How the Dead Live Paperback – 7 Jun 2001
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In 1988, sixty-five-year old Lily Bloom quickly succumbs to cancer in London. But after life there's death. Guided by an Aborigine named Phar Lap Jones, Lily is transported by a Greek Cypriot minicab driver to the North London dead neighbourhood of Dulston. There, accompanied by her lithopedion Lithy and her dead son Rude Boy, she's introduced to the twelve-step Personally Dead meetings, and watches over her living daughters--the cold, ambitious Charlotte, and her favourite, the heroin-addicted Natasha.
Since Self's face, voice and, notoriously, his life story are familiar to millions who will never pick up his book, there's always the risk of over-reading his work biographically. Read this way, Lily is clearly based on his New York-born Jewish mother; large chunks of Self's much-publicised addictions are wittily retooled; and Self himself is sexily transmuted into the beautiful and glamorously doomed Natasha. But Lily is a feisty, articulate woman, with a complex history spanning two continents, two husbands, and a constantly recreated personality--a great literary creation. Self's longterm obsession with London provides us with the utterly convincing Dulston; his treatment of modern Jewish life in North London (versus New York) will find its fans and critics; and his sympathetic account of Lily's decline into her morphine-laden deathbed is deeply affecting. But ultimately How The Dead Live grows beyond such local concerns. Ultimately, this novel is about the vexed relationship between the local worries of contemporary Western life and a more transcendent non-Western spirituality--signalled by Self's opening gesture to The Tibetan Book of the Dead and by the all-seeing Aborigine Phar Lap Jones. Readers familiar with his satire and pyrotechnic wordplay--both still well in place--may initially be thrown by the book's unexpected lurches of narrative voice and locale and its mysticism--but they'd be well advised to give it a chance. 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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Will Self is the author of a number of books of short stories and two previous novels, My Idea of Fun and Great Apes - all are published by Penguin in paperback. He has three children, and is married to the Independent columnist Deborah Orr. They live in London.
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Top Customer Reviews
Now, it is true that the writing wavers in the opening chapters of How the Dead Live, and that is why I only feel able to give it 4 stars. But Self gets into his stride with Lily's death and the writing intensifies steadily from that point on. The death itself is handled beautifully, eerily, like a dream filtering and modifying external events. Lily remembers a bike ride near Snape. She stops to eat her chocolate in guilty isolation. Climbing a gate, she grazes her shin and feels a warm trickle of blood as she finds a quiet place to sit. She feels cold and alone. And so she dies. The scene is highly charged and if, as has been said in the press, Lily bears more than a passing resemblance to Self's own mother, this must have been a painful one to write.
To this intensification of the writing, Self adds a stylistic device that creates the impression of steadily increasing momentum, even though the pace of events hardly changes. Each chapter ends with a coda looking forward to the ending which can be guessed before it is reached (I shan't spoil it for you!). These previews get progressively longer, and the effect is a sort of telescoping of time so that the reader almost feels like s/he is being accelerated into the brick wall of the ending.
This is also a book with some big ideas and, as usual, Self is using plot as a way of undermining the categories that structure the reader's everyday understanding. How do the dead live? They live like the poor (the socially dead?). When you die, do your misdeeds come back to haunt you? Yes -- in fact they come to live (die?Read more ›
This is satire, the satire of Chris Morris, and indeed Self has recently taken time to defend Brass Eye. It is easy to see where the two men coincide intellectually; they are relentlessly embittered by the mores of society, they want to hit back at the comfortable, and are driven to vent their frustrations through artistic expression at the very boundaries of taste. As such, How the Dead Live is a car crash of a novel - you don't want to look because you'll hate what you see, but you crane your neck anyway. The relentless, loveless prose is amazing, energetic, high and low brow, funny and scandalous.
But the narrator proves herself to be a one-trick pony, and I was tired of her negative voice long before the end of the book. There are some great ideas - the Nowhere bars where business men sweat underneath video screens of Australian skies, sitting on tyres and drinking home brew beer for example, or the day-to-day life of dead Lily in Dulston proves to be inventive and funny (although recycled from an earlier idea). Her death is moving, precise, and horrible, the main story of the second half of the novel, the story of Natasha, Lily's desperate, beautiful but unlovely junky daughter, is focussed and written with assurance.
But the trajectory of the book, its height however high, sees it fall back down to the ground, a kind of pizzling out of momentum. Self himself says that at a specific point (around 80,000 words) he lets the story tell itself.Read more ›
Lily is a complex, somewhat unlikable character but her journey from a tedious death into an excrutiatingly dull afterlife is a marvellous fantasy. The tedium is wonderfully alleviated by the lithopedian (who I liked very much) and the glorious fats; blubbery creatures formed from the weight Lily shed and gained in life.
It is cleverly structured and yes you have to have your wits about you to keep up, but hey if you want it easy them choose Catherine Cookson.
The ending is subtle and bittersweet. Truly a book to keep you thinking.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Well written, with sharp observation. The characters are intriguing and drew me in to their world but all along I felt like I was missing something. Read morePublished 9 months ago by Esk
I am not a "reader" by any stretch of the imagination, but this book, I couldn't put down. I could totally identify with the character of Lily Bloom, told in such a fascinating,... Read morePublished on 9 Oct. 2013 by carpathia
Something about his writing... Yes, he's so watchable when he's on the telly, witty and condescending and self-satirising, or is it us he's satirising but we don't realise? Read morePublished on 7 Jun. 2013 by Joe
I'm sure this is well written but at times I think the author was trying to be too clever. He certainly thinks outside of the box but a bit too far for me. Read morePublished on 26 May 2013 by Mrs Sandra Fitzgibbon
Yet again a book written about complete drivel. This was almost as bad as reading the Black Dahlia. Read morePublished on 31 May 2011 by Ms. R. E. Winfield
fantasy has been done better and certainly more interestingly by Terry Pratchet.... Tolkin and the like. Fantasy death is a depressing road to nowhare read.... Read morePublished on 22 April 2011 by jilly
...definitely Self's worst book.
The aborigine ruined the whole book for me. He seemed out of place and there just so the author could have fun writing an aborigine... Read more
"How the Dead Live" is a surreal impression (if I can use those two words in the same sentence), of what happens to unrestful souls after death. Read morePublished on 16 Nov. 2009 by Talc Demon
I won't repeat all the perceptive and wise observations that follow below, but just echo that reviewer who described reading this book as a reawakening to all that great literature... Read morePublished on 2 May 2007 by Emma