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Brave New Reading List: The Book of Dave

by Brita Thielen
The Book of Dave cover

Well, the end of the semester is on the horizon, and accordingly we’ve approached the end of this dystopian blog series. It has been quite the roller-coaster of disaster – genocide, sex-slavery, global infertility, social control through social media, ice ages, human cloning, and environmental crises galore – but I’m still here and functioning in society. Mostly. Hopefully you have picked up a few new dystopian titles to add to your reading list.

I will wrap up the series by discussing what was perhaps the quirkiest novel on my list: The Book of Dave by Will Self. This is the perfect novel for those who have at one time in their lives wondered about the dystopian implications of a London cab-driver who, due to the stress of his divorce and child custody battle, suffers a psychotic breakdown that spurs him to write a religious manifesto rooted in racism and misogyny and bury it in his ex-wife’s yard. What might the future society that discovers this text think, and how might they apply it to their lives?

Self provides a satirical, yet terrifying, example of what might happen in The Book of Dave. The novel shifts focus between Dave Rudman, the aforementioned cabby, in roughly present-day London (the late 1980s – early 2000s) and a boy named Carl in what is presumably a futuristic England, now called “Ing.” Carl’s world has based its theocratic government on the ravings of Dave Rudman during a very low point in his psychological well-being. While Dave’s life is grounded in the real-world situation of the 1980s-2000s, the society of Ing functions as if the world were a cab. In Ing, Dave is worshipped as a God, and all its human inhabitants believe they are his “fares” (passengers in a taxi cab) en route to the heavenly “New London.” Dave’s anger at his ex-wife, Michelle, and the resulting custody battle over his son (also named Carl and who in Ing is revered as a Christ-like figure called The Lost Boy) are central to Dave’s religious treatise, which calls for a separation of men and women with equal child access granted to both genders. However, women are reviled for their “Chellish” natures (think Michelle), have consequently been enslaved by the men, and are frequently raped and beaten. The entire society is ruled by the dreaded PCO, an acronym carried over from Dave’s time meaning the Public Carriage Office (aka, the regulating group for London cab drivers). However, things in Ing seemed poised for change when Carl’s father, Symun Dévúsh, claims to find a second “Book of Dave” retracting all of the original book’s prescriptions. Years after Symun was arrested for heresy by the PCO, Carl and his teacher/friend Antonë Böm, leave their peaceful home island of Ham in search of him. Most of the sections set in Ing follow Carl and Antonë’s journey to recover the now-lost second Book of Dave in an attempt to free Ing from the horrors of PCO-rule.

Part of the fun – and the difficulty – of reading this novel is that much of the dialogue is written in a fictionalized “cabby-speak,” particularly the sections based in Ing. The book’s glossary helped, but it still took me a few chapters to grasp the new linguistic pattern. Many of the words are written phonetically, combined, or abbreviated, or they are new words created from Dave-era slang (e.g. the standard Ing greeting is “Ware2, guv?”, to which the other person responds, “2 Nú Lundun!”). At first, this made for slow reading, but once I caught on the language added richness to the novel.

Another challenge is keeping characters straight. Most of the names in the novel appear at least twice – attached to a character in both contemporary London and Ing (as mentioned earlier, Carl is the main character in the Ing sections, but this is also the name of Dave’s son, who appears in the contemporary London sections). Actually, this is part of the reason I am suspicious as to whether the world of Ing is actually a futuristic space. The crossover of names in Ing, and in some cases, terminology that connects to events that occurred after Dave wrote his book, made me wonder if the sections set in Ing are actually taking place within Dave’s mind when he is mentally ill. I’m not convinced this is the case, and I’m not sure it matters either way – just something to think about if you’re reading this book.

Being a big fan of the work of Monty Python and Jasper Fforde, I greatly enjoyed the quirkiness of The Book of Dave. I also appreciate the human depth Self gives to the characters and how he manages to make a seemingly absurd premise feel so possible – and so sinister.

And for those whom I have still not convinced to give the book a try, here’s a video of Will Self reading an excerpt while riding in the back of a cab!

Recommended if: You enjoyed the writing style of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (not blogged about here but still an excellent read), the religious critique in The Handmaid’s Tale, or the gender conflict described in The Ice People. Those who relish satire and absurdity will also likely find the novel enjoyable.