Eh? So…Wait…Ohh. I Get It. I Think.
‘Umbrella’ is a properly hard book.
I don’t mind admitting, especially when tired, I would finish a page and think, ‘Eh?’
And that won’t do, there’s no point in just following text with my eyes, this aint the opticians, so I would read it again, but this time take notes, and then try and explain the page out-loud to my cat, as if you can’t explain it, you don’t understand it.
The book as multiple character voices, at different times of their lives, all held together by the common thread of a nasty brain infection. The voices don’t change with chapter (there aren’t any) or even with paragraphs (there aren’t any of those, either) and the reader is lucky if there is even a full stop when there’s a changeover.
I presume, and I may be wrong (about an awful lot of things, in general), the idea is to give the reader the impression they have encephalitis lethargica, or some other brain disorder themselves. The use of italics throughout is wonderful as it really helps with the ‘Eh?’ moments. Italics are an wise older lady, putting her hand on your arm and speaking gently but firmly into your ear, emphasising an important moment in a character’s mind, or maybe telling you your skirt is tucked into the back of your knickers. It’s all useful information.
I love italics. People listen to italics. They don’t listen to BLOCK CAPS. Block caps grab you by the lapels and SHOUT spit-flecked words into your face. Yeah, whatever, man. Shout as much as you like, as now spite will make me contrary.
It was hard with Umbrella to know when to finish reading for the night, or to go back to work after my lunch break. Without chapters, and so no natural end, and with so many voices, I found using sticky flags as a bookmark showed me exactly when I had got to the end of a voice. And, when returning to the book again, I would scan the page before as a revisionary practise.
Then I read James Joyce’s Ulysses, and now, looking back at ‘Umbrella’, it’s not as hard as it was. That gave my reading muscles a full-on-ache-fest workout, as ‘Umbrella’ is going up Ben Nevis with a heavy bag, ‘Ulysses’ is Everest with a full weekly food shop.