Novel of the week
How the Dead Live
Will Self Bloomsbury, 404pp, £15.99
Will Self's new novel is narrated by an old woman called Lily Bloom, who is dying of breast cancer in the Royal Ear Hospital. Her daughters - married Charlotte is a chunky, socially aspirant blonde who is into reflexology; Natasha is a beautiful, brunette junkie - squabble. Lily rages against her pain and ranges over her life as a New York Jew: her sexual adventures, her invention of a new type of pen cap, and her inadequate marriages. And then, Lily dies. She is an ex-biddy.
Death, it turns out, is characterised mostly by being fantastically boring. You get driven to a mysterious area of London called Dulston by a Greek cabbie, and wind up in an all-night cafe, among other newly dead, chewing their fried breakfasts before spitting them out (the dead can no longer digest food). Lily is assigned a flat by the Deatheaucracy, where she meets her lithopedion (a stony foetus that symbolises her miscarriage), her dead nine-year-old son, Rude Boy, and her Fats: a triumvirate of wobbly creatures made out of all the weight that Lily lost on various diets while alive. The Fats are like the Fates, only more annoying: they cower in the bedroom, incessantly chanting "Fat and old". Needing to work for cigarette money, Lily gets a job in a PR agency. (One of Self's slyest jokes: who would notice?)
Such amusingly humdrum thanatology is very reminiscent of Self's previous short story, "The North London Book of the Dead". Much as he did with his superb novel, Great Apes, Self here flogs the conceit to deliberate excess. But the problem with constructing a long novel, rather than a short story, around the ennui of snuffing it is that, at length, the reader becomes bored of death's boredom, however comically it is evoked.
Self tries to avoid this by having Lily hang around invisibly observing her daughters. Will Charlotte and her husband breed after fertility treatment? Will Natasha clean up? It is hard to care, precisely because Self's writerly muscle is best at constructing funfair grotesques. Charlotte is merely a handy vessel into which he decants all his familiar, righteously bilious amazement at the moronism of the modern world; Natasha is a stereotyped smackhead, dead to herself and dead on the page.
There is, meanwhile, the question of Lily herself. As the novel progresses, there are hints that death's boredom might give way to something worse unless she heeds the advice of her "death guide", a cartoony Australian Aborigine called Phar Lap Dixon, who wears jeans and a Stetson. The novel's cosmology is one of sardonically de-exoticised Buddhism. Lily, we learn, has a chance to "get off the go-round" and attain grace, avoiding reincarnation. That she continually and stubbornly ignores Phar Lap's advice becomes frustrating.
Yet she is a warmly cantankerous companion, with a lovely strain of near-poetry peeping through her invective. Her second husband, an ineffectual public-school Englishman, is given a rather beautiful epitaph: he "strolled back to the Elysian pavilion, his entry in the scorebook marked 'Retired bored'". Lily and another lover are remembered lying naked in a bed "like two parentheses indicating the presence of passionate language". She is given an irritating orthographical tic that mirrors her Jewish anti-Semitism (she writes "D'jew know?" or "Mindjew"). But hers is a fearsomely clever and altogether rather Selfian mind.
How the Dead Live has many passages of vigorous, angry comedy. One running joke concerns Charlotte's husband, who runs an ever-expanding chain of postcard and stationery shops called Waste of Paper; A J Ayer and R D Laing are mercilessly lampooned when they turn up in Dulston; and the parody of a support group, "Personally Dead", is viciously exact.
If I were more interested in Self's private life than a critic ought to be (that is, more than not at all), I could try to read this novel as a metaphor for heroin use, or withdrawal from it. But any novel that requires such revelations of the private in order to work is trashy art. Self's pyromaniac talent on the paragraph and sentence level, on the other hand, is a constant joy, even if the larger structure is uninvolving. How the Dead Live does not add up to a great novel, but it is 400-odd pages of seriously entertaining prose.