Thursday, July 12, 2007

Will Self's Surprising Masterpiece?

I loved "The Quantity Theory of Insanity", Will Self's 1991 debut collection, though it seems a long time ago now, and by 1998's "Tough Tough Toys for Tough Tough Boys", the pinpoint accuracy of his supremely imaginative conceits, had lost something of their sharpness. Initially, like Ian McEwan, he was a writer who struggled with the longer form, preferring novellas and short story collections to novels. I've passed on "Great Apes", "How the Dead Live" and "Dorian", high concept novels all, but may have to go back to them now, having spent the last few days enthralled by equally high concept "The Book of Dave." At well over 400 pages, its a long book, but rarely does it drag, and its conceit this time - a future London, virtually underwater except a few islands of high ground, where the religion is based upon "The Book of Dave", a buried tome written by a contemporary London cabby - was what drew me to the book. Alternating between different eras of that future, and the present and near-present, in choosing a cabby, Self has hit upon a near-perfect oracle for his satire. It is the London cabby's "knowledge", which Dave Rudman himself wants to pass down to his son, Carl ("the lost boy"), as he took it from his own Grandad, that becomes an immensely plausible psalter. Inhabitants of Nu London introduce each other with "Where2, guv?" and the various sequences of London streets as a litany. Like "A Clockwork Orange" the future sounds different, the inhabitants of Ham(pstead Heath) speaking Mockni, whilst the Nu Londoners speak Arpee. Self has great fun with his invented future, starbucks for drink and takeaway for food; the sacred texts of Dave's "book" - a scabrous rant written when he was going insane - providing a rule for all of life. But Dave is no benevolent carpenter, he's a man torn apart from divorce and tortured by the Child Support Agency. In the future, children are split between their mother's and father's as the natural state of being, half a week with each, as if adhering to the rigidity of a family court order. The Mockni, is initially hard to get used to, but its worth taking the effort, since it creates an otherwordliness that's also funny and familiar, Self's ear never deserting him. Sensibly going back and forth in time, the ideas pile up - this most fertile of minds having plenty of targets in his sights; from family breakdown to global warming. There are confusions - what are Daveworks? what, indeed are the half-human, half-animal motos? who is the Hack, the Driver, the Lawyer? Despite a glossary at the back (I found it half way through reading the book, and it might help - but only might) not everything works... yet enough does. You wouldn't want the book any shorter, even if some of the chapters seem written to confuse. Self's always been a popular writer, and I believe this book has done well - but I'm almost convinced that its a masterpiece, baggy and bloated in parts, and, perhaps its worse sin, occasionally sentimental for the broken contemporary man that is Dave, yet entirely convincing of its own satirical world. Self's own love of psychogeography pulses through the book, as well, the cabby's Knowledge a brilliant device: and yes, how would it be possible to create contemporary London from scratch hundreds of years from now? Not from Alastair Campbell's diaries, but from the ranting of a London cabby missing his estranged son. It is this sense of conviction - despite the buried book's "madness" - that gives the book its most pointed satire; for this future world is brutal, medieval, unforgiving, half Stasi-East Germany, half dark-ages fiefdom. Imagine, Self seems to be saying, a whole society basing itself on a fake doctrine of uncertain providence that even its author wanted to repudiate. Its the 2nd book I've read this year - after AM Homes "This Book Will Save Your Life" - where natural disaster is a key component; the global warming novel seeming to be a better genre than the post 9/11 novel; yet its decidedly contemporary in other ways: Fathers 4 Justice, the London Eye, even the wasting away of David Blaine in a box on the side of the Thames (surely an anachronism even so close to the event?)- given the sterility of so much contemporary English fiction, "The Book of Dave" is a brilliant poke in its sides, and far more appealing, in every way than the Booker lists of the last couple of years. One can only hope that one of our most interesting writers, is reaching some sort of peak.

1 comment:

Richard said...

I'd definitely recommend Great Apes and Dorian. Probably not How the Dead Live. I haven't read The Book of Dave yet.