Tuesday, 26 July 2016

The Book of Dave

Will Self The Book of Dave (2006)
It's hard to fault the premise of The Book of Dave - a post-apocalyptic society inhabiting what islands are left of England once global warming has melted the ice caps, having reverted to a pseudo-mediaeval culture based on teachings set down by a London cab driver some five centuries earlier; so there was really no umming or ahing over shall I buy this or shall I leave it on the shelf and keep on looking?

Dave is a London cabbie, and prone to at least some of the forthright opinionising for which London cabbies are renowned - not least concerning sexual politics in relation to access to his kiddie, the fruit of a ruined marriage which brings him into the orbit of Fighting Fathers, an organisation clearly modelled on Fathers 4 Justice. Dave goes a bit mad and sets all of his thoughts down in a book which he has printed onto metal plates and buried in the garden so that his estranged son might one day dig it up, read it and discover the truth. Unfortunately the book is instead discovered by the post-deluge remnants of humanity for whom it provides the tenets of a new religion, specifically one which forbids mummies and daddies to live together. Chapters alternate between the troubled millennial existence of Dave - a bit of a monster, but a sympathetic one; and the divided future society inspired by his words, specifically the struggle of Carl Dévúsh to locate the mythic second book of Dave, the one which refutes all the horrible shit set down in the first.

I've seen The Book of Dave billed as a satire on religion, but this is only really the means by which its subject is illustrated. As to what its actual subject could be - well, it's a lot of things, but mostly it's the strictures placed on human behaviour and interaction by abstracts and cultural codes running contrary to instinct or sense, with the knowledge as a sort of metaphor for that upon which we are all obliged to agree, despite that we keep getting lost all the same. At the heart of this is the plight of the white working class male, at least so far as Dave is concerned, an unloved and unlovable cause fated to be championed more or less exclusively by the sort of arseholes who bang on about the demise of white culture, white people as an endangered minority, the tyranny of political correctness, and so on and so forth; none of which means it isn't a cause.

On a personal note, I found myself temporarily homeless back in 2006, specifically about to be homeless in London where average rent had risen to a sum in excess of my weekly wage. I went to the council to see if they had any places available and was actually told that it wasn't even worth putting my name on the housing list because, as a single white male, I was of such low priority that it would be about ten years before my number came up. Being a single white male I was counted amongst the least at-risk demographic in context of everyone else who needed somewhere to live, which sounded to me sort of like if you end up on the street, then it doesn't matter because you'll probably be able to cope somehow; and keep in mind that this was a council employee telling me this through a perspex window in the neighborhood office on East Dulwich Road. Of course, there are very good reasons why single white males might be considered low priority in terms of housing, but it can be quite difficult to take this in when you are one and you're about to be turfed out onto the street. It isn't the fault of dole scroungers, single mothers, lesbians, Muslims, or the Polish hoovering up all those cushy council places despite your having fought in three world wars, but understanding this doesn't make you feel any less inclined to do something which might get you arrested; so unfortunately the phenomenon of the white working class male as generally shat upon is not a myth simply by virtue of it having provided a rallying cry for arseholes in white vans decorated with the Cross of St. George. Capitalist society tends to shit on all but a small conspicuously wealthy minority of those concerned, including the white working class male, possibly also explaining why he remains the most at risk group when it comes to suicide statistics. So while white privilege is nevertheless a thing, it doesn't neatly divide society into the shat upon and those doing the shitting, and The Book of Dave seems like an attempt to address some of this - to defend not so much the indefensible as that which is more commonly defended almost exclusively by wankers.

Happily, Self avoids the obvious cliché of the racist cab driver spouting Sun headlines and asking wood jew fackin b'lieve it?, instead populating the book with rounded, plausible characters with no resemblance to the middle class idea of a working class person doubtless anticipated by Self's critics. On the contrary, despite slowly going mad and a generally misogynistic failure to understand women, Dave otherwise displays at least as much nobility as at least a few of the postmen with whom I worked at Royal Mail. He's not a bad man, just somebody trying his best and failing, and inadvertently shaping the world to come by writing it all down.

A few years before they had tried stratagems to make the marriage work. They'd gone away for a weekend at a hotel, leaving the boy with Michelle's mother. But once Michelle had had her spa treatments and they'd eaten stodge in the chintzy dining room, they were left even more profoundly alone together in their room, the four-poster bed corpsing them with its stagy insinuation. Michelle read property adverts in Country Life. Dave smoked at the window, blowing brown fog into the white muslin curtains. they went home early and in silence. They picked up Carl from the flat on Streatham Hill and were grateful for his unceasing eight-year old twitter, birdsong in their rotten garden.

The Book of Dave is massively depressing, but mostly engaging, often funny, and painfully true to life regardless of half the page count essentially being Margaret Attwood's Oryx & Crake, but better written and without the didactic tendencies. Unfortunately it's also a fairly tough read, particularly with half of the chapters written in some future argot descended from the present-day chatter of working class London - not just rhyming slang but phonetic spellings; most of which I can follow, but then I lived there for a couple of decades and even I found some of it a bit too impenetrable. Given that my copy was picked up from a sale at the local library here in San Antonio, I can't imagine it having translated too well for whoever read it last.

I customarily ignore the commonly made accusation of Will Self being too clever for his own good because it seems predicated on an essentially ludicrous notion related to the idea that knowing too many long words is a bad fing innit, but just this once, I wish he'd reigned it in a little.

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