though it could have been Self’s year. As it is, perhaps Umbrella would have been too radical a choice for a prize that, as the country’s biggest, cannot help but be a little conservative.” —Guardian

“Brainy and outlandish, though still in the mainstream of modernist fiction, this book captures a number of eccentric voices and sends the reader running to the dictionary. . . . Self plunges the reader into the twisted conscious minds of both Audrey and Zach. . . . The novel disdains such literary conventions as chapters and just plunges us into the inner worlds of its characters. . . . There’s a lyrical, rhapsodic element that continually pulls one into and through the narrative.” —Kirkus Reviews

“A fascinating read, and Self’s prose is so beautiful and assured that it feels authentic even as it renders confusion. It’s a funny, sad, surreal novel that aims high and reaches most of its lofty goals. Modernism fans will be glad to see a current author who so strongly captures the form pioneered by Proust, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner.” —Noah Cruikshank, A. V. Club

“The narrative flows in a stream of consciousness; we aren’t so much told what is happening as flooded by a rush of physical perception, emotional reaction and intellectual reflection. . . . It’s a virtuoso performance. . . . Self weaves together disparate voices so seamlessly that it’s often difficult to pinpoint where one account ends and another begins . . . but there’s more going on here than a display of formal dexterity. . . . [Umbrella] disorients the reader, who experiences identity as porous and permeable, the individual fractured and reconstituted in the twin forges of industrialization and institutionalization.” —Matt Kavanagh, The Globe and Mail

“A story too clawing to avoid.” —John Senger, Foreword

“Written in a style reanimated from another era, Umbrella is a carefully sequenced fugue on the theme of being out-of-sequence. It’s often beautiful. . . Mr. Self’s perceptions are original (‘a faint applause of pigeons’), and he is Ronald Firbank-like in his ability to shape poetry from prattle. . . Nostalgic in its literary mechanics, Umbrella identifies forgetfulness as the grammar of power, the blindness bred by its routinization. It is a difficult but profound idea. Mr. Self has dusted off these old devices to do an interesting new thing with his talent.” —James Camp, New York Observer

Umbrella is not easily forgotten. . . . a brave piece of work.” —Michael D. Langana, Buffalo News

“Self defies convention and digs deep into the social issues plaguing the 20th century. . . . a narrative loaded with heavy critiques of war and mental health treatment. . . . Leaves the reader wondering if the future will indeed repeat the past or if we will finally learn the hard lessons from what we have already painfully known” —Christopher Connor, ZYZZYVA

“This is not an easy read, but it is a major and unforgettable one . . . and, with it, the prolific maverick Self may have written his best book yet.” —Mark Levine, Booklist

Umbrella is a 417-page, sprawling beast of contemporary Modernism, which many are claiming to be Self’s best yet.” —Huffington Post (UK)

“Scattered thoughts of patient and doctor add layers of comprehension that a more straightforward telling might miss, and the writing often sizzles with invention.” —Chicago Tribune Printers Row

“Self fully embraces the fragmented and elliptical form with all its clutter and confusion, depth and dexterity. . . . Some passages trip off the tongue with a speed and ease that delights; others jar the senses. . . . Umbrella is epic in its scope.” —Lucy Scholes, The National

“In these culturally straitened times few writers would have the artistic effrontery to offer us a novel as daring, exuberant and richly dense as Umbrella. Will Self has carried the modernist challenge into the twenty-first century, and worked a wonder.” —John Banville

Umbrella is his best book yet. . . . It makes new for today the lessons taught by the morals of Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Tin Drum, also Garc&iaucte;a Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold.” —Alasdair Gray

“A hot tip for the Booker prize . . . a stream of consciousness tour de force. . . . a heartbreaking mosaic, a sardonic critique of the woefully misdirected treatment of the mentally ill and the futility of war and, above all, a summation of the human condition. . . . by the end you are filled with elation at the author’s exuberant ambition and the swaggering way he carries it all off, and then a huge sense of deflation at the realization that whatever book you read next, it won’t be anything like this.” —The Daily Mail

“In prose uninterrupted by chapters or line breaks, a twisted version of the 20th century is woven and unpicked again. It is a postmodern vivisection of Modernism, analyzing the dream and the machine, war as the old lie and a new liberation, and rituals sacred, profane and banal. . . . a linguistically adept, emotionally subtle and ethically complex novel.” —Guardian

“An ambitiously conceived and brilliantly executed novel in the high modernist tradition of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf . . . Its scope is dazzling . . . The switches between perspective and chronology are demanding (there are no chapters), but Self handles them with bravura skill, setting up imagery and phrases that echo suggestively between different episodes . . . Umbrella is an immense achievement.” —Financial Times

Umbrella is old-school modernism. It isn’t supposed to be a breeze. But it is, to use the literary critical term of art, kind of amazing . . . It may not be his easiest, but I think this may be Will Self’s best book.” —The Observer (London)

Umbrella is a magnificent celebration of modernist prose, an epic account of the first world war, a frightening investigation into the pathology of mental illness, and the first true occasion when Self’s ambition and talent have produced something of real cultural significance. . . . [Umbrella] must be recognized as, above all, a virtuoso triumph of emotional and creative intelligence.” —The Spectator

“It is impossible to summarise the action of the novel. . . . [Umbrella] is an ambitious attempt to address the dead end of modernism.” —Digital Journal

“There is a contemplative quality to the prose that feels new . . . but the content remains familiar: a Swiftian disgust with the body; a fastidious querulousness about human sexuality; a forcing of attention on human frailty . . . Undoubtedly Self’s most considered novel, as much a new beginning as a consolidation of everything he has written to date.” —The Independent

“The Edwardian sections are the most lavishly engaging, with Self doing different voices like a schizophrenic music hall act. . . . In the course of the book the umbrella becomes a syringe, a penis, a fetish of the bourgeoisie, as one Edwardian socialist pompously declares it, and the novel itself an umbrella beneath whose canopy all manner of anxieties about technology and the body cram together.” —Daily Telegraph

“Though hard work is certainly demanded from the reader, it is always rewarded. Through the polyphonic, epoch-hopping torrent, we gradually construct a coherent and beguiling narrative.” —The Guardian

“Ambitious, alluring. . . aspires to capture the brain’s workings as words on paper.” —Bob Hoover, The Minnesota Star Tribune

Umbrella is the result of Self’s surge in ambition.” —The Millions

“A fascinating read. . . Self’s prose is so beautiful and assured that it feels authentic even as it renders confusion. It’s a funny, sad, surreal novel that aims high and reaches most of its lofty goals. Modernism fans will be glad to see a current author who so strongly captures the form pioneered by Proust, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner, and Umbrella only falls short by comparison with those classics.” —Noah Cruickshank, Onion-AV Club

“Self’s latest novel. . . is a strange and sprawling modernist experiment that takes the human mind as its subject and, like the human mind, is infinitely capacious, wretchedly petty and ultimately magnificent. . . . It may not be beautiful, but it is extraordinary.” —Annalisa Quinn, NPR Books

“This is by far Will Self’s best novel; clever, intense, ambitious and risky.” —The Scotsman

“If the realist novel welcomes you in, takes your coat, hat (and umbrella), shows you to a comfortable seat and gets you a gin and tonic, this book leaves you to let yourself in, sit yourself down (if you can find room) and get your own bloody drink if you insist on having one.” —Scarlett Thomas, The Sunday Times

Umbrella is an astonishing achievement, a novel of exhilarating linguistic invention and high moral seriousness. . . . This is a novel which will be read and re-read, as much for its emotional weight as its technical virtuosity. . . . With this book he reveals himself as the most determinedly and delightfully literary novelist of his generation.” —Scotland on Sunday

“[Self] renders the texture of Audrey’s London, its odours and colloquialisms, in vivid detail. . . . Perhaps in the story of Sacks’ roused patients, Self saw a metaphor for his own attempts to resurrect the past, to give history a distinctive, earthy voice. In this he succeeds beautifully, writing with a new sophistication. The result is a stunning novel, and a compelling Self-reinvention.” —The Independent on Sunday

“There are echoes of Joyce and Eliot, but also of Flaubert. . . . 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 humor, 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.’” —New Statesman

“A surprisingly moving story of common people crushed by the state.” —Metro

“What Self most brilliantly does is to construct a world antic with new technologies (many of them as bogus as the robotic huckster Enigmarelle) but a world in which the most prolific industrial commodity is that formerly artisanal and lovingly crafted thing degraded by mass production and mass consumption: the human self.” —The Herald

“A work of unparalleled audacity, originality and utter perplexity . . . there are delightful tricks of language and linguistic acrobatics that take the reader by surprise.” —Irish Times

“Not only was Self the man for the job—writing this all-consuming, challenging book was probably something he could not help doing. . . . It is almost as if the book, fighting restrictive conventions, transcends its own, and its author’s, limits—physical, gender, literary—and opens up as a new structure, one of those ‘delicate and airy things’ whose ‘struts snap’ and ‘covers tear.’ It—he, she—may not be big enough to protect the whole of contemporary fiction from the elements, but is highly suitable for personal use.” —3:AM Magazine

“You have to salute Self’s determination to challenge literature’s conventions so boldly.” —The List

“Will Self belongs in the company of Nabokov, Pynchon, William Gaddis, and Don DeLillo.” —The New York Times Book Review

“A brilliant, beautiful, hypnotic, and haunting novel. . . begins as hard-bitten satire but gradually achieves an even harder-won humane tenderness. . . . Self discovers a poetic vibrancy and an emotional conviction that far surpass anything in his previous work. . . . Umbrella is not just a revisiting of modernism—it is a reflection on the modern condition itself. . . . [it] shuffles past and present with such mesmerizing rhythm that the distinction between them ceases to matter. Memory acquires the force of reality. The world inside Audrey’s head becomes immensely precious, restoring to her life the richness and dignity it had been so cruelly denied. Writers, too, as Self so wonderfully proves, can awaken the half-dead and reanimate that which has been sunk in oblivion.” —Finlan O’Toole, The New York Review of Books

“An intricate and ambitious novel .” —Washington Independent Review of Books


Shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize
A Flavorwire Top 10 “Must Read” for December 2012
A New York Times Editor’s Choice


Along comes Zachary . . . the corridor is narrow–ten feet at most–yet none of the human traffic thus far has detained him until now–when he is fixated by one transfixed. It is a patient–a woman, an old woman . . . a very old woman, so bentso kyphotic, that upside down she faces the sagging acrylic belly of her own cardigan and vigorously assents to it. This is all that Busner can see: the back of her nodding-dog head, the whitish hair draggling away from two bald patches—one at the crown, the second a band across the rear of her cranium. At once, he thinks of twitchers he has seen on his chronic ward, screwing their heads into the angle between the headrest and the back of their allotted armchair–twitchers, wearing themselves away as opportunity hammers away at the inside of the television screen and applause comes in monotonous waves. She is at once a long way off and close enough for him to manhandle.

After the eruptions—and there are many lifetimes of afterwards—it settled down on him, an understanding soft and ashy, that all the important relationships in his life—with his Uncle Maurice, with Alkan, with Sikorski and the other Quantity Theorists, with his wives—definitely with his children–were like this: fondling familiar, their breath in my nostrils caries-sweet, sugar-sour—yet also radiophonically remote, their voices bleeping and blooping across the lightyears.