Wednesday, October 24, 2007
The Book of Dave
Will Self is never a cosy read, and The Book of Dave is no exception. Its central conceit is that, in a Britain where the waters rose calamitously centuries ago, the primitive people who inhabit what's left of England have founded a religion based on the sacred texts of Dave, a depressed cab driver. The text is Dave's rants about his miserable life, and as a kind of coda, he's added the "knowledge" which becomes the mantra of all true believers. The novel veers unexpectedly between various dates in the late 20th century and various dates in the 5th century after Dave.
What makes this novel noteworthy, though, is the language (Mokni) used by the Hamsters (residents of what was Hampstead) in the future. It's a bizarre mix of cod cockney and oddly childish chat, the cockney being rendered almost like Dickens with Sam Weller. Self uses an idiosyncratic spelling system, and some strange diacritical marks to render it. The result is at once oddly familiar and rather unsettling. "Ow mennë tymes av Eye erred all vis bollox ... iss gotta B a fouzand aw maw". No wonder the French translator gave up...
It's funny quite often, but more frequently stomach-churning. A graphic slaughter scene in the opening chapter sets the precedent for several other set pieces of visceral violence. The novel to which it clearly owes a large debt is Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker and it comes as no surprise to discover that Self wrote a preface for the reissue of that book a few years ago.
In the end, a clever idea is over-cooked. The book could do with being trimmed, and perhaps it would have been graceful to acknowledge its relation to the Hoban book, even down to the maps which begin both narratives.