In How The Dead Live Lily has died of cancer. She is then transported to the spiritual London precinct of ‘Dulston’, accompanied by her Aboriginal spirit guide and her deceased 9-year-old son. To atone for a lifetime of debt, she has to go on living in Dulston, occupying dingy flats and attending rehab meetings for the Personally Dead, a 12-step programme for those who can’t or won’t come to terms with being dead.
Dulston is an allegory for both life after death and death within life. Despite it being the afterlife, waking up in London is still described as: “Five a.m., and the human collectivity is rubbing the gunge of urbanity from its filmy eyes”.
Lily also gets a job in this afterlife in a PR firm, “typing up still more releases on fresh kitchenware, country club launches, innovatory thermal socks – whatever new effluvia were next to join the ever widening torrent of increasingly trivial innovation.”
Death is not portrayed as an escape in How The Dead Live, but a continuation of a desultory and pointless existence. Indeed, Self uses death within the novel to critique the lives of the living, and to portray what he sees as the materialism and drudgery of modern-day life.
Self also considers himself a modern-day flaneur, and is well-known for his writings on urban life and cityscapes. In How The Dead Live he explores how the urban landscape shapes both life and lived experiences, as well as ones in the afterlife. Ultimately, however, Self argues that personality trumps physical surroundings in terms of self-defining matter; Lily’s crass and critical nature remains throughout the novel, both within life and after death. For example: “London, where people are still so fucking reserved, so polite, so hidden behind gauzy indifference. Their politeness is killing me.”
The allusions to James Joyce’s Ulysses within How The Dead Live are also manifold, from the protagonist’s name to the mythological references and inner monologues, all of which is set within an urban landscape. However, it can be argued that Self moves beyond Joyce’s experimentation with language and voice, and instead focuses more on how the tangible – the streets, inhabitants and expectations of Dulston, Hackney – affect the protagonist.
Self’s How The Dead Live is a controversial novel with London at its heart. Set in the fantasy afterlife of Dulston, Hackney, the novel explores contemporary life, portraying it often as meaningless and petty, as well as vivid and grotesque.