There is a moment during Will Self’s second reading from his unconventional new novel – the Booker-longlisted Umbrella – when the explosions from the Edinburgh Military Tattoo mirror the book’s narrative of the machine gun hell of the Somme.
Host Stuart Kelly smiles, the audience titters: but Self carries on unflinchingly, caught up in his work’s time & viewpoint-hopping stream of consciousness choreography.
Between readings from Umbrella, a ‘difficult to write’ century-spanning story examining themes of technology’s impact on society, Self is at his dry and acerbic best. Comparing Kelly to a ‘spinster’ in a witty rebut of contemporary fiction’s obsession with metaphor; giving an illuminating precis of the post-war sleeping sickness epidemic which is at the core of Umbrella’s plot; contemplating whether he is a Londonophile or a psychogeographic ‘London mystic’: Self is entertaining and enlightening throughout.
Master not only of his precise power of vocabulary but of the bullet-like witticism and aside, Self spends some time theorising on the impact of traditional narrative on our lives, explaining why he chose to flaunt these conventions in his new novel, in an apparently ad-libbed and droll example of how dull a third-person narration of everyday life would be.
Unashamedly intellectual but also affably modest, Self’s appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival is entertaining, illuminating and enjoyable: featuring a unique and multi-layered writer who continuously strives to challenge himself as much as his readership.