Will Self's Booker-shortlisted novel Umbrella will be a trilogy - though not one, he says, that he anticipated.
“It’s strange, isn’t it. I had no idea there would be sequels”, he tells me in the quietly grand reception of 50 Bedford Place, where the Bloomsbury Book Club is held.
Slumped into a chair meant for audience members - the “thrones” he was placed on for his public conversation with his editor having already been dismissed with a typically expletive Selfian diatribe - the 51-year-old author muses on his next work.
“I’d been working on the next novel anyway, but I hadn’t seen how it would carry the powerful idea of [Umbrella] forward. And now I see that, and then the third logically suggested itself.”
Taking Self’s own analogy, that a book is “like a child”, Umbrella and its unborn future triplets - although we know the second will be called Shark - could be seen as unplanned pregnancies.
He explains, a little wearily, “you get inseminated, then you gestate it, you give birth to it, you raise it up and then you take it off to university and you buy it an electric kettle and open a bank account for it, which is publication. So when enters the outside world you wish it well, but ultimately have to let go, you have to move on, and have another child.”
Umbrella is a 417-page, sprawling beast of contemporary Modernism, which many are claiming to be Self’s best yet. In the author’s words, it is not plot-driven, but instead explores the symptoms and victims of encephalitis lethargica, a mental condition which causes its patients to endure coma-like states, over the course of three different eras.
It has been warmly-received, and is the bookies’ fave for the Booker, but it’s been unanimously agreed that it’s a challenging read, something Self has been aware of from the start, but not willing to change.
“I never rationalised it. I didn’t look at the beginning for a second and think, is there anyway of leading the reader into this more easily? Because quite clearly there wasn’t. Either you’re going to take the novel on its own terms, which is a complete braiding of consciousness, action and speech, or you’re not. It’s all or nothing.”
“But when I was working on the book I did think to myself, ‘this is a child that’s not going to find the readers.’ I was quite convinced that it was not going to be read, but I had no option - it was a book that wanted to be written, I have no control over that.”
That it’s up for the literary equivalent of an Oscar came as quite a surprise, then?
“Obviously I’m pleased for the book. It’s a lucky book. It’s going to find lots of readers, many more than would have found it otherwise, and it’s going to have a more charmed life than many of its book siblings.”
“But personally,” Self’s blue eyes roll with an ambivalent shake of the head, “it means very little to me.” The reason for this, he says, is because he is “a miserable person. And I can’t suspend disbelief in social constructs of any kind, as you might be able to tell from my fiction.”
Just before the interview starts, a fan asks Self what he’s reading at the moment. As an author known for using a typewriter, I’m amused when he whips out an iPhone, claiming to love it - although it is his first new phone in a decade. This device is how Self keeps some two dozen books on the go at once. He rattles off a list of non-fiction by obscure writers. The fan looks a little overwhelmed.
It’s evident, then, that Self hasn’t read any of Umbrella’s Booker rivals. But he’s outspoken on fiction anyway.
“Writers reading other fiction is like a plumber fixing his own ballcock", he announces during his book club talk. Fiction for Self is “instrumental” - he likens himself to the poet W.H Auden, who would write GETS (Good Enough To Steal) in the margins of others’ work.
So if not fiction, then what of art? “I haven’t seen the Turner yet. Is it crap?” He probes, with genuine curiousity. Despite having partied with Hirst, Emin and their YBA contemporaries when he was “popular and desperately hip”, and remaining “fond of some of them personally”, Self’s become “disinterested in contemporary art.”
“There was a couple of years where I was having an affair with the director of the National Gallery,” he tells me, so dryly I’m not entirely sure how to take it. “I just wanted the Old Masters. Because they’re so much better.”
“I feel an enormous sense of tedium in the contemporary art world. I think it’s sucked on the tit of the financial boom too much and it’s painful. Hirst is the most egregious example: there’s a point at which money corrupts art. It does, and the way that it does is by rendering it inert.”
It would appear that Self is rarely happier than when pregnant with his next work, even if the birthing and parent-teacher conversations take their toll. “The weird emotional-psychic alchemy that appears with making fictions is exciting and strange to me as it ever was,” he says.
Luckily for his fans - and any future ones who may arrive should Umbrella win the Booker - there’s plenty more from Self on the horizon.
"The Garden of Evening Mists" by Tan Twan Eng (Myrmidon Books)
Yun Ling Teoh is the survivor of a Japanese wartime camp, so she's understandably disgruntled towards the people of that nation. Still, she becomes the apprentice of an exiled Japanese gardener, in hopes that she can build a garden to commemorate her deceased sister in Kuala Lumpur.
"Swimming Home" by Deborah Levy (And Other Stories)
This book explores the depressed state of a group of stately tourists visiting the French Riviera, but does so in a light, funny manner. The introduction to this book is by Tom McCarthy, the acclaimed author of "C."
"Bring up the Bodies" by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate)
This is the sequel to Mantel's 2009 Booker winner "Wolf Hall." Both books chronicle the pitfalls of Anne Boleyn.
"Umbrella" by Will Self (Bloomsbury)
Zack Busner is a psychiatrist treating victims of a post-World War I sleeping sickness epidemic -- but is the disease biological or the result of the pressures of modernity?
"The Lighthouse" by Alison Moore (Salt)
A middle-aged man takes a trip to Germany but finds the hotel staff to be less than accommodating as he contemplates his mother's abandonment while embarking on a walking tour.
"Narcopolis" by Jeet Thayil (Faber & Faber)
Set in a brothel in 1970s Bombay, this book illustrates the addictions and perversions of human trafficking in India, contrasted with the beauty and hope found in films and churches.