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The Book of Dave

By Will Self

Will Self’s fifth novel is a dual narrative, the two interlocking stories presented turn and turn about.
The first concerns Dave Rudman, cabbie, philosopher and father. Michelle, his wife as the result of a one night shag, who disappeared for several months and then turned up on his doorstep pregnant, claiming the baby was his, has left him, and shacked up in Hampstead with her shady, moneyed lover, Cal Dervish, thus taking away from Dave the only thing of value in his life, the son he thinks is his, Carl.
London at the turn of the Millennium is a place of foreboding, and Dave is alienated from the city he knows so well and whose roads inhabit every crevice of his mind, mostly through his acquiring of ‘the Knowledge’, the geography exam every London taxi driver must pass before being granted a license. He is at odds with the population of ‘getters’ (bankers, stockbrokers, television producers, what-have-you) and losers, and even with his own kind, the cabbies who cluster in their green shelters to tell tall tales of routes and fares. His misery finds expression in a deranged rant, a book which, printed and bound at his own expense, he buries in his ex-wife’s garden.
For the second, we find ourselves 500 years in the future. Climate change means London has become submerged and all that remains is the remote Isle of Ham, sacred to the inhabitants of this new land as the place where the scripture, The Book of Dave, was first discovered. Its revelations have shaped the lives of those who live in what is now England.
The doctrines of Breakup and Changeover (obviously derived from Dave’s experiences with divorce lawyers, restraining orders, family courts and Fathers First support groups), which involve strict gender segregation, with children spending half the week with the men and half with the women, are absolute, with heretics persecuted mercilessly, even to the point of barbaric torture, including being ‘broken on the wheel’. When one islander, Symun Devush, dares to challenge the religious hierarchy, based on his claims of having discovered a new, more amicable Book of Dave (actually a reconciliatory apologia penned by a post-nervous breakdown Dave for Carl, in a neat echo of the Old and New Testaments, as a corrective to his original fire and brimstone), the outcome can only be tragic.
The genesis of the ideas explored in this book will be familiar to anyone who has read Self’s introduction to Revelations, written for Canongate’s pocket series of individual books of the Bible, and first published in 1998. There, Self reflected on the memory of a brilliant but disturbed university friend who died young, having become obsessed with the apocalyptic imagery of Revelations as his mind frayed. 'If Revelation conjures up one single feeling in me,' he wrote, 'it is one of superstitious awe. To think this ancient text has survived to become the stuff of modern, psychotic nightmare.' In a more recent interview, he furthers this notion by stating, ‘What you need for a revealed religion is any old bollocks, it just has to be there in the right place at the right time.’

 

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As always, his cornerstones of influence remain those savage satirists, Swift and Burroughs. Other reference points here would include Walter M. Miller Jr’s A Canticle for Liebowitz, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, J G Ballard’s The Drowned World and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker.
The present day story is easier to follow, due in no small part to Self’s rendering of the dystopian future in its natives’ dialect, mockni, which takes some getting used to. However, a glossary is thoughtfully provided, and it is worth the effort. What is notable about this outing is Self’s continuing move into taking character representation seriously, a facet of prose fiction he was often accused of ignoring in his earlier work, in favour of verbal pyrotechnics for its own sake. So, as well as getting acute access to Dave’s heart and mind, we are given a host of deliciously rendered minor characters, like the hilariously fast-talking private detective engaged by Dave, The Skip Tracer.
Be that as it may, the spiky impulse is still present: just as we think we are going to get a pastoral, bucolic ending, with Dave having a reverse-Piaf epiphany in the shape of it’s only a tosser who says he regrets nothing at all – it means he remembers nothing…be-because to remember is to regret, his past catches up with him. However, here one is more inclined to feel sorry for Dave, rather than to laugh at him. That is the difference between this much-needed author’s cocky juvenilia, and his new, more mature Self.

First published in The Sunday Independent

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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