October 22, 2013
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Will Self's ninth novel Umbrella is brilliant, complex, and daringly told, a stream-of-consciousness masterpiece.
The Spectator wrote of the book:
"Umbrella is a magnificent celebration of modernist prose, an epic account of the first world war, a frightening investigation into the pathology of mental illness, and the first true occasion when Self's ambition and talent have produced something of real cultural significance. . . . [Umbrella] must be recognized as, above all, a virtuoso triumph of emotional and creative intelligence."
Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes.
The Kinks are from my neck of the woods – the northwest London 'burbs – where Umbrella is also set. I'm old enough, just, to remember this song charting, and also old enough to remember that it just seemed like a jolly little ditty. Now I listen to it aghast – to say that it's politically incorrect would be a cosmic solecism. Anyway, we 'hear' a snatch of this in the mind of Dr Zack Busner, maverick psychiatrist and the novel's protagonist, as he arrives at Friern Mental Hospital for work one April morning in 1971. It's an apposite song for him to hear, not least because it's an internal reference to another of my novels – Great Apes – in which Busner also appears, but transmogrified into a chimpanzee. Geddit?
Of all the excruciating three-minute dollops of sonic nonsense ever to pollute my ears as a child this has to be one of the most rank. I often explain to my own incredulous children how someone could come out with an excrescence like this, and off the proceedings of singles sales alone, spend the balance of their days horning coke poolside in LA. Poor Zack Busner happens to have an incontinent ability to recall pop songs, and this one sticks in his mind and replays frenziedly, both while he is making love to Mimi, the pharmacist at Friern, in 1971 – and also nigh on 40 years later when he recalls their exertions.
Busner, as I say is a maven for pop songs of all kinds – so much so that even when lyrics aren't recalled, his thoughts – to which the novel's monopolised narration gives us frequent access – are often peppered with popular music references. I was stupefyingly proud of the way I worked in both this album title and this song title – you'll have to read all 120,000 words to winkle them out.
Another pop ditty that torments Busner while he's struggling towards climax – and then returns to him when he's an erstwhile Lothario to remind him of pleasures past. A biggish hit in the UK, I doubt it ever charted in the US. It had a great deal of resonance for me as a child – not least because De Paul herself was the cousin of a kid I was at school with.
Audrey Death who's the other main protagonist of Umbrella is a working class London girl born in 1890. In an early scene she is taken by her mother to a pianola (player piano) showroom, where they hear one of the instruments demonstrated – the piece it plays is Brahms's Intermezzo. Like Busner, Audrey is afflicted by a compelling memory for musical snatches, but in her case this is due to the fact that when she was in her late twenties she fell victim to the crippling brain disease Encephalitis lethargica. Reawakened after five decades in a sort of waking coma (by Busner, in fact), Brahms's Intermezzo is one of the first memories to return to Audrey in waking form – this time, its melody accompanying the stop-go gait of one of her fellow patients.
A music hall (vaudeville) hit in the 1920s, in a rare act of anachronism on my part (which no one has hitherto spotted), I made this faintly bawdy song the signature tune of the Death family. Its rousing chorus is belted out by the grandiloquent paterfamilias Samuel 'Rothschild' Death, and ever afterwards it recurs in the minds of the three of his children whose fates we follow: Audrey, her older brother Albert, and her younger one Stanley. I allowed myself this solecism because my own grandfather used to sing this song after he'd had a few drinks (much to the chagrin of my genteel grandmother), and the Death family are based, quite closely, on the Self family of the same period.
A hugely popular song during the First World War among the British troops serving in France, you may be familiar with this because of snatches of it that play at the beginning of The Smiths' album The Queen Is Dead. Ever the adroit magpie of nostalgia, Morrissey manages to extract the sentimental pith from the song, while leaving the juggernaut of jingoism lumbering on. Stanley Death, who is killed in the First War, witnesses a performance of this song by a troupe who are entertaining at the front, and ever afterwards its lyrics recur to him.
"Don't Let it Die" by Hurricane Smith
In keeping with his infestation by earworms, the novel ends in 2010, in Zack Busner's head, as, revisiting the scene of the momentous events that form the core of the novel, he is revisited by yet another pop song from the early 1970s. This one also stayed with me from that era – and when I re-listened to it I was struck by two things: how very orchestral the pop music of that period was – almost all bridges were suspended over troubled waters by catgut and horsehair – and also, how concomitantly operatic the lyrics were. Don't Let it Die is a positive three-minute totenlieder… Enjoy!
Will Self and Umbrella links:
The American Reader review
Boston Globe review
Globe and Mail review
Los Angeles Review of Books review
New Statesman review
New York Times review
NPR Books review
Washington Post review
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists