By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Will Self
Narrated by: John Lee
A mangled Umbrella on the cover of Will Self’s book presages a story of discarded lives in mental asylums that presumably shelter and heal wreaked minds. Self’s picture of a mental asylum belies the definition of shelter and treatment. Rather than shelter, Self’s asylum is an indoor latrine that never flushes; a facility that assuages consciences of healthy relatives, and offers jobs to incompetent psychiatrists and uncaring caregivers.
In the first half of Umbrella, a listener is disoriented by something like stream of consciousness that flows back and forth between a mental asylum’s routines and earlier lives of asylum’ patients. The narrator’s voice (literally, John Lee) keeps a listener’s mind in the story, but as the story progresses, Will Self’s authorship asserts its self.
Self suggests industrialization of the world breeds social discontent through devaluation of human worth that increases mental illness and distorts medical treatment. Self’s story infers distortion of medical treatment is compounded by the same engines that drive industrialization to increase mental illness.
Improper diagnosis can assign mental patients to years of oblivion but diagnosis offers an industrialized way of automating medical treatment. Psychiatrists decide this person is schizophrenic, that person is depressed, and another person is senile. Each patient is medicated to combat symptoms associated with diagnoses. Like broken umbrellas, that were unbroken and industrially produced, human beings are stigmatized by a diagnosis. The diagnosis is that the schizophrenic, depressed, or senile patient is broken and becomes discarded rather than repaired.
Self symbolizes the idea of industrialization in mental asylums. Some psychiatrists and caregivers, like industrial assembly workers, slip into an early state of being where id supersedes ego. The author infers basic ego needs are met by industrialization but instinctual urges of the id are released when ego is satisfied. People begin to treat others as objects that do not think, do not care; and are disposable playthings at best, or sex objects at worst. In a circumstance like an asylum, the potential for human abuse is swollen by confinement.
Self is suggesting the same destructive behavior is at work in the wide world. Self tells a story that shows the breakdown of relationship in the Death’ family. Audrey, Stanley, and Albert Death become estranged siblings; partly because of their genetic makeup but largely because of industrialization, accelerated by WWI.
Audrey and Stanley become cogs in the British war machine while Albert is a behind the-lines industrial engineer for munitions design. Stanley is killed in the war. Audrey works in a munitions factory. She contracts a form of encephalitis that carries symptoms of motor skill repetition and progressive catatonia. Self, the author, infers Audrey blames Albert for Stanley’s death and her mental deterioration. After the war, Audrey confronts Albert and is committed to a mental asylum when Albert claims she is mentally incompetent.
A psychiatrist at the asylum believes Audrey suffers from encephalitis lethargica (a sleeping sickness), caused by chemicals used in the manufacture of bombs. The psychiatrist administers a drug called L-DOPA to combat Audrey’s symptoms. Audrey recovers some of her mental capability but retains a motor skill repetition syndrome. The psychiatrist finds that Audrey, like her brother Albert, has an extraordinary memory. Her awakening is after nearly 50 years of catatonia.
The irony of the story is that Audrey relapses; the mental institution is re-purposed as a commercial development through purchase by Albert. To compound the irony, management of the development is by Albert’s daughter. Umbrella is an interesting story but it’s telling, like James Joyce’s Ulysses, challenges understanding because of its stream-of-consciousness regression and progression.
An optimist would argue that Self’s story is wrong about the effect of industrialization, and a pessimist would say it is right. A realist would suggest the story is both right and wrong.
The technological revolution is disrupting society today in as profound a way as industrialization did in the twentieth century. Like industrialization, technological’ disruption is good and bad. The important question is whether the world is progressing toward goodness or evil in these monumental disruptions. Are human beings being re-purposed or discarded? Or, to paraphrase former President Reagan and today’s President Obama, is society better off now than before?