Tuesday, April 1, 2008

With Self at the Wheel, Readers In For An Adventure

Will Self
The Book Of Dave
Bloomsbury, 2006
477 pages plus glossary, hardcover

In my experience, a book by Will Self is not one that can be read quickly. Last fall I bought How The Dead Live (Grove Press, 2000) in a second-hand shop and spent almost a month getting through it. I had to read a few other books along the way just to give myself a break. (Lest you assume I am an abysmally slow reader, I should point out that I do my “leisure” reading mainly late at night, for an hour or so before I sleep, and while on public transit back and forth from work.) As I neared its conclusion, I frequently found myself checking the number on the last page, subtracting the number on the current page, and saying to myself, “50 more to go,” “45 to go” (and ultimately “five to go,” “four,” “three,” “two”), until finally it was done.

One day when I was muttering aloud about the number of remaining pages, my son asked me why I was bothering to finish it if the experience was so painful. I had to think about that for a while. It wasn’t only because I’m obsessive about finishing books I start, especially ones that are difficult or challenging – I don’t always. It wasn’t only that I wanted to find out what happened at the end, although I did. It was also that – despite finding the novel ultimately flawed for reasons that included the heavy responsibility it placed on the reader to keep going and keep going – I had found a writer who set himself huge challenges (not least in that case assuming the voice of a narrator who is both female and dead), and I wanted to find out how he was going to pull it off.

In my estimation he pulled it off enormously well. I would much rather read a book that is occasionally boring and draws waaay too much attention to the cleverness of its author and the size of his vocabulary than I would skim through one where the writer has attempted nothing extraordinary and has successfully attained exactly that. Furthermore, How The Dead Live and its complex, intriguing heroine—trailing her deceased offspring through a London where the dead share the streets with the living—has haunted me since I finished it. Very few books have had the kind of residual impact on me of How The Dead Live.


The Book of Dave proceeded no faster from a reader’s viewpoint than had How The Dead Live – but this time there was no reluctance on my part to read the entire work. In fact, about three quarters of the way through, I was tempted to go back to the beginning and start the whole novel again—despite the fact that I had already invested several weeks in it. By that point, I had finally figured out what was going on in the two time frames of the novel—the first being the approximate present, where Dave the London cabbie is doing his best to survive (in any sense of that word) despite the several betrayals by his duplicitous, greedy and manipulative ex-wife, who takes from him (in more ways than one) the only person he’s ever loved—his son. Dave pours his rage and bewilderment into the writing of a book about how the world ought to be run, of which he prints one copy on metal plates and buries it in the ground. Hundreds of years later, after a flood has destroyed most of England, this book of Dave’s is unearthed and becomes the “bible” for the restructuring of society. It is in this post-apocalyptic England that the alternative segments of the book are set.

It is the sections of the book that are set in the future that slow the reader down—and this time it is because Self has taken his deep knowledge, facility and obvious love and respect for the English language and applied it to the invention of a dialect that is entirely new and yet entirely familiar—and also utterly logical based on the conceit upon which it is constructed. Part of the reader’s slow journey through the future landscape is a puzzling out and gradual realization of how these future denizens have evolved a religion, a culture, a lifestyle and a language on the basis of one cabbie’s “knowledge” of London circa 2000 (“knowledge” being the term the taxi drivers use for their vast store of information about the streets of London and how to navigate them), his views both scathing and appreciative about the workings of his world, and his day-to-day descriptions of the people, things and places that form the immediate fabric of his life.

As we read the “future” sections and peruse the maps included as liners in the book, we gradually gain not only a sense of the geography of this new England (the land called “Ing”), but are able to superimpose it on the England of today and see how the setting of Self’s invented future has evolved. Hampstead Heath has become the Island of Ham. “Emtwenny5” is the name of the wall around the city of New London, the islands known as “Cot” were formerly the Cotswalds. Several times I found myself down on hands and knees comparing the map in the book with the one in my world atlas, trying to figure out how in Self’s mind the name of a community or body of water had evolved. I was never disappointed.

The geography is only the beginning, though. The citizens of Ing have built their entire society, including their religion, around the terminology of the culture, affections and resentments of a London cabbie from the early 21st century. A map is known as an “AtoZ,” the moon is a “headlight,” the day is divided into thirds called “tarrifs,” rain is “screenwash.” “Chellish,” an adjective that includes "bad," "evil," "wanton" and several other terms of disparagement, is derived from the name of Dave’s ex-wife, Michelle. “Dave,” of course, is god—and “Davinanity” is the “established religion of Ing” (hah!)

Not only is the conceit brilliantly executed, the result is a biting commentary on religion, today’s divorce and custody arrangements, non-custodial-fathers’ affirmative-action groups, even our hurried lifestyles that could certainly lead before long to all hot meals being referred to “curries,” all soups as “cupasoups,” and all breakfasts as “starbucks.” Much of the new language of course revolves around vehicles – and taxis in particular. A “soul” is called a “fare,” and a “cab” is the number of fares required to make up one fifth of a congregation. Even the wondrous creature that has evolved to give comfort as well as many of the necessities of life to humans on Ham is called a “moto.” Its offspring are “mopeds.”

(When I was nearly through the book I realized there was a glossary at the end. Although knowing this early on would undoubtedly have sped the reading process, it would probably also have diminished some of the pleasures I experienced as I tried to puzzle out not only what Self meant, but how he’d developed a specific word to apply to a given context. I also read Riddley Walker without a glossary, and recommend that as the only way to approach Russell Hoban’s brilliant novel. The pleasures provided by both books as you try to puzzle out the language are as much derived from astonished admiration at the machinations of the authors’ brains as they are from resolving the meanings of the words themselves. Meaningful invented language is not new, of course—I still take steps to avoid the frumious bandersnatch—but it would no doubt be a horrible experience to experience it in less assured hands than those of Hoban and Self. I have been spoiled beyond redemption now, I am sure.)

To the genuine relief of the reader, a few of the citizens of Ing speak Arpee, rather than Mokni (as the as the new dialect is called). Arpee is much easier to understand than Mokni, as it is almost identical to the English of today (Arpee being a term—for the information of people who, like myself, do not reside in the UK—that has derived in the new Ing Land from a term of long-standing use in England. “Received Pronunciation,” or “RP,” was once considered the most sophisticated dialect in England, and was for a long time the standard for announcers on the BBC.)


In addition to solving puzzles, the reason we want to keep reading The Book Of Dave (far more than we did, for example, How the Dead Live) is a genuine affection for Self’s characters and their plights. The “Dave” sections are wonderfully written, clear and evocative. We sympathize utterly with Dave in his sorrow, his thwarted love for his family and his city, his increasingly futile and frustrated attempts to put a life together for himself, and the gradual erosion of his sanity and his willpower. We hope only for peace for him. Like the inspirations for so many of the world’s other religions, he is a simple and a good man, who loves his family and his friends and values honesty and hard work.

And the new world, hard as it is to assimilate, is a beauty too. Physically, Ham is a wonderful small piece of near heaven in the archipelago that is all that remains of what used to be some of the higher elevations of “old” London. New London itself, the core of the old city that still contains the Marble Arch, Canary Wharf, the Milenium Wheel (now just called “The Wheel,” and used as an instrument of torture) has been stripped of most of what the technology of the 20th and 21st centuries accomplished, and is now being rebuilt on the basis of the clues New Londoners have able to gather about what they imagine must have been their past. New London is a primitive and brutal place, where the rich and the clergy abuse and exploit the less educated and the poor. We see the pageant, colour and violence of the city through the eyes of Carl who with his friend and mentor Antonë have journeyed into London from Ham to find proof of Carl’s father’s innocence of the heresy with which he has been charged.

Perhaps Self’s greatest achievement is the "moto." This is a creature that I found it almost too painful to read about – the ultimate pet. It not only speaks (albeit at a young-child level) and is therefore able to murmur comfort to its caregivers, who derive physical warmth by pressing along its back and holding onto its wattles, it is aware that its greatest gift is the sacrifice of its own life for the meat and oil (“moto oil”) humans need in order to survive. I fell so utterly in love with the motos that I nearly had to put the book down each time I realized that another one of these lovely large creatures was about to face the drawn-out sacrifice of its own life. I honestly don’t know how Self wrote those scenes.

Of course Self does not make it any easier for the reader by presenting both present and the future narratives out of chronological order; we need to keep in mind that what happens later in time may actually precede an earlier section of the book. However, with the assistance of the table of contents, the maps and the glossary, any reasonably intelligent reader who swears off drugs, alcohol or any other memory-impairing substance during the reading of this book, and resolves to pay close attention to every word and paragraph in it, should have no trouble putting all of the pieces together at the end. But a warning: at that point, finally armed with the “knowledge” that you need to steer through this labyrinthine novel, you may just want to start all over again.

Fifty or five hundred years from now, barring flood or other cataclysm, I can see classes of university students pouring through The Book Of Dave for clues to the mindsets of those of us who lived at the start of the 21st century. Such close reading of this novel will be both ironic and appropriate.

[iCopyright] Copyright 2008 Mary W. Walters