Now for the weird ones.
Will Self’s Umbrella
Most likely to drive you insane
The politically-correct word for three of the novels in this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist is “literary”, which translates in plain English to “weird”. Not that weird can’t mean wonderful. This year, the judges clearly wanted readers to remember that literature is not simply timepass, to use a bit of Bombay-speak. If the reader perseveres with a well-crafted experimental novel, they’re rewarded with a story that’s told with all the flourish of a brilliant magic trick. Because hey presto! along with a top hat worth of literary craftiness, there’s the white rabbit of a poignant story.
Curiously enough, Will Self’s critically-beloved novel Umbrella and Rihanna’s chartbusting song with the same title do have something in common. Initially, both sound like complete gibberish. “I’man ape man, I’m an ape man…Along comes Zachary, along from the porter’s lodge, where there’s a trannie by the kettle and the window is cracked open” makes about as much sense as “Gyeah Rihanna, good girl gone bad, take three action, no clouds in my storms, I hydroplane into fame.” But after this initial resonance, the two umbrellas diverge. While Rihanna’s lyrics end up to be nonsense, Self’s opens into a bewildering but brilliant, Modernist novel.
Whether or not Umbrella wins the Booker prize, the novel is most likely to join Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake on the shelf that houses books people own but don’t read; because owning them makes us look smart, but reading them makes us feel stupid.
The novel is 397 pages of serpentine sentences and inventive wordplay. There are few paragraph breaks and no chapters. A single sentence could contain as many as three time periods and as many perspectives. Rather than a stream of consciousness, it’s a river riddled with undercurrents.Umbrella doesn’t just demand patience; you need to be alert to the subtlest click of Self’s storytelling levers to follow the plot.
Three time frames lie unspooled in the novel. Zachary Busner is an elderly, retired psychiatrist, roaming around contemporary London and remembering his past. Starring prominently in his memories is Audrey Death, who contracted encephalitis lethargica but was misdiagnosed as a mental patient and admitted in 1922. Audrey, whose surname goes through many mutations, has a wealth of experiences locked inside her twitching body and numbed-by-drugs mind, including childhood memories and working in Woolwich Arsenal during the war. In 1971, Busner chances upon her and is struck by the idea that it might be possible to wake seemingly catatonic patients like her who were encephalitic rather than psychiatric cases. A ward full of “enkies” is given a new drug named L-DOPA and briefly, the enkies wake up.
Umbrella slithers between the memories of Zachary, Audrey and her two brothers, creating a labyrinth of a novel. It takes about 100 pages to get the hang of Self’s infuriatingly complicated style, which is an ode to the likes of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. If you’ve survived till this point, you’ll notice the meandering narrative is strangely compelling. It takes another 100 pages to get caught up in the memories of the different characters and figure out that the slippery monologues aren’t just Self trying to add a little gravitas to his profile and establish himself as cleverer than you, the reader. The Modernist emphasis on consciousness and form allows Self to expertly shuffle between the different perspectives in Umbrella.
At the end, using Busner as his mouthpiece, Self explains why he chose this particular form for Audrey’s story: “…embodied in these poor sufferers’ shaking frames was the entire mechanical age — that just as schizophrenics’ delusions partook of modish anxieties, so the post-encephalitics’ akinesia and festination had been the stop/start, the on/off… of a two-step with technology.” If you have the patience to get past Self’s determination to be difficult, you’ll find in a novel that masterfully winds every raggedy end into a neat, expertly-executed knot.
Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home
Most likely to turn you off nudes
A blue mouse, stones with holes in them, a boy who might be a ghost, a girl who seems to have an aversion to clothes — these are a few of the spectres that surface at different moments in Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home. Levy is well-known as a poet and a playwright and her different literary talents all come into play in Swimming Home.
With its loops and leaps in logic, reading the novel is like entering someone else’s — Nina’s? — dream. The poet Joe Jacobs has come to holiday in the south of France with his wife Isabel, his daughter Nina and two friends. This predictable summer holiday plot is turned on its head when one day, the holidayers find a naked woman in their swimming pool. This is Kitty Finch.
Kitty is beautiful, strange and a poet. She tightropes between chaos and clarity, and draws everyone’s attention. Nina is fascinated by her oddness. Joe, a philanderer, is attracted to her and not even the knowledge that Kitty is a fan who has stalked him, makes him wary. In the neighbouring villa is an old woman named Madeleine, who views Kitty’s strange charisma with a mixture of fear, envy and hatred. She recognises the danger that Kitty presents to the precarious, paper-thin order of everyone’s lives. But her relationship with Kitty is far from simple. The year before, it was Madeleine whose complaint led to Kitty being put in a mental asylum where they subjected her to electrotherapy. Kitty says they “burned” the stories in her head.
Swimming Home is all about dissembling and disclosures. Nina, treated like an innocent child starts menstruating, as though her body is owning up to the maturity that she’s been forced to develop because of her parents’ unconventional marriage. Cracks appear in Isabel’s facade of being the superheroic combination of working woman, mother and wife. Her husband and daughter both turn to Kitty in their time of need.
Levy is known for experimental and disturbing work, and Swimming Home shows her poetic, dramatic and novelistic skills in fine form. Her cast of characters elegantly evade neat categorisations like “good” and “bad”, or even “pleasant” and “unpleasant”. Portents — like the stones with holes in them, that can be strung to become a pendant or weigh a drowning man down — pop up, but no one seems to notice them. The past slips into the present, weighing it down with sadness. In the epilogue, an adult Nina says, “as much as I try to make the past keep still and mind its manners, it moves and murmurs with me through the day.” This is dream from which there’s no waking up.
Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis
Most likely to make you take up smoking
Here’s an unexpected nugget of information: Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis is the most grounded of the trio of weird novels. Next to the dreamy loops of Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home and Will Self’s 397 pages of modernism and encephalitic lethargica in Umbrella, the opium haze of Narcopoliscomes across as positively normal.
Set in Bombay, Narcopolis is a trip down memory lane, or Shuklaji Street as Thayil’s narrator knows it, where most of the novel is set. Made up of many meandering stories, Narcopolis is what one man remembers of his and the city’s past. Using the form of the novel, instead of intoxicants, Thayil recaptures the high of an opium-induced trip.
The narrator conjures to life Dimple, the eunuch; Lee, a mysterious Chinese man who adopts Dimple; Rashid, the owner of an opium den, and Rumi, an unhappily-married man who hates middle-class morality. Shuklaji Street is a gallery of oddities and weirdos — eunuchs, junkies, alcoholics, murderers, intellectuals — all of whom seem strange and surreal. It’s squalid and yet charmed, this contained, little world of narcotic yarns. To Rashid’s opium den come sharp minds that want to be dulled and lulled, lest they cut themselves.
Thayil’s addicts do many vile things in Narcopolis, but there is something vaguely quixotic about them. The sober, with their unforgiving and unadulterated wakefulness, often seem myopic and naïve in contrast. While Thayil’s characters wrestle with their addictions, decades roll along and Bombay changes. All that’s ultimately left is a narrator, his memories and his pipe.
Some of the stories in Narcopolis, like Dimple’s, are unforgettable. A few, like the interlude in China, seem misfit even though Lee is a wonderful character. Rumi — who hurtles between the acceptable and the deviant, and unravels dangerously — is perhaps the least convincing and most unpleasant of Narcopolis’s residents.
The joy of reading this novel lies in the language. The words in each sentence are selected with a poet’s precision. Thayil plucks references as cheerfully from Jorge Luis Borges as he does from Dev Anand. This is a novelist who hears RD Burman hollering out for Monica his darling and finds a trail of breadcrumbs that lead to Saint Monica, the patron saint of alcoholics. He’s as comfortable writing about horrible sex as he is with the innocent pleasure of enjoying a snack while watching the sunset at Chowpatty. Narcopolis is not without its flaws, but the storyteller doesn’t let go of the reader’s hand, no matter where the opium takes him.
Enough has been written despairing at the first sentence of Narcopolis, which goes on for a good six pages. It’s worth pointing out that it’s an expertly-constructed sentence that coils lazily like the smoke from the pipe that Thayil’s narrator smokes while telling his tale. It’s paced beautifully by precise and careful use of punctuation, which lends it a rhythm and cadence. Follow the yellow brick road of commas and you won’t lose track or feel short of breath. That first sentence is a neat indication of the nature of this novel — it’s a poetic, nostalgia trip that is wistful for a past that is invisible until seen through this smoky haze of memory.