Thursday, May 8, 2008

How the Dead Live

How the Dead Live by Will Self was originally published in 2000. My hardcover copy has 404 pages. This is my first time reading anything by Self, and I'm unsure if I'll read him again. In some ways How the Dead Live could have been the brilliant book it's touted as being. In other ways its a plotless jumble of complaining and excessive swearing from a cranky, selfish woman. I think a strong case could be made that How the Dead Live could have benefited from some much more rigorous editing. While the idea of the book is intriguing, the 400 pages makes it somewhat painful to finish, but you will want to finish it. A so-so rating of 2.5

Synopsis from cover
Lily Bloom is an aging American transplanted to England who has lost her battle with cancer and lies wasting away at the Royal Ear Hospital. As her two daughters - lumpy Charlotte, who runs a hugely successful chain of stationery stores called Waste of Paper, and beautiful Natasha, a junkie - buzz around her, and the nurses pump her full of morphine, Lily slides in and out of the present, taking us on a surreal, opinionated trip through the stages of a lifetime of lust and rage. A career girl in the 1940s, a sexed -up, tippling adulteress in the 1950s, a divorced PR flak in the 1970s and '80s, Lily presents us with a portrait of America and England over sixty years of riotous and unreal change.

And then it's over. Lily catches a cab with the Aboriginal wizard Phar Lap Jones, her guide to the shockingly banal world of the dead. It's a world that is surreal but familiar, where she again works in PR and rediscovers how great smoking is, where her cohabitants include Rude Boy, the son who died at age nine, Lithy, a fetus that died before she ever knew it existed, and the Fats, huge formless shapes composed of all the weight she's ever gained or lost. As Lily settles into her nonexistence, the most difficult challenge for this staunchly difficult woman is how to understand that she's dead, and how to leave the rest behind.

How the Dead live is an unforgettable portrait of the human condition, the struggle with life and with death. It's a novel that will disturb and provoke, the work, in the words of one British Reviewer, "of a novelist at the height of his powers."

"The reason your son doesn't keep in touch is that you're dead - and he's dead too! He died in the early eighties." pg. 5

"I knew also that what terrified me about these casually ejaculated globs of race hatred was that they must be my own. My own dark truffles of prejudice, swollen beneath the forest's floor." pg. 10

"Funny how we dead never eat - yet still, some of us love to serve food." pg. 23

"Not that I really liked such food when I was well, it's just that now, now that I'm dying, I realize that this capacity certain foodstuffs exhibit of reappearing in your mouth spontaneously, hours after they've been consumed, is very much a sign of life. Life in its very repetitiousness." pg. 30

"Blue smoke goes well with white linen. We may all live soapy, light-musical lives, but every woman has the right to die as Bette Davis." pg. 40

"She's the sort of woman who wants the earth girdled with a sanitary strip - for the duration of her stay, which, as I believed I've mentioned, will be for ever." pg. 89

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