HOW THE DEAD LIVE, by Will Self (Grove), 406 pages, $34.95 cloth. Rating: NNN
Approach How The Dead Live, but only with a strong stomach. Will Self's third novel is a devastating rant against western culture and, in particular, our spiritually empty ways of dealing with dying.
Lily Bloom has smoked herself into a fatal case of cancer. As she goes in and out of her morphine haze and finally fades away, we're privy to her inner thoughts.
They are not pretty. Lily is full of rage and contempt, specifically for her daughters -- one a corporate success, the other a junkie -- and in general for a world to whose viciousness she herself has made a significant contribution.
Then she's gone. But we get to go with her into the netherworld of the dead. There, Lily has to figure out how to give it a rest -- literally.
It's not easy. For one thing, in the afterlife things stick with you. Like the young son who was killed after Lily punished him and he ran in front of a car. Or the wads of fat she lost and then gained through 40 years of dieting.
Original writer For another, Lily has something -- usually not nice -- to say about everything, up to and including her personal affairs and every world affair that occurred in her lifetime.
Throughout this screed, Self proves a strikingly original writer, outrageous and furiously comical. His vision of the afterworld, where Lily gets to smoke 150 cigarettes a day and the dead still eat, but only chew and spew, is both surreal and terrifyingly banal. And Lily is a wildly entertaining and complex character, an anti-Semitic Jew, a mother who passes her daughter her opiates as a final loving gesture.
But for the faint of heart, the grotesqueries may be too much to bear. And Self might have altered the pitch occasionally -- there's just no rest for Lily Bloom, or for the reader. SUSAN G. COLE