It’s hard to know where to start describing Will Self’s Book of Dave. Nay, it’s hard to know where to even start thinking about it.
It’s sometime in the future – we’re not sure when – and London has been devastated by flood (familiar to anyone?). The post-flood London we’re introduced to is very different to the one we know now, in every way. Back in our own time we meet Dave the black taxi driver, his wife for a time, Michelle, and his son, Carl. In brief, Dave and Michelle’s marriage ends, and Dave sees less and less of Carl as the years move on. Eventually, during a period of dementia, Dave writes a book (based on his own experiences) about how he thinks the world should be managed – for example, he advises a ‘Changeover’ twice a week where children are handed over from the mother to the father (and vice versa), based on the principle that ‘mummies’ and ‘daddies’ should never be together. He has this book printed on metal somehow or other, and he buries it in Hampstead, behind his son’s new home.
When the Book is found in ‘The Ham’ in ‘New London’ years later, it becomes the inhabitants’ bible, and they make sense of Dave’s advice by instituting a number of increasingly grotesque and uncomfortable rules for life. Anyone who breaks the rules is ‘broken on the wheel’, the significance of which is not revealed until near the end of the novel. The dialogue between the ‘Hamsters’ is written in phonetic cockney-speak, and the words most commonly used seem to have a basis in Dave’s cabbing language of our time: foglamp is the sun; screenwash is rain; and intercom is how they communicate with ‘God’ (Dave). The novel follows the lives of a few of these Hamsters, in the main, and how they choose to make sense of the world around them.
We never get to see any of the Book of Dave so we have to decide for ourselves what he wrote and how he wrote it. The details themselves are strangely not important, however. What we do get to see is the way in which the contents of the Book – whatever they were – are used and manipulated by the powerful – whoever they are – to make the weak frightened and submissive. It’s implied that this was never Dave’s intention (he didn’t have any intentions, really) but it’s supposed to be a reflection of our own society where religion has been used by the powerful to subdue the weak; and where the fundamental messages of our ‘visionaries’ have been distorted for other and competing agendas.
It’s a big read, the Book of Dave, and it’s not always pleasant. Self has long had a penchant for the detailed description of physicality and he doesn’t hold back at all in his latest novel. I find that element of his writing unnecessary but I always enjoy his message nonetheless.
The Book of Dave is [probably] a must for those who enjoy their satire and [definitely] a must for those who don’t mind their literature getting a little too close to the bone. He might be an arrogant prick, Will Self, but he’s still a bloody great writer.
(FYI: I’m largely offline this week because I’m Ooop North working. I was looking forward to an Internet-free week, but I cracked and came to a Starbucks this evening. As it turns out, I haven’t really missed all that much in the 52 hours I’ve been offline but I wasn’t to know that. I’ll probably be back here before I return to Oxford. Probably definitely.)