Mortality, the corpse and the fiction of Will Self

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living: Mortality, the Corpse and the Fiction of Will Self.

Death, according to Jacque Lynn Foltyn, has replaced sex as the 21st century’s definitive taboo. While the valance has long since been ripped away from the collective Victorian piano leg, the corpse, meanwhile, has become primed with symbolic explosives, threatening the very foundations of society built upon the mythology of modernist progress. Be it the computer-generated cadavers of CSI Miami, or Gunther von Hagens’ reality TV autopsies, Foltyn argues that the human corpse has become an increasingly pervasive object of revulsion and attraction in our culture, a site of anxiety about medicine’s failure to conquer, but enthusiasm to hide, death. With all this in mind, it’s not surprising to find that the fiction of Will Self – an author who frequently weaves his narratives in, around, and beyond the boundaries of taboo – is one who showcases several literary autopsies, in which death and the human corpse are explored with a surgeon’s eye (and, more often than not, a coroner’s tongue).

How The Dead Live – Amazon.com Reader Reviews

17 reader reviews

“Lily is a cynical character. Little is spared her criticism, especially England and the English. There’s great fun in all of this – Lily, despite her cynicism, or perhaps because of it, becomes a sympathetic character, and many of her observations about England rang (uncomfortably) true. There’s lots more to enjoy in this novel, as Self is an imaginative writer, despite the fact that for lots of the time the reader is in familiar “Self country”, where Jewishness, drug culture and hospitals figure prominently.

How The Dead Live – Amazon.co.uk Reader Reviews

20 reader reviews and Amazon’s own editorial review

“Finally, 155 pages into the thing I found the plot developed and the pages instantly became more turnable: a real story, at last. The same characters that had frustrated me in the first six chapters were fleshed out with real personalities and direction, and sub-plots I cared about appeared as if from nowhere. If Self set out to deliberately starve the reader in the first half of the story to force him to gorge himself on the second, then it worked on me. Granted, the final twist in the plot is rather kitsch and you can see it coming from a hundred paces, but by then I was entertained enough by the main characters’ destinies that I didn’t mind.” – Anthony Charlton

How The Dead Live – New York Times

Tom Shone, October 2000

“Will Self’s new novel consists of a monologue by a Jewish mother who goes by the name of Bloom. So naturally, the first thing you do upon picking up the book is flick to the final page to see what the last word is. And sure enough, instead of ”yes” — the word used by James Joyce to end ”Ulysses” — we find the contemporary negative ”Not,” as used by Mike Myers in his canonical postmodern masterpiece, ”Wayne’s World.” A serious literary allusion, or a snickering joke? A dialogue with a classic or mere punkish self-adornment — the literary equivalent of Johnny Rotten wearing a T-shirt of Queen Elizabeth? Practiced Self readers will know that the answer is all of the above, with a good helping of impudence thrown in for good measure.”

How The Dead Live – Guardian Review

Elaine Showalter, June 2000

In How the Dead Live, Self has transformed one part of this premise into a full-length account of necropolitan London. In his satiric geography, the young dead – the “morbidly mobile” – go to find work in the States or the Gulf, but the older dead simply live on either north of the river in Dulston or south of the river in Dulburb, their placements assigned by the Deatheaucracy Office. Their mornings are busy with the Full Dead breakfast and their evenings filled with the 12-step meetings of PD (Personally Dead). Freddy Ayer, Ronny Laing and Laurence Olivier have Dulston flats; almost all the dead smoke, drink, and sleep around, and all they need to keep up with the urban deathstyle of the rich and famous is Goodbye! magazine.

How The Dead Live – Observer Review

Adam Mars-Jones, June 2000

“Beneath the headlines, Self’s style is no less contorted, without even a second-hand immediacy: ‘Fleet feet fled through flesh’ runs one sentence. There’s a fatal blurring even in relatively straightforward descriptions: ‘He was bald save for a horseshoe of brownish furze, wore a white T-shirt, the trousers from a long-since dismembered suit, and a scowling mien on his crushed, Gladstone face.’ Is wearing a scowling mien on your face really any different from scowling? And hasn’t the dictionary meaning of ‘furze’ – a plant with yellow flowers and thick, green spines, a synonym for gorse – been supplanted by irrelevant associations, as if it was a portmanteau word meaning furry fuzz or fuzzy fur?