One has not, in the past, approached Will Self's novels in the hope of finding a plausible approximation of any kind of observable reality. No, one read them to see what Will Self had been reading or thinking. At their core generally lay something with which readers of contemporary fiction are just a bit too familiar: not the beckoning hand of an imaginatively conceived alternative world but the spectacle of the writer performing. All credit to Self, then, nearly a decade and a half into a fertile career, for writing something that could very nearly be described as a proper novel.
Or rather, two proper novels. In fact, The Book of Dave is a conflation of two potentially discrete books. The first is an oddly realistic, if gleefully supercharged, account of the declining years of Dave Rudman, a North London cabbie trying vainly to prise his son from the grasp of an absconding wife while operating as a sort of cosmic symbol for cab-land culture. The second is a dystopian vision of our northern metropolis in the 2500s, in which the "Six Families" inhabit the deliquescing island of "Ham", while the outlines of "New London" lie downstream in the murk.
Uniting these two deeply uneasy worlds is the book of the title, the self-aggrandising monologue hidden by vengeful, put-upon Dave in a Hampstead garden centuries before. From this the Hamsters derive their behavioural tools and spiritual understanding, greeting each other with the salutation "Ware2, guv?", acknowledging their daily deliverance from harm with the formula "Thanks Dave, for picking us up". Ham's protocols, its vocabulary, its fourth dimension, are extremely funny: pre-maternal women are "opares"; the day divides into three "tariffs"; while, in recognition of Dave's domestic difficulties, fathers and mothers live in separate accommodation, transferring offspring at "Changeover".
Keeping this kind of show on the road is always a struggle, and this reader found himself skipping chunks of Hamsterland in order to get back to brash but deeply melancholic Dave, whose narrative gives the novel its pulse. What distinguishes Dave's contribution is the sheer bravura of the writing. Naturally enough, there are some extravagant nods in the direction of Martin Amis. Like Keith Talent in London Fields, our hero has a chum nicknamed "Fucker". The Globe, at which Dave fitfully carouses, bears a more than passing resemblance to the Shakespeare, John Self's local in Money. There are also self-consciously Amisian phrasings, as when Dave, motoring into Heathrow, notes that "there were hotels so big other hotels could have checked into them". Towards the end, on the other hand, when Dave fetches up in the arable desert of North Essex, living in a field-edge shack with the mountainously obliging Phyllis and going on rabbit shoots with a local farmer, the model could almost be one of Ronald Blythe's paeans to lost rural heritage.
It takes only an overlooked shotgun by the cottage door to return everything to the searing contemporary present. As to what The Book of Dave is "about", the satire of revealed religion promised by the blurb is the least of its attractions, being conducted with all the subtlety of a power-hose trained on concrete. Struggling to get out from beneath this conventional assault on that dim-witted part of the populace which has the effrontery to believe in God is a wide-ranging novel - microscopic and panoramic at the same time - of London life, harking back to Richard Jeffries' After London and ending in the same orbit as Patrick Hamilton's Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky.
Self's previous work has nearly always seemed to suffer from its author's habit of dashing on stage to play all the parts. Here, despite the occasional concessions to rant, bluster and reading-list, character finally makes its bow.
D J Taylor's latest novel is 'Kept' (Chatto & Windus)Reuse content