For the past week or so, I’ve been dipping in and out of Umbrella by Will Self. It’s not a bad book, and although it’s not an easy read, I’ve not found it as difficult as I thought I might. It’s written in a stream-of-consciousness style that flows from one narrator to another and from one time period to another. The language is often dazzling—I’d share a sample if I hadn’t deleted it from my e-reader already. And the story of a woman named Audrey (Death, De’Ath, or Dearth) who has encephalitis lethargica and the doctor who cares for her contains potential for an excellent story.
I read about a quarter of the book, and I was sometimes delighted, sometimes bewildered, sometimes entranced, and sometimes exasperated. And in a strange alchemy, those conflicting emotions have all boiled together to become something like apathy.
Whenever I give up on a book that’s considered challenging, I feel a need to justify myself as a reader, to show that I have readerly cred and can read and enjoy difficult books. It’s silly, I know, but there it is. The thing with this book is that after the first 20 pages or so I found that I was following most of it pretty well. When Self switched perspective, it sometimes took me a few lines to notice, and piecing together the various strands was something of a chore, but it wasn’t inscrutable. It was just monotonous. I never could pick up a head of steam. Every time I’d get caught up in the story again, it would switch gears, I’d get pulled out and have to reorient myself. And the stylistic pyrotechnics didn’t seem all that purposeful, although it’s possible that the purpose comes together at the end. It’s something to do with time exploding all over. Perhaps the way time merges together throughout the 20th century overwhelms Audrey and leads to her lethargy, much as the way the narrative of the novel brought on my apathy.
I promised myself last year that I wouldn’t persevere with books that I wasn’t actively enjoying. Enjoyment, for me, isn’t necessarily about finding a book to be pure pleasure or lacking in challenge. Indeed, sometimes the challenge itself is part of the pleasure, although I do need to feel that the effort I expend on a book will produce a commensurate level of reward. In the case of Umbrella, the rewards are not great enough to warrant more of my effort or, perhaps more significant, my time. My enjoyment only appears in bits and pieces, and bits and pieces aren’t enough when I know there are so many other books out there that will give me more consistent joys, even if they require some effort on my part. If it were half the length, I probably would have stuck with it, but with almost 300 pages of more of the same stretching out in front of me, I cannot bring myself to go on.
I read this as an e-galley, and I think this is the kind of book that’s better on paper because it’s easier to flip around and get reoriented when it switches perspective. Also, I think it’s the kind of book that is best read in long stretches. The format itself begs for that kind of reading. There are no chapter breaks and the paragraphs often span multiple pages. But at the moment, I’m short on long stretches of time, so that’s a no-go.
It is entirely possible that I’ll have more success if I decide to try again, although if I abandon a book with that intention in mind, it tends to haunt me, so I’m considering this book abandoned for good.
How much pleasure do you expect from your reading, and how much of a challenge are you willing to accept? What leads you to give up entirely? Do you have to actively dislike what you’re reading, or is it enough to not be getting much out of it?