Will Self’s third novel and tenth book overall—there are also three collections of short stories, two novellas, and two essays—expands a premise introduced in the opening story of an earlier book, The Quantity Theory of Insanity (1995). “The North London Book of the Dead” is not only one of Self’s best and most representative fictions but also, for all its deadpan grotesquerie, one of his most autobiographical insofar as it deals with the death of Self’s mother in 1988. The story begins with the son (also the story’s narrator) arranging his eccentric and strong-willed mother’s low-budget cremation. As time passes, he begins to dream of her less and to accept her death more, until the day he meets her on the street and discovers that she now resides in the kind of London suburb she had previously scorned. As she explains, “When you die you go and live in another part of London, and that’s it”—or nearly it. There are, he learns, classes for the newly dead, a Dead Citizens Advice Bureau, a phone directory (the North London Book of the Dead), even jobs. The narrator’s mother has even mellowed some, though not enough to keep her from calling her son at work and inviting, or ordering, him to meet her for dinner and bring his shirts for ironing—a nice Philip Roth-like Jewish mother joke with a Self-ish twist.
That was most readers’ welcome to the off-kilter world according to Will Self: a twilight-zone fiction where the everyday, the merely odd, and the truly absurd intersect thanks to an author whose idea of literary fun is the Swiftian deconstruction of all that passes for sane in an England that created the Millennium Dome (about which Self has written) and the first full professor of airline food (about which he has not, as yet). As Philip Roth recognized about the United States as early as 1960, such a world beggars the novelist’s imagination, forcing the writer either to give up in despair or to keep setting the bar higher in an effort to keep one step ahead of a reality that “stupefies,” “sickens,” and “infuriates.” This is the problem that Self faces most directly and successfully in his second book, Cock and Bull (1993). In Cock, the first of these paired novellas, a woman trapped in an unsatisfying marriage finds her clitoris slowly metamorphosing into the penis with which she avenges past wrongs by raping her husband (to death) and, years later, the story’s narrator, hapless wedding guest to the avenging angel’s ancient mariner. In Bull, Self, taking a page from Franz Kafka, begins with the transformation having already occurred: The narrator has awakened to find a vagina at the back of his knee. Self’s first novel, My Idea of Fun (1993), takes aBull-ish approach, beginning with a comically gruesome decapitation. This kind of one-upmanship takes its toll, especially when the author’s drug-addled life begins eclipsing the writing, which happened in 1997 when the newly remarried author was found to have used heroin aboard Prime Minister John Major’s campaign plane. Fired by the Observer, Self went on to face the worst reviews of his career for Great Apes (1997), his longest and dullest book, a one-idea novel belabored over 404 pages. Then, in October, 1999, Self cleaned up his act, swearing off all drugs and alcohol, even attending Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings, and wrote How the Dead Live. Self has acknowledged that writing the novel was a form of bibliotherapy, a way to deal successfully with his addictive personality by revisiting the death of his mother, with whom he had had a “fetid and embroiled” relationship. (Only after her death, while reading the diary she had kept for forty years, did Self realize how bitterly disappointed she had been, including with her son.) However, How the Dead Live is much more than therapeutic; its artistic success derives from the author’s finding in his mother, or rather in her fictionalized representative, an appropriate voice—a will, a self—that would serve him just as well at this critical juncture in his career as the narrator of “The North London Book of the Dead” did at the outset.
The novel’s narrator is sixty-five-year-old Lily Bloom, a Jewish anti-Semite who traces her itinerant life from growing up in New York through two marriages (one to an American political activist, the other to an English Anthony Trollope scholar) and three children: David, who died when he was nine in an accident for which Lily feels responsible; Charlotte, who has “no trouble passing herself off as a goy” and who, with her husband, owns a successful chain of card and paper shops; and Natasha, an attractive and addicted surrogate Self. Oscillating between protest and passivity, between dieting and overeating, the acerbic and lonely Lily, who thinks of cigarettes as her best friend, is diagnosed with cancer (breast, not lung). “Buried alive in the flesh-eating box of my own body,” Lily discovers that dying and being dead are “all about seeing and listening.” From her multiply marginalized position—female, Jewish, old, and dead—she observes and rages on, helpless and hilarious.
As one of the recently dead, Lily discovers that she has a guide, a sing-song-speaking aborigine named Phar Lap Jones (Phar Lap Dixon in the British edition), an entrepreneurial Virgil who opens a chain of...
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