How the Dead Live
Will Self is a novelist of world-class stature, an unparalleled literary craftsman with a ferocious insight. In How the Dead Live, he gives us his best and most important book yet, an incisive and troubling dissection of the spiritual emptiness and death in our culture.
Lily Bloom is an aging American in final-stage cancer in the Royal Ear Hospital in Central London. Not that there’s anything wrong with her ears—it’s just the only bed they could find for her. As her two daughters buzz around her and the nurses pump her full of morphine, Lily slides in and out of consciousness, outraged that there’s so little time left and so much hate still to go around. In her delirium she rails against everything, from the sins of those in the immediate proximity to the world at large, viewed through the lens of her paranoid bigotry. In the corner of the ward sits an impassive, middle-aged Aboriginal Australian man, who from time to time reminds Lily that it will be his responsibility to ferry her across the Styx, and that in lieu of a coin, he’ll happily accept her dentures.
How the Dead Live is an unforgettable portrait of the human struggle with mortality. In it, Will Self has given us a book that will change the way we talk about death, a novel that, like Underworld or Mason & Dixon, will be a literary sensation remembered for years to come.
In April 1988, 65-year-old Lily Bloom quickly succumbs to cancer in the Royal Ear Hospital. (“Where do they keep the Royal Ear, I wonder? I think of it as very large—as big as a dinner tray—and very red, angrily red.”) But after life there’s death. Guided by an aborigine named Phar Lap Jones, she is transported by a Greek Cypriot minicab driver to the North London dead neighborhood of Dulston. There, accompanied by her dead son, Rude Boy, she’s introduced to the 12-step Personally Dead meetings, and she watches over her living daughters—the cold, ambitious Charlotte, and her favorite, the heroin-addicted Natasha. “Natasha is peculiarly charged by the drug—and even by the mere anticipation of its effects. She shifts from being vulnerable and skittish and withdrawn to being strong and steady and extrovert. She’s told me before that it makes her feel ‘complete’ and ‘confident,’ and I can see what she means. When she’s off heroin she’s a fucking nightmare—when she’s on it she’s a peach.”
Since Will Self’s face, voice, and, notoriously, life story are familiar to many who will never pick up his fiction, there’s always the risk of reading How the Dead Live as autobiography. In which case, he’s clearly based Lily on his New York-born Jewish mother, and he’s wittily retooled large chunks of his own much-publicized addictions, transmuting himself into the beautiful and glamorously doomed Natasha. But Lily is feisty and articulate, with a complex history spanning two continents, two husbands, and a constantly re-created personality—a great literary creation. Self’s sympathetic account of Lily’s decline into her morphine-laden deathbed is deeply affecting, and his long-term obsession with London provides us with the utterly convincing Dulston. His treatment of modern Jewish life in North London (rather than New York) will find its fans and critics, but the novel grows beyond such local concerns. Ultimately, it is about the vexed relationship between the worries of contemporary Western life and a more transcendent spirituality—signaled by Self’s opening gesture to The Tibetan Book of the Dead and by the all-seeing Phar Lap Jones. How the Dead Live is a big book with big ideas, and quite definitely Will Self’s most ambitious and mature work to date. —Alan Stewart