How the Dead Live is a tour de force not only in sustained voice (Lily's profane, pessimistic view of the world is both hilarious and relentless, but not necessarily always correct in its observations), but also in satiric invention and existential brooding. Heartbreaking, hilarious and horrifying, How the Dead Live is my favorite Self I've read so far.
Some thoughts on Will Selfs How The Dead Live. American Lily Bloom, twice-married, now a widow living in London, is dying of cancer--and then stone dead of it. We are there at her long deathbed scene after which she finds herself non-living in a London of the astral plane in her subtle body. Lily non-lives in a London where only the dead know the little out of the way places, in this case Dulston, somewhere near Dalston, a complete neighborhood of the dead. Lily is led in her death odyssey by dead Australian aborigine, Phar Lap Jones. She visits Natalia her junkie daughter--a very sad story Self mistakenly thinks he can make funny--and her materialist daughter Charlene who with her husband owns a chain of stores called Waste of Paper. Self's word play is as relentless as the tone, though it never rises to the subtle sometimes italicized level of another model, Martin Amis. In the first 280 pages there are long brainy sections that simply sing and these can be terribly funny as well. How The Dead Live, like Money, is a voice novel in which tone becomes everything and overrides form. But the book is at least 75 pages too long.
Lily, the aforementioned living dead of the title is not a very engaging woman - she's had a tough life. Well, this is more of less how the dead live. I wanted to love this and a tiny bit of my not-quite-so-dead-inside soul did love it. I can also surmise that when Will Self dies I do not want to go wherever he believes he is going (which based on this book, might actually be nowhere but a bedsit in Peckham).
How the Dead Live is about Lily Bloom - a chronicle of her late life, her death, and her afterlife.
Definitely not my favorite Self novel.
However I think that there is something about Lily and her story that doesn't make her entirely unlike-able while managing to portray her as a true person. If anyone ever comes very close to death with enough time to reflect upon their true natures and their life's path(s) it all becomes a bit obvious we are all unlike-able in some way.Self might be a bit off putting to some people but all his books have stuck with me.
In fact though, moreso than the Dantean story of the dull disappointment of life bleeding into the dull disappointment of death (and beyond all locked in an endless cycle of drudge, it seems), this patter, this banter, seems to be Self's animating force.
I didn't have to force myself to finish it, but I was eager to be done because I didn't like spending time with Lilly Bloom, alive or dead. The story is told by Lilly Bloom who is dying, then dead from breast cancer. Lilly dies of cancer and after death is ushered into her life as a dead person by Phar Lap Jones, an Aborigine from Australia who wears cowboy boots, jeans, mirror sun glasses and a big white Stetson.
I really liked the underlying concepts of the book, but this was a hard slog for me.