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September 10, 2000|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

HOW THE DEAD LIVE

by Will Self

Grove Press: 416 pp., $24

If Will Self, master ironist, bad boy Brit, Mr. Wit, were to sport something so pedestrian as a business card, it might read: Will Self, Death Elf. Nothing decrepit or sly has slipped under Self's irony radar in any of his nine novels. As a book critic, he's like a feral Virginia Woolf under a PMS moon. Many an American author, indulging in ego or earnestness, has been sluiced by Will Self, Death Elf. Things we fear--drug abuse, death, marital infidelity, greed, murder by dismemberment, the abuse of authority--make him laugh. Various effluvia (big with the British) slop around in all of his fiction. Night terrors, the widening cracks of insanity in suburban businessmen, middle-class housewives rife with anti-Semitism, these are the fissures in society that Self builds upon. These are the things that give him hope for the future. However, there is always a little human weakness in Self, a little kindness, a little sugar-tit for pathetic readers.

In "How the Dead Live," Self's main character, Lily Bloom (could she be Molly Bloom's Lady Macbeth-style alter ego?) is a nasty, middle-class, bitter piece of work, dying of cancer. She hates everything from the "wiseacre Jewish-American humour" that is killing British culture to her own daughters, a yuppie and a junkie. Bloom's 9-year-old son, Rude Boy, was killed in a car accident. Bloom heard him in the frontyard making fun of black people, rushed out, grabbed him and slapped him. He ran away into the street and was hit, leaving the love-paralyzed angry witch we see before us. Mid-novel, she dies and goes to the world beyond, which looks just like the world she left. The dead must join a 12-step program to accept their death, a particular torture for Lily, who was never a "joiner." So begins her very earnest (Self tries to hide this in italics), very American unraveling, until she faces the pain of that child's death. Redemption? Healing? "There's nothing much to say," Bloom thinks in italics, "except that I'm cold and I'm hungry and I'm lonely and I'm frightened. And what's so f---ing novel about that?"

If literature is just another bulwark against the darkness, if authors are guides into the unknown, hypothetical-makers, spinners of virtual worlds, then Self, with all his several coats of humor and irony and cleverness, is the Beatrice you want for your trip to the underworld; the penultimate death guide, the very best Death Elf.

*

NEIGHBORS

By Thomas Berger

Zoland Books: 288 pp., $13

If Will Self's humor is based on the unknown (which irony best penetrates while protecting the seeker), Thomas Berger's humor makes the familiar the brunt of its jokes. "Neighbors" (first published in 1980 and here reissued), the basis for the movie with Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, is a series of intricate sight gags in which the commonplace becomes surreal. Earl Keese doesn't deserve any of this. He's just a regular guy, a decent father and husband. Somehow, his new neighbors, Harry and Ramona, manage to threaten every aspect of his carefully constructed reality. Fine lines between intention and action, helpfulness and aggression, paranoia and reality are the province of literature. Movies can try, and "Neighbors" is a very funny movie, but those gray areas, foggy with doubt, color these pages, and the characters writhe in them in a way that is simply not possible on screen. Humor like Berger's gets diluted in the movies.

*

THE DIAGNOSIS

By Alan Lightman

Pantheon Books: 384 pp., $25

Alan Lightman is a physicist at MIT. His previous novels, "Good Benito" and "Einstein's Dreams," like "The Diagnosis," explore the comedies and tragedies that unravel when the principles we depend upon, like time, dissolve beneath our feet. It is easy to imagine that physicists (who often have suspicious twinkles in their eyes) use humor (a refusal to take the things we take for granted for granted) to penetrate the unknown. "The Diagnosis" begins as a very funny book. Another regular guy, Bill Chalmers, junior partner on his usual commute, forgets who he is and where he's supposed to be going, not to mention all the pertinent numbers that we cannot live without. So begins the unraveling of Chalmers' carefully constructed life. His wife, a boozer with an online flirtation, sinks deeper; he is fired from his job; his son spends way too much time in his room, also online, marching down the same middle-class path that has led, somehow, to Chalmers' spiritual demise and to the undiagnosable disease that leads to numbness and finally paralysis. Lightman threads the story of Socrates' trial and execution through the novel, a death faced with dignity in contrast to Chalmers' impending end. This is humor based on the precarious, a humor of brinkmanship as a character fights for his own soul.

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