In an autobiographical essay composed on the eve of the publication of his last novel, Umbrella, Will Self, in the course of delineating the fraught relationship between ‘modernism and me’ that has animated his literary output of late, described his growing dissatisfaction with writing novels ‘that merely strain against the conventions’. Recounting how he has spent his career in turn miffed, resigned, ambivalent and, most recently, agitated by a literary culture that treats modernism as a museum piece, Self explained that he was now determined to bring the exhibit back to life. He was resolved, he wrote, for his works to break out of the ‘corsetry’ of the conventional novel, for them to be ‘the fictive equivalent of ripping the damn corset off altogether and chucking it on the fire’.
The story at the heart of Umbrella, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2012, was a cryptogram of his intentions. Self’s recurring fictional psychiatrist, Zack Busner, discovers a way to rouse those stricken by the sleeping sickness Encephalitis Lethargica, who have been absent from the world for decades