Hello. Happy New Year etc.
I finally got around to reading Will Self’s The Book of Dave after carrying the volume around, unread, for about four jaunts out of London. It seems odd, in hindsight, that I chose to think of the novel as something to read “on holiday” (by that I mean on trains or in my parents’ house in the West Midlands), when it is such a London novel. It is about the city not just by virtue of being set there, but it is about the geography and topography of London in a profound and significant way. The central tenet of The Book of Dave is ‘The Knowledge’, the encyclopaedic awareness of the streets and places of London that black cab drivers must possess. The titular Dave is a cabbie, whose depressed and over-medicated written ramblings to his estranged son are found hundreds of years in the future and used to form the basis of a religion. That’s the book’s premise.
The novel is split into two narratives, alternating chapter by chapter. The first the reader encounters is set in the distant future and written in an approximation of a phonetic rendering of a evolved/devolved English. This explores the horrors and rigidity of a society based around violent, misogynistic ideals, and focuses on heretics trying/hoping to change their society. The second set of chapters recounts the life of Dave, the failure of his marriage, his love of cabbing, his minimal social life and his descent into and then recovery from severe mental illness. These chapters are written in a more standard contemporary style, not the stream-of-consciousness of the other Self novel I’ve read, Umbrella.
Dave’s world is centred on his city, on his Knowledge and on his cab. This causes all his conversations to only be half-interactions: the fact that he speaks mostly through an intercom signifies his inability to connect with others. His recovery, towards the end of the novel, is quite moving, and well put together. The explanation of his book’s survival into the future, too, is oddly believable, as is the medieval-lite future that Self evokes.
In the future the sea levels have risen, what was once the UK is now an archipelago. Society is primitive and blood-soaked and sexism and feudalism are rife. Self’s future is terrifying, in many places, but written in such a way that it doesn’t feel false. His concept – a society ruled by the credos of a depressed, divorced cabbie – is consistently maintained. There are jokes in many places, often to do with language and its projected evolution. This wet, unpleasant world is unfair, with every non-conformist action incredibly public. This contrasts nicely with Dave’s anonymity in contemporary London, with (I suppose) everyone’s anonymity in contemporary London.
People seem more drowned in the recent past than they do in the distant future. The city overwhelms, towers above each character, it is not just Self’s canvas but his paints and his brushes as well. The Book of Dave is informed and entertaining. Frequently funny, often moving and displaying a wise and forgiving emotional intelligence.
As I said, I’ve previously read Umbrella, and also his novella The Sweet Smell of Psychosis, but neither of those really grabbed me quite like this did. The Book of Dave is great – explorative, experimental fiction that tells universal stories about humanity.
Very excited about the man’s forthcoming Radio 4 show, Self Orbits CERN.
Here’s to another year of great reading!