“The Book of Dave” has been on my “should get round to reading at some point” list for some time now, having read the blurb and been curious about where the author would take the idea. Having said that, the scenario of this novel is startlingly unoriginal. The world has suffered a catastrophe, and the small number of survivors have reverted to barbarism. They base their rituals on a surviving text, the Book of Dave, the demented ramblings of a London cabbie, who in the novel’s most contrived scene decides to have his ravings printed on metals plates to ensure their survival. Of course he did. (“Red Dwarf” did this much better, the cat civilisation basing all their beliefs on Dave Lister’s half remembered daydreams.) Self created a language for the survivors, Mokni, which is relatively easy to follow if you speak estuary English, and take the time to sound out the words. The lexicon at the back of this Penguin edition is also helpful, if you know it is there! I was going to write about how cleverly Self allows the reader to decode the specialist terms he uses – moto, opare, moped, etc – but I stumbled across these translations about 400 pages in, by which time I suspect many readers will have abandoned ship (or pedalo). Most of this new language derives from Dave’s experienced of driving a cab, so people are fares, the sun is a foglamp, full beam or otherwise, and so on.
The narrative structure is equally unoriginal – alternate chapters switching from Dave in the present to the distant future, allowing Self to draw the lines between the two so that they are pretty hard to miss. The Mokni (i.e. Mockney, or mock Cockney) that most people speak – Arpee (RP = received pronunciation) is reserved for formal occasions – is no different from the transcriptions of the speech of some characters speaking under stress towards the end of the novel. In the future genetically engineered cattle, motos, have basic consciousness, and are able to speak, always with a pronounced lisp, and have the functional intelligence of a toddler. This portrayal is quite chilling – the beasts are loving, and loved by the people of the island of Ham, (= Hampstead) but used as food when necessary. Their slaughter is disturbing, as they go to their deaths uncomplainingly, aware of the pain being inflicted. In case we haven’t drawn the parallel Self points it out for us towards the end of the novel, when describing Dave’s thoughts about his son:
“The child hadn’t been apart of him at all – he was from another species, half human, half something else. He had been engineered only to be loved and then sacrificed, his corpse rendered down for whatever psychic balm it might provide.” (419).
The story is a fairly limited interest – Dave’s marriage breaks up, he breaks down, discovers his relationship with his son is not what he thought it was. In the future, similar things happen in a more colourful setting. It doesn’t all end happily ever after. There is a strong suggestion, never properly followed through, that the scenes of Ham in the future are all part of Dave’s disturbed imagination, explaining many of the more obvious parallels between the story lines. Most characters share names between the two tales, and even the motos are named after the pigs on the farm Dave lives next to at the end of the novel. (462).
So to summarise – unoriginal scenario, hard to follow dialogue, a deeply unappealing central character who is only partly redeemed at the end of the novel, clumsy satire, storylines that go nowhere, slowly, – is there anything that redeems this novel and justified the time invested in reading nearly 500 pages? Surprisingly, yes. Self can really craft a sentence. His use of metaphor is quite stunning – they seem to pour out of him, several to a sentence, in a volume and force I can’t remember coming across before, and making his contemporaries look quite flat and stale by comparison. Choosing examples to quote is hard, but here are a few. First, fields being ploughed,(actually harrowed, but meh)
“…it was properly autumn. The harrows came chattering across the great field, tearing up the earth with their steely argument. “ (421) Fields being ploughed/harrowed have been described many times in the past, but has anyone ever used such an accurate metaphor?
Later there is this description of a walk through London:
“ Straightening up, swivelling – the London diorama pivoted about him: the toothpick steeples and cruet cupolas of the remaining Wren churches, the steel braces and concrete Karnak of Broadgate and the Barbican, the Astroturf lawns and inflated, latex walls of the Tower, the brass doorknob of the Monument”. (453)
This is poetry, not prose – slightly out of control poetry perhaps, but poetry just the same. London miniaturised, landmarks becoming household objects such as toothpicks, cruets, and doorknobs.
Finally, one last example, an image that for me jumped off the page, because of the echoes of the opening chapter of “The Big Sleep” (read it). Self refers to a stained glass window with “the battleship-grey legs of a medieval knight, imprisoned in a glass slide”.
As always, a simple test needs to be applied – would I read more by this author? Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.