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The Book of Dave – Will Self

January 7, 2008

Dave
First novel of the New Year was a strange one. The Book of Dave by Will Self is a book about London in the recent past and the distant future. The eponymous Dave is a cabbie whose self-loathing and failed marriage leads him to despair and eventual severe mental illness. He writes a book into which he spills his bile, misogyny, racism and his beliefs about how men and women should relate in an ideal world.

He buries this book one night in the garden of his ex-wife and her new husband in the hope that his estranged son will one day discover it and find out what kind of a man his father was. Only he never finds it.

The book is uncovered 500 years later, after London has been reduced to an archipelago by rising seas. Those who find it use it to create a whole new religion and culture, with Dave, the writer, as the deity. Adherents are called ‘davines’, sinful people are ‘chellish’ after Michele his ex-wife. Men and women are kept separate and childrearing responsibilities are shared, mummies keep the children for half the week, then on Changeover Day they are handed over to the daddies. Most of the fatherly responsibilities however are undertaken by the opares, adolescent girls who have not yet borne children of their own.

People greet one another with the blessing ‘Where to guv?’, and the formulaic response ‘To Nu Lundun’
.

Chapters alternate between the life of Dave and his declining mental health, and the adventures of residents of the island of Ham, which turns out to be Hampstead Heath after the flood.

A couple of things. The chapters dealing with Dave are compelling, painting a dark but sometimes funny picture of contemporary London. The alternate future-set chapters are more of a struggle, not least because they feature a specially created language called Mockni which is like a mix between text-speech and cockney (the book even comes with a dictionary). And whilst the whole thing is very dark, it also has moments of great humour.

The book leads to all sorts of questions. Could a religion and ritual be made from the stuff of anyone’s life? What would the world look like if it was shaped in my images andRich450 reflective of my darker thoughts and prejudices?

The book is critical of dominating religious powers and this passage on the contemporary church from the close of the book is revealing:

“After all, the Church had murdered itself, as with every decade more and more depressed dubiousness crept into its synods and convocations, until, speaking in tongues, it beat its own skull in at the back of the vestry. Divorcees and devil-worshippers, schismatics, sodomites and self-murderers – they were all the same for the impotent figures who stood in the pulpit and peered down at pitiful congregations, their numbers winnowed out by satellite television and interest-free credit.

Clear across the flat lands of Essex the spires stabbed up at the sky, abandoned launch pads from which the soul ships had long since blasted off. Inside them, clad in laughably obsolete uniforms – frilly laboratory coats, army surplices – the priests did kitchen-garden juju with corn dollies and ewers full of sour water. They were marionettes and mime artists, fifth-rate impressionists at the end of the world pier, officiating over a state cult for which the state no longer had any use”

It’s hard to hear it despite the brilliant writing.

It’s ambitious, thoughtful, funny, sharply insightful at times but ultimately I’m not sure it all holds together. Self reaches too much for some of his metaphors, sometimes pushes the parallels beyond the nth degree and though love is redemptive at the end it seems a bit contrived.

Maybe if I was more familiar with London it would mean more.

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From → Books

One Comment
  1. Pistol Pete permalink

    Sounds like a great book. I’m going over right now and see if I can order it via inter-library loan.

    Thanks for the recommendation.

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