To buy an unabridged audio book version of Umbrella, by Whole Story Audiobooks, which has also produced audio versions of The Butt, Liver (read by Will), The Book of Dave (also read by Will) and How the Dead Live, go to Amazon here.
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).
A recurring trope with regards to death in our culture is that of its threatening inconspicuousness; we are, for the most part, distanced from the physical processes of death, and unprepared to deal with it on its arrival. However, while this is in one sense a recent phenomenon, this trope has in fact been explored long before the rise and fall of modernism. Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors, as Stephen Greenblatt notes, uses an anamorphic skull to foreground the theme of death as a concealed presence in life. Viewed head-on, the skull is an insignificant blur, but from the side, it asserts its true appearance, reminding the viewer of their own mortality. Similarly, Self crystallises this societal anxiety in the form of Lithy, a lithopedian foetus belonging to Lily Bloom, the cantankerous protagonist of How the Dead Live. Like Holbein’s skull, Lithy’s unknown existence in the abdominal folds of Lily Bloom acts a symbol of death’s dormant, silent residence, erupting in cacophonous karaoke only when Bloom herself kicks the bucket.
Even the cover of the novel delves into this compulsion to hide our mortality. The Bloomsbury paperback edition of How the Dead Live features Damien Hirst’s sculpture The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living: a title that neatly summarises the anxiety that we have been considering. In an earlier work, Pharmacy, Hirst lays bare the pharmaceutical industry’s promises to sweep death under the carpet by eerily recreating a high-street chemist’s, empty save for the corpses of flies killed by a bug-zapper. Similarly, Self, and his self-proclaimed Buddhist allegory How the Dead Live, in which the afterlife consists of a banal, karmic mirror to one’s living years, foregrounds the failures of this materialistic approach through a comedic normalisation of non-Western spirituality.
Indeed, as the name suggests, the supernatural Dulston is as monotonous as any penumbral province of the living, suggesting that Judeo-Christian promises of the afterlife have upset the natural symmetry between life and death, even if it is, in the case of Lily Bloom, a symmetry of suburban ennui. That Bloom’s demise from cancer is somewhat sadistically drawn out over a considerable chunk of the novel’s narrative arc further conveys Self’s spiritual/satirical intentions. In one review of the novel, the character of Bloom is criticised as being merely the “construction of an entire life, just so we can get to the punch line of her death”. However, viewed in the light of Self’s adoption of Buddhist spirituality, and of what he himself notes as the “perennial” influence of The Tibetan Book of the Dead on his work, then this accusation becomes a pithy comment on the use of non-Western notions of mortality to foreground our own preoccupations with death, and the detrimental shadow they often cast over life.
Moving on to consider the role of the corpse in popular culture, we see how Self’s transgressive impulses inevitably lead to lashings of coronary prose. Considering that Self counts JG Ballard, an author who frequently recounted with glee his formative dissection lessons at university, it’s not surprising to find that Self has followed suit in his own exploration of the cadaver. However, what is particularly interesting in Self’s graphic descriptions of the corpse is his awareness of their greater social symbolism. No more so is this prevalent than in Self’s depictions of The Motos, a race of man-pig mutants that are ritually slaughtered by the future society imagined in The Book of Dave. In a theological debate between two of the novel’s characters, The Motos are referred to as “sacred creatures”, a description that apparently clashes with the “spraying pink mist” of their execution. However, converting the human body into a symbolic site, of which an entire society can claim ownership, is one of the most prevalent ways in which death and the corpse have been historically engaged with. Indeed, Self cites the description in Samuel Pepys’ diary of the hanging, drawing and quartering of Thomas Harrison as an influence on the “maroon tides” of the Moto slaughter, and their greater social significance; the paradoxical revulsion/attraction of the dead body is intensified by the corpse’s status as an object of state power.
The role of Moto slaughter in the primitive mythology of Ham reflects that of sacral kingship in the formation of ancient states, as explored in Frazer’s The Golden Bough. The Hamsters, with their Fathers-4-Justice-scavenged religion, typify the early stages of theological development, a stage in which, as both Frazer and Self demonstrate, the sacrifice of the human body plays a pivotal role in establishing fertility rituals. In the execution-free Britain of today, Self’s own consideration of the symbolic corpse is directed towards the cult of celebrity. Self interpreted the media coverage of Jade Goody’s death from cancer as indicative of our morbid obsession with:
“… death, and more specifically, our collective need to at once gaze fixedly upon the memento mori of other people’s extinction, while carefully averting our eyes from our own extinction and that of our loved ones.”
For Self, the celebrity corpse is one over which we all attempt to claim ownership; just as Goody’s body was appropriated in life to function as a symbol of countless disparaging social stereotypes (the chav, the underclass racist, the blonde bimbo, etc), so her death saw her fashioned into another set of exploitable symbols, many of which (such as the need for repeated cervical smears, and the speed at which cancer can spread), foreground our attraction/revulsion to the human body as both a distraction from our own physical vulnerability, and a reminder of medicine’s often devastating shortcomings.
Will Self is an author who continues to devote reams of unrelenting and richly imagistic prose to the exploration of our most private neuroses. Despite this, the increasingly public taboo of death and the corpse is one that is, as we have seen, equally pervasive in his fiction. Indeed, as Brian Finney notes, Self’s first novel, My Idea of Fun, opens with the narrator declaring to the reader that his “idea of fun” entails decapitating a commuter and “addressing” himself to the corpse. It seems that, in this inaugural passage, Self prophesises one of the recurring themes of his taboo explorations; as a keen psychogeographer, Self seemingly admits that he cannot help but wander into the most widespread of psychic territories in our culture; that of death and the corpse.
An essay by Joe Barton, a final-year undergraduate in English language and literature at Newcastle University.
If you have an essay on any aspect of Will Self’s fiction, perhaps degree or postgrad work, that you’d like to post on this site, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration.
You can find the Epilogue to How the Dead Live at the Guardian here.
SpikeMagazine.com, October 2000: Chris Hall talks to Will Self about How The Dead Live:
“So does he have semi-mystical beliefs about death himself? “I have completely mystical beliefs in that area. I’m off with the fucking fairies,” he says, laughing. “I always have been. I’ve never been a materialist particularly, I’ve always been a transcendental idealist.” So why the obsession with The Tibetan Book Of The Dead? “I’ve had this preoccupation with it from when we were sitting around rolling joints on it in the late 70s, and it’s perrenial in my work. The point is that when you push materialism as far as it can go then it really shows itself up. People who say they are materialists, they’re hoisted by their own petard. I don’t want to sound like a character in “Ab Fab” who wants to give it all up and bang tambourines with a bandeau, but that’s pretty much how I feel at the moment. People aren’t really materialists, they don’t really want the car, the house, the Phillipe Starck juicer, they actually want the cachet, the status and the culture that go with those things.””
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.
However, I felt that at times Self was struggling to keep the plot from flagging: at various points, he abandoned the first person narrative in order to develop sub-plots centred on the private life of Lily’s two daughters. It almost seemed as if Self became more interested in these sub-plots as the book develped, but he couldn’t cover them by continued use of the first person narrator. The result is that, at times, the book had a patched-together, over-extended feel to it. Cutting a hundred or so pages might have made it a tighter, more enjoyable read.” – Mr G. Rodgers
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
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.”
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.
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.”