At first, I thought this novel was going to be about a problem which Britain now faces. With ever greater life expectancy, there are many more old folk around than there ever used to be. Current pension advice seems to consist of saving every penny you have, and not wasting any cash on that deemed to be 'luxury'. There's also a perception, which Self kind of touches on here, that there are so many old people around that they've become invisible. This literally happens to Lily Bloom, the novel's narrator.
However, Self does not take this obvious approach. Characterisation, on this evidence, is not really one of Self's strong points. You get the feeling that Self does walk around in Lily's shoes, as Harper Lee would have it, but everything she sees is through Self's eyes. Maybe it's my prejudice, but I'm pretty sure that most old people would never be as coarse as Lily is, in thought and in language. This novel does nothing to address the perception that much of life nowadays revolves around 'yoof' culture. One example of this is Self's amusing comparison of car design with that of Nike style trainers (which he repeated, almost word for word, in his recent appearance on Brit TV programme 'Room 101'). How pervasive does George Orwell seem now, with the recent success of 'Big Brother' around the world. It's not long before the whole focus of the novel seems to have shifted to Lily's daughter, Natasha, who seems to be Self's junky alter ego.
Anyone expecting great characterisation from a Self novel would have to be quite dumb, since this is not how he writes. Self's voice is ever present. His dictionary too, probably. I wasn't fazed too much by the language. It never interrupts the flow of the book, and is almost always understandable in context. I love the fact that Self lets rip with words, the fact that he dare play with all the notes. I suspect that he also makes up words, which makes me like him even better. In his use of guttural language, Self's text almost approaches that of Chaucer or Shakespeare, a reverential devotion to garbled Anglo Saxon. It could be that this book will stand the stead of time, whatever that means, as a result of his distinctive use of language.
Not everything's perfect in paradise. Though Self's outspoken prose is admirable (he's not a Sweeney Todd of words), there are moments when he is extraordinarily insensitive. This novel was reportedly borne from Self's own grief, yet he stomps on the mourning of others' with all the might of a skinhead's DM. I have witnessed the public grief of someone who was directly affected by one of the notorious massacres which Self unthinkingly throws into the cauldron, and it deserves more respect than Self allows here. God help Self if he ever runs into anyone from the Hillsborough families who has read this book. In this uncaring procession of nineties' bloodletting, the novelist most lives up to his name.
Self delivers a bizarre cul-de-sac treatise of death. Lily ends up in purgatory, black cab driven to a part of London called Dulston, where all the dead hang out. She's no Marley, is Lily. Although she keeps a close tab on what her daughters are doing, she has no gift of foreknowledge and chooses not to manifest herself. When Natasha does see a vision, it more about Lily's past than her future, and she's too stoned to make much sense of it. Lily is surrounded by her ghosts, the fat selves she dieted to death, the son she sent to death, and all singing, all dancing lithopedien which is only released with her passing. There 's also a mysterious narrator, who spits out italics from Christmas 2001.
When I wrote a novel, I had to have a self-imposed deadline. Since it was about Soccer, I chose the first day of the 1998 World Cup, and I just about made it. Will Self wouldn't have needed to be a rocket pen scientist to have worked out that all things Australian would be in vogue at the end of this year. Lily's death guide, Phar Lap Dixon, is an aboriginal. Anyone dull enough to want to escape the Olympics won't find refuge with Self. He has an amusing turn of words, a keen sense of observation, and he utilizes 'Schindler's Lifts' in absolutely the correct way. Although the constant repetition of 'd'jew' dulls in comparison. On a personal note, one of the highlights of my trips to the old East End when I was a kid was seeing 'George Davis is innocent, ask O'Mahhoney' daubed on a bridge, and Davis gets a brief mention here. If Self had been more considerate of others' grief, and had mentioned O'Mahonney, I might have given him full marks.
AuthorTrek Rating: 8/10.
Kevin Patrick Mahoney