How the Dead Live

Will Self, Author Grove/Atlantic $24 (416p) ISBN 978-0-8021-1671-0
HScathingly satiric and prophetic, this unsettling novel by Great Apes author Self will inevitably inspire comparison with Martin Amis's era-defining London Fields. Running on a vatic rage that is almost Swiftian in the totality of its objectDthe damned human conditionDit sweeps across the charnel-fields of contemporary existence. The enraged center is held by narrator Lily Bloom, a Jewish-American transplant to London. Harsh, unforgivably anti-Semitic, extreme, Lily is a larger-than-life character. In fact, she is literally dead when the reader first meets her. She's biding her afterlife in Dulston, the dead ""cystrict"" of London. In the first part of the book, she harks back to her terminal illness, when her 30-year-old daughter, Charlotte, arranged for her care. Dutiful, responsible and all too English, Charlotte reminds Lily of her despised second husband, David Yaws, Charlotte's father. Natasha, her younger daughter, is a beautiful drug addict, ""far too selfish,"" as Lily comments, ""to think of doing anything for herself. She's entirely centered on what others might do for her."" Lily's nine-year-old son, David, or ""Rude Boy,"" a profanity-spouting child crushed by a car in 1957, is reunited with her in the afterlife, as is her petrified still-birth, the ""lithopedion,"" and the fat she lost dieting. Her afterlife guide, Australian aborigine Phar Lap Jones, advises her to give up desire, but Lily wants another turn on the cycle of life and death. Self brilliantly uses Lily's marginal position to comment on a culture structured by the desire to desire. Through Lily's eyes, the reader is granted a vision of the West as a vast, glittering junkiedom. Lily's objection is not political, howeverDit is existential, an accusation of the inevitable failure of the flesh itself. Self's novel will surely figure on best-book lists this year. (Sept.)
Reviewed on: 09/04/2000
Release date: 09/01/2000
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