Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The Book of Dave, by Will Self

I finished this about a months ago, but bits and bobs are still lining themselves up in my head...it's weird when that happens. The language in this book is ridiculous- at first it seems so impenetrable, with strange alien characters such as the Ö and the ë, written in a weird phonetic cockney, but as with Trainspotting and A Clockwork Orange, it's surprising how quickly you get used to it. As you read on it becomes apparent, gradually, where some of the terms originate from: Some are adopted from cockney, some adopted from Dave's mentally-disturbed rants. Self has not only created a language, but created a history and a source for it too. 

Anyway.  This novel tells two stories.  We start off in about 500 years' time, when widespread flooding has destroyed much of London and the UK and (as far as we know thus far) only small hamlet-village communities survive.  The initial story takes place in Ham, what we assume was once Hampstead Heath.  The "Hamsters" live a strange lifestyle, one laid down by their god, Dave in The Book.  The "Mummies" and the "Daddies" live on separate sides of Ham and divide childcare responsibilities straight down the middle.  Dave says that's the easiest.  To co-habit with a Mummy or a Daddy is considered "Flying" a type of futuristic blasphemy.

Now we come to Dave, an overworked, overweight London cabbie, who goes from a loveless marriage to an even more loveless divorce and sees what little life he's amassed for himself fall apart.  In an enraged fit of psychosis, he writes a book.  A book that sets the world to rights and rearranges the world, its customs, laws and facts as Dave would have them.
Self manages to pull off something that is quite hard to achieve, which is to create a novel that's massively intricate  satirical, thought provoking and most importantly and anomalously, entertaining.

It twists, it spirals.  It will constantly continue to slather on new layers of meaning and weirdness with every chapter.  The more we learn about Cabbie Dave, the more the islanders' behaviour, 500 years later, begins to make sense.  Their speech, their beliefs, their behaviour, whilst still being somewhat unusual, is traceable to various incidents that contribute to the destruction of Dave's world and the eventual mental health.  The Hamsters show us that it's a case of being careful what you wish for when setting the world to rights.

To create two worlds, to develop the religion of one from the collapse of the other, to destroy said religion and to essentially ignore its destruction and carry on anyway is insane.  It's amongst the most unique, ambitious and definitely among the weirdest novels I have ever read. 

And for those reasons alone it's worth a look.

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