the book of dave: a novel, by will self
i read a positive review of this book months ago and picked it up. but when i started reading it on my last silent retreat, i had no idea what to expect, and merely chose it because i like to start those retreats with something story-driven and fictional, as a detox.
what i didn’t expect was a long (475 pages) and challenging read that blew me away in both its creativity and it’s allegory nature. more on what it’s an allegory of in a moment.
first, a description. the book of dave takes place in two times: current day london, and an extremely distant future london. we don’t know the actual date of how far in the future the future-scenes are, as the calendar system resets with the discovery of “the book of dave” at some point in the future, and those future-scenes takes place about 500 years after that point.
in the current time, dave rudman is a bitter london cabbie, working through an ugly divorce and custody issues surrounding his son. his obsession with “the knowledge” (the massive and perfect memory of all streets cab drivers have to have in london) informs just about everything in this life. after things take a decidedly bad turn for him (and, fueled by anti-depressant meds), dave writes a book — a missive about what’s wrong with society and the rules that should govern everyone. this book he writes starts with the “runs and points” of “the knowledge”, and shifts into a diatribe about the inability of men and women (mommies and daddies) to live together. dave has this tome printed as a one-off book, on metal plates (for indestructability), and burries it in the backyard of the home where his estranged wife and son are living.
eventually, dave gets some things figured out in life, finds love and peace, and after discovering that his hidden book is irretrievable (due to a new concrete deck built over the spot), writes a second book as a personal cathartic exercise, overturning much of what he wrote in the first book. dave’s story is really a beautiful story of redemption.
in the future time, a catastrophic world-wide episode of some sort (some allusions to polar ice-caps melting) has wiped out most of the world with noah-like effect. all technology as we know it is gone (and forgotten). things seem to be as they would have been in, say, the 1500s (or so). oh, and the geography of southern england has completely changed. most of the future-story takes place on a small island off the coast of england where a primitive clan of families live a simple isolated life, under the burden of “daviantity”, the hard-core state religion that took hold of all of england in the wake of the discovery of the book of dave. this religion is mostly incomprehensible in it’s meaning, but the rules are all very clear: particularly the rules about the complete seperation of men and women, with children spending half the week in “daddy time” and half the week in “mommy time”.
the language of this time is part of what makes this book a challenging read: it’s a phonetically-spelled goulash of extreme cockney, mixed in with text-message shorthand, and a whole new set of slang vocabulary that only starts to make sense as the book unfolds (though there is a glossary in the back of the book to unpack some words). at first, i found myself reading some of this dialogue with only partial understanding of what i was reading (even regular words). but i got used to it, and really got a kick out of it. many of the slang words are cab-driving-related (for instance, the only acceptable greeting upon meeting someone — used when we would say “hi”, or “how are you?” — is “ware to, guv?”. and the only acceptable response, for followers of davianity is, “t’ nu london”).
we follow two generations in this future time, over about 30 years, or so. the chief protagonist is a boy without a father. he doesn’t know much about his father, but eventually learns that his father was declared a heretic for claiming to have found a second book written by dave that overturns much of davianity (i’ll not go much further there, as i don’t want to spoil anything). eventually, the boy, along with a heretically-leaning tutor, discovers some truth about the second book and his father, and embarks on an epic journey to new london (still a major city, but more like what london would have been like in the 16th or 17th century) to find truth, escape the island, and search out the rest of his father’s story.
now: the author clearly intended the book as commentary on a whole bunch of things, not least of which is the role of religion in society. and, clearly, the author does not have a positive view of the church or religion. this is postmodern commentary, though, as the heroes of the story still have ardent and passionate faith (in dave, no less!), but not in the structures and strictures of the religion set up to encase it, or the forceable control this religious system has over all people (in england, davianity hasn’t reached the rest of the world), all practices, all life.
on one hand, that’s the commentary in a nutshell. at first, it struck me as an allegory (whether the author indended this or not) of the law and grace, of an old testament system and the threat of a new testament system – the threat of jesus, if you will. but I found myself seeing another level: an allegory of the current church in america (or, to be fair, around the world), and the church’s response to the “threat” of the emerging church. over and over I found myself drawing parallels and connecting dots. certainly, the author can’t have intended this: but I found so much resonance at this level.
I would love to have others – especially friends in the emerging church – read the book and tell me what they think!
a fascinating book, at face value, and at these “other” story levels.