Magazine article The Spectator

The View Ahead through the Windscreen

Magazine article The Spectator

The View Ahead through the Windscreen

Article excerpt

THE BOOK OF DAVE by Will Self Penguin, £17.99, pp. 495, ISBN 9780670914432 . £14.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Most literary versions of the remote future are dystopias; they are not, of course, really about the remote future at all, but quite openly about the author's own society in exaggerated garb. The Time Machine is about the division between the effete rich of Wells's day and the urban lower classes riding the Underground. Nineteen Eighty-Four is, in texture, all about the privations of 1948.

The Book of Dave has an extraordinarily brilliant and engaging donnee, the revelation of which I hope made Self get up and run around the room. At the turn of the 21st century, a London taxi-driver called Dave is half-presiding over the collapse of his own life. His wife, Michelle, who never really loved him, has left him for an enormously richer and more glamorous man. She has taken Dave's son, who won't speak to him on their occasional visits - and in any case is he even Dave's son?

Through this maelstrom of lying divorce lawyers, Turkish hit-men, Fathers-4-Justice and cheap tarts Dave sinks into madness, the habitually opinionated chatter of the London taxi-driver hardening, as in his talk, at least, he sets the world to rights. When he emerges from his insanity, groping his way towards some kind of balance, it becomes clear that he has done more than talk about it. At some point he has written an entire book about it, and buried it, irretrievably, in the back garden of his wife's new lover.

Skip forward 500 years to an England reduced by, one supposes, global warming to an archipelago. One of its islands is Ham, beneath the bigger ones of Barn, Chil and Cot; the cities of Brum and Nott are on islands to the north. Society is agrarian and feudal, reliant on some placid cattle called motos, talking fat beasts with the intelligence of a two-year-old.

And culture, religious beliefs, sense of metaphysics are entirely based on a single found book, the Book of Dave, dug up from that Hampstead garden, now surrounded by water. The peculiar situation of its author is elevated into myth, with much talk of the wickedness of Chell and of the Lost Boy.

The acquired knowledge -- indeed, the Knowledge - of his trade becomes the source of ritual exchanges. 'Ware2Guv' is this society's polite greeting in all circumstances, and the taxi-driver's learnt route to long-drowned Smithfield Market is chanted at the slaughter of the motos.

It is beautifully worked out. The Public Carriage Office and 'seeseeteeveemen' are terrifically menacing presences. The Wheel is an instrument of torture, and the taxidriver's terminology - 'fare' for passenger, 'flyer' and so on - is given lovely new meanings, often much more generic.

'Standard' is just the name for a broadsheet, 'stabuk' for breakfast. 'Pieces' - I feel a professional linguistician would very much enjoy this particular shift - just means 'chicken'. 'Opares' are pre-childbearing women, much lusted after; 'boilers' respected older women beyond childbearing. Even Dave's failures of expression are solemnly turned into proper words; the burka-like garment which women wear is called a 'cloakyfing' after Dave's inability to remember what the modern-day hijab is properly called. In his notebook, he calls it a 'cloaky thing' and so do his followers.

All this derives distantly, I think, from that marvellous classic, Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, which Self admires and to which he has written an introduction. Riddley Walker's tragically worn-down speech in a far-future feudal society has some things to do with Self's. …

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