HOW THE DEAD LIVE by Will Self

HOW THE DEAD LIVE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

There's a lot of abusive palaver and not much substance in this labored third novel from the punk-surrealist author of Cock and Bull (1993), Great Apes (1997), and other fetchingly deranged assaults on good taste, convention, and stuff like that.

One wants to admire an imagination that could conceive of this novel's afterlife—a rundown hinterland in which the dead hold jobs and intermingle more or less normally by the living-as experienced by its foul-mouthed narrator Lily Bloom (James Joyce is surely spinning peevishly in his grave), an American woman who dies of cancer in a London hospital. But Lily simply rattles on and on, about her two daughters, uptight Charlotte (who's infertile) and cokehead-whore Natasha ("Natty," who's anything but); her many marital and extra-curricular sexual frolics; the State of the World, as encapsulated in odd little throwaway observations ("Saddam invaded Kuwait and my girls indulged their own cravings"); and—most curiously—her relationship before and after death with fellow patient Phar Lap Jones, an affable aborigine (named after his country-creature, a famed racehorse) who covets Lily's false teeth, for which he bargains, promising to ferry her safely out of the land of the living. A few cheeky inventions amuse intermittently (sex is still available even after one has passed on, though Lily wryly notes that "live johns were numb to the dead hookers' insubstantiality"), but there simply isn't enough of a plot to justify even two hundred and fifty pages' worth of this jaded mockery. Nor is Lily much fun: she's a bundle of indignations, whose high-pitched rants accommodate far too many lame anti-Semitic gags (of course she's a Jew herself, so we're probably supposed to see the humor in her continual recourse to such conversational bytes as "D'jew know?" and "Mindjew").

Sentence by sentence, it's smooth, even vivid—but the grossly overextended whole adds up to good writing wasted on an underimagined and tiresome premise.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-8021-1671-X
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Grove
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 2000




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