Like the protagonist of his latest novel, The Book of Dave, Will Self gets the party started by digging himself a hole. In cabbie Dave Rudman's case, the hole is the pit in his ex-wife's backyard where he buries a nasty screed that he hopes one day will explain his rage and heartbreak to his estranged son. Dave's cri de coeur—part misanthropic memoir, part religious manifesto—is written in a haze of antidepressants and printed in a manner to survive watery apocalypse, but it becomes the bible for a medievalish society five hundred years later, one based entirely on the demons, real and imagined, that plague a white, bitter, depressed, middle-aged Londoner. Self's hole, by contrast, is the one he digs for his project by borrowing a shopworn premise that has launched a thousand sci-fi novels, most famously Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, as well as at least one memorable Star Trek episode. Let's not even mention the closing shot of Planet of the Apes.
Given this array of antecedents, then, one of the most astonishing aspects of this astonishing novel is how gracefully Self leaps out of said trough. It's almost arrogant, really, the way he filches a hokey gimmick and mines its possibilities with genuine profundity and brio. Anybody who has read him over the years won't be too surprised, but in The Book of Dave, his satiric masterpiece thus far, Self proves again that with talent like his, it's never the what, but the how.
The Book of Dave, which employs alternating narratives of recent past and far future, begins in the year 523 AD (After Dave, of course) on the isle of Ham, a bucolic sward cut off from the more diabolical doings in Nú Lundun. "The six gaffs of the Hamsters' little manor were set in two rows of three," Self's omniscient narrator relates, "on each side of an evian stream that was rich in irony." The inter-/ metatextual clusterfuck Self intends to revel in (and does, gloriously) is apparent from the outset, even as the contours of Hamster society are efficiently sketched. The gaffs, or houses (readers unfamiliar with British slang may confront an extra layer of decoding, but also of delight), are arranged for a single purpose: the separation of mummies and dads. For as it is written in the Book, children live half the week with their mothers and half with their fathers, switching on Wednesday, or Changeover. After a time, the children don't see their female progenitors at all, the boys staying with their fathers, the girls living in other men's houses as "opares," where they perform domestic and sexual duties.
For fatherless twelve-year-old Carl Dévúsh, namesake of the original Lost Boy, aka Dave's numb, adolescent son, the brutal repression behind the simple yeoman existence on Ham is beginning to reveal itself. Poised at the edge of manhood, Carl is starting to feel the tug of his "mummyself," though it would be foolish to admit to such stirrings. The fact that he must attend to the slaughter of Runti, his favorite moto—the piglike humanoid mutants who speak at the level of two-year-old humans and who, before being harvested for meat and oil, are the childhood companions of Hamster boys—isn't helping his unease.
The Lawyer whose fiefdom includes Ham has sent his Hack to collect the moto tribute, and also to confer with the Driver, or local priest. These stern "queers," with their long black robes emblazoned with the sign of the wheel and their orange trainers, maintain spiritual terror everywhere, but the Hamsters seem especially susceptible to their state-sponsored brand of radical "Dävinanity." Now that Carl's secret, heretical forays into the Ferbiddun Zön, perhaps spurred by the mystery of his father's fate, have been discovered, life is about to get quite scary. The examiners in Nú Lundun have demanded his presence for trial, and though his grasp of the Knowledge, the "points and runs" all London cabbies of yore had to memorize to ply their trade, is fairly strong, it might not be enough to save him.
You get the idea. "Ware2, guv," for example, is the standard greeting in a world fixed by a cab-centric cosmology. What you will not get without actually reading the novel is the joy of watching Self construct his dystopia from language, shard by glittering shard of it. These bits of old babble and modern slang make their way unselfconsciously into Dave's treatise in the form of acidic asides and half-baked theories, only to become the Word for the strict literalists of the PCO (from the contemporary Public Carriage Office), whose priest caste rules the benighted mummies and dads of tomorrow. Though his invention (often via inversion) of a future language owes an obvious debt to Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, and Orwell, Self spins his own brilliantly macaronic web between Now and Later.
Evian and irony appear in the glossary (irony means "metal"), which is itself just
a partial list of the words and phrases employed by the Hamsters, who converse mostly in Mokni, an amalgam of Cockney and text-message newspeak. As the blasphemous prophet the Geezer puts it, in his attempt to battle the Nú Lundun theocracy and unlock the truth of Dave's message (as revealed in a rumored second book): "Dave sed ee roat í wen ee woz off iz rokkah, vass wy iss fulluv awl vat mad shit—runs an poynts an stuff. U doan aff
2 dú awl vat 2 luv Dave—awl we gotta dú iz luv eech uvvah." It's an urgent message, but one hard put to penetrate a populace reared on incantations such as "Makk-daar-nal, makk-daar-nal, kennukkëfrichikkin anapeetsa-hut!"
If the postapocalyptic adventures of young Carl, who, along with his sidekick/ mentor, Antonë Böm, and a moto named Tyga, makes a harrowing journey to the heart of Dävinic cruelty, rouse the reader with old-fashioned narrative excitements, the portrait of Dave's descent into the inferno of disillusionment and depression during our own "MadeinChina" era possesses more texture and power. Dumped by a wife who clearly never loved him, cut off from his son, Dave attends "Fighting Fathers" meetings where one speaker denounces the "Judaeo-Feminist forces lined up against us" (Dave's Jewish grandfather was a former cabbie), but mostly cruises the night city (along with everything else, this book is a moving ode to London) fishing for fares. His inner and often-contradictory voices churn up racist commentary and denunciations of his fellow cabbies' smug racism, rants about his broken marriage, disquisitions on the various models of black taxicabs, and always, always, the Knowledge: "Right Wildwood Road. Left North End Way. Comply Jack Straws Castle . . . Comply . . . comply with your fucking restraining order, you dickhead!" The Ferbidden Zön that Carl Dévúsh breaches five hundred years later, is, of course, the very street, home of Dave's ex-wife, that Dave has been court-ordered to avoid. Though Dave's Travis Bickle–tinged burblings can be quite entertaining, he is also a wrenchingly realized character, especially during what amounts to a psychotic break. Witnessing his ever loosening chunks of thought codified with menacing consequences by a future elite is both hilarious and haunting. If the prose occasionally overindulges in slack modifiers, Self's inventiveness and control are dazzling.
In 1998, Self wrote a smart introduction to a Pocket Canons edition of the book of Revelation; The Book of Dave might be seen as a natural outgrowth of that enterprise, as well as a response to the rise of fundamentalism on the global stage. But Self's evisceration of the leading religions in their virulent forms, and his horrified mockery of any society so rigidly wedded to one text, are not, finally, what make the novel resonate. Self's novel achieves depth not by skewering organized religion, though it does so quite adroitly, but by exploring the many grids of modern despair, how we find ourselves cast adrift, and how, much like Dave, whose loneliness is unabated by the "hateful company of his own kind," we fester unseen. Most important, perhaps, the novel demonstrates the way received ideas of manhood, womanhood, and family twist many of us past repair.
"Do not be mistaken," rails the detestable Driver of Ham, "for I know what happens to dads' minds when they do not honour the Breakup and observe the Changeover. . . . The hapless knave begins to think himself dävlike . . . no longer hears Dave speak to him over the intercom—instead mummyness spills into his every thought like piss from a ruptured bladder into the pure milk of burgerkine!"
But the grimness may recede. A degree of redemption inhabits the endings of both narratives in The Book of Dave. The great cabbie himself finds companionship and peace outside the city (at least until unforeseen complications threaten his idyll), while five centuries later, beneath the foul towers of Nú Lundun, the reformation of the PCO and indeed the liberation of all mummies and dads (not to mention opares) remain strong, if bloody, possibilities. It won't be easy, but then neither is mastering the Knowledge or, for that matter, fashioning a gripping, funny, and pleasurably intricate novel from such a battered conceit.
Sam Lipsyte's most recent novel is Home Land (Picador, 2005).