THE BOOK OF DAVE
By Will Self
Bloomsbury. 496 pp. $24.95
First, the bad news: Reading Will Self's long, complicated new novel requires regular consultation of its glossary of invented words and a good English-language dictionary. Once decoded, the narrative seethes with domestic violence, misogyny, religious repression, bigotry, public torture, mental illness and cruelty to animals. More than a few scenes are spectacularly disgusting, a hallmark of this prolific British writer's fiction. And have I mentioned the dialogue, which often reads like text messages from baby-talking Cockney space aliens?
The good news is that, while The Book of Dave is sometimes as aggressively off-putting as Self's five previous novels, it's also a richer, more engaging enterprise. In each of those earlier books there lurked a magic page of doom on which the reader became certain that Self had already thoroughly explored his gimmicky premise -- the guy is really a chimpanzee in Great Apes; death is just a more tedious version of life in How the Dead Live-- and would now spend several hundred more pages methodically kicking the life out of it.
No such page exists in the new novel, whose plot is sturdy enough to support its voluptuous prose. Most significantly, the author has worked hard to increase his emotional repertoire from a three-chord punk chorus of rage, contempt and despair to a more expansive range of sensibility.
There's still plenty of rage embodied here in Dave Rudman, a balding, hemorrhoidal London taxi driver who is undergoing a nasty divorce during the first cacophonous years of our current millennium. Dave's wife, Michelle, holds all the cards in the custody battle over their son, Carl. Nothing -- not the "Fathers First" support group Dave attends, not his love for the city or his proud command of "the Knowledge," the rote memorization of its streets and landmarks that all licensed London cabbies must learn -- can assuage the bitterness of his fatherhood denied.
Though he will later come to regret it, Dave compiles his grievances against Michelle during a drug-fueled psychotic breakdown. He types up an assortment of rants, delusional prejudices and a recitation of the Knowledge into a long tirade, a "book of Dave," which he buries in the backyard of his ex-wife's Hampstead house.
Alternating with these chapters is a narrative that unfolds hundreds of years later, after a great flood has turned London and its environs into an archipelago. The most vital relic from the antediluvian world is the "Book of Dave," exhumed long ago from its Hampstead hiding place and worshiped as a bible by a new civilization, with Dave as its god. On its farthermost island, called Ham, residents live a primitive agrarian life, governed by a tyrannical theocracy and organized around their deity's now-sacred preoccupations: 21st-century cabbie lore and child-custody laws. They speak a Cockney-like dialect in which "Hello" becomes "Ware2, guv," evil is "chellish" (after Michelle), priests are "Drivers" and souls are "fares."
In daily prayers, the Hamsters thank Dave fervently for picking them up and beg him not to drop them off, chanting the names of extinct London streets from obsolete cab-driving routes. Men must live separately from women, who are routinely abused and forced to do most of the work. Children are required to observe Changeover, spending half the week with their mums and half with dads, who delegate childcare duties to "opares," or unmarried girls.
Anyone who dares to flout these edicts risks being remanded to the capital for a gaudy public trial followed by agonizing punishments. No actual taxis exist in this post-technological realm; in fact, there are no wheels except in the far-off capital, which boasts a huge, Inquisition-like wheel of torture used to punish heretics. As a futuristic fantasy, Ham looks a lot more like the Hundred Acre Wood than "Blade Runner." It's a hushed nursery dreamscape of fairy-tale forests, stern father figures and giant hairy affectionate beasts called motos, who speak toddler-talk in a "slushy lisp" and do not, as anyone familiar with Self's graphic imagination can be assured, come to a pretty end.
The contrast between Ham's crude culture and Dave's modern London, with its millions of cellphones triggering "the neuralgia of ceaseless communication," is part of the book's larger point about history's circularity. With ingenious symmetry, Self's alternating chapters show how shakily new civilizations are built atop the bones and ghosts of the past, never really progressing, each caught up in its own "centrifugal strivings." Yet each era calls out to others, throwing out hints of its existence that are only dimly apprehended. Stuck in traffic, Dave daydreams about a great flood; stuck on their island, the Hamsters covet inscrutable plastic shards stamped "Made in China."
The symmetry extends to individuals as well as centuries. Dave wanders through London yearning to reclaim his son, Carl, eventually finding a paternal role where he never expected it; while in the future a young boy, also named Carl, searches the same altered territory for a lost father and finds satisfaction in equally surprising ways.
These wistful time-echoes are much more stirring than Self's illustrations of the dangers of fundamentalist faith. His construction of a worst-case vision of religious repression out of the ravings of a floundering secular shlub is the same kind of jokey premise he beat to death in his earlier books, devolving into an empty pageant of caricature. What's most memorable here is not the panoramic vistas of these two dispiriting worlds, but their characters' brief moments of kindness, resonant as heartbeats under the shifting debris.
Donna Rifkind reviews fiction frequently for Book World.