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?

That Self can do better than this is shown by the 20-odd pages set in Australia. Lily’s junkie daughter, Natasha, succumbs to a visionary spell and so does her maker. The scales fall from his eyes and he is able to render landscape, culture, character again. Here he risks one of the few purely lyrical sentences in the book, his homage perhaps to the famous passage in Ulysses about the heaventree of stars hung with humid, nightblue fruit: ‘…stars which hung from the inky sky like bunches of inconceivably heavy, lustrous grapes, dusted with the yeast of eternity’. The moment is almost fine enough to survive being repeated word for word six pages later.”

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