Updated on May 19, 2015
22. ‘The Book of Dave’ by Will Self
Someone once described Will Self’s writing to me as ‘incomprehensible’ and, to a certain extent, that’s true. This book did exactly what I like books to do: it dropped me into the middle of a fully formed world and watched me flounder for a bit, until I finally got a toehold, then a foothold, and eventually ended up wearing the new world like a skin.
There is A LOT to get used to when you start reading ‘The Book of Dave’. The story jumps backwards and forwards in time, between modern day London (mostly from the point of view of disillusioned cabbie Dave), and the island civilisation of Ham (from the point of view of many different characters) which exists hundreds of years in the future. You have to get used to reading the Cockney accent, as well as the warped futuristic version of it. You have to adapt to the (ironically) more primitive lifestyle of the future chapters, the fervor surrounding the religion Dävinanity, and the existence of motos. Self steadfastly refuses to hold your hand during this learning curve: work it out or give up. It’s as simple, brutal and wonderful as that.
This is a story about a man called Dave who, separated from his son by divorce, finds himself falling apart and (in a fit of rage and despair) writes a book of fatherly advice that he buries in his son’s back garden. Hundreds of years later this book is found and it becomes the holy text of a new religion – a religion which a few people aren’t afraid to speak out against.
The ‘past’ chapters are quite simple in their focus: they’re about a man losing himself out of desperation for his son. The ‘future’ chapters, on the other hand, tackle a more serious subject: religion. The main message here is clearly the fragility and absurdity of religion (a principle I wholeheartedly agree with), but I think it was a touch heavy-handed at times. Dävinanity (obviously a name meant to reflect Christianity, but with the cunning inclusion of the word ‘inanity’) is misogynistic, bloodthirsty and dictatorial. There are beatings, ritual sacrifices, and the death penalty for people who do not believe. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy anything that points out the brutality and hypocrisy of religion, but just occasionally I felt this book slipped out of the realm of fiction, towards more of a soap-box rant.
There were some aspects that I loved, of course. Dave’s vitriolic inner voice actually interrupts the narrative voice, with swear words and violent outbursts appearing in italics. I also really liked the open-endedness of it. You want some nice, comfortable answers? You won’t find them here, and that’s fine, because when you’re talking about these kind of issues in real life, there are no easy answers.
“London … became increasingly burdened by a religious bureaucracy the sole purpose of which was its own perpetuation.”
This one was on my to-read list for freaking AGES, but it got bumped to the top when I bought tickets to see Will Self speak at the Hay Literature Festival. I’m glad I had a chance to read some of his work before seeing him, and I’m especially glad that I enjoyed it so much!
If you liked my review, why not buy the book and let me know what you think?