THE BOOK OF DAVE by Will Self – THE UNSEEN ACADEMIC
This is the first in an occasional series of posts drawing on my excursion into the academic side of creative writing. Having taken a career break from secondary schooling to further my own education with some post graduate study I’ve completed an MA in Creative Writing at Queen’s University Belfast. I’ve now started on a PhD project at the same university with the catchy title “Navigating the mystery of future geographies in climate change fiction.”
This PhD will involve me reading a lot of climate fiction novels as well as thinking and writing about the ways in which they address aspects of climate change. My thesis will also look at crime fiction and how boundaries between genres can be usefully breached in hybrid novels, for example China Mieville’s The City and The City.
So the Hive is kindly offering me space to post reviews of climate fiction books as well as blogging thoughts and articles on other aspects of my PhD experience.
So without further ado, here are my thoughts on Will Self’s The Book of Dave.
In this examination of fatherhood and other themes, Self pursues twin timelines separated by a couple of millennia of history and apocalyptic climate change trauma, but connected by the eponymous Book of Dave. Although the story alternates its episodes in each timeline, neither the near contemporary nor the future set story follows a strictly linear chronology. Self plucks scenes from within each story’s past as they build to their respective denouements in a narrative that jars with its discontinuities as much as its defamiliarisation.
The central spine of the story is that Dave Rudman – a London cabbie in the midst of marital, personal and nervous breakdown – committed an inchoate polemic to indelible metal-paged print. He then buried it in his ex-wife’s back garden intending the extensive and incoherent epistle to be discovered by his estranged son. Instead, the book is dug up some fifteen hundred years later in a post-apocalyptic world. Over the course of a further five hundred years the book has become the central religious text for the Kingdom of Ing hunkering on the archipelago that climate change floods have made of central and southern England. The past story charts Dave’s life and breakdown as he tries to reconnect with his son; the future story follows Carl, a child of the remote community of Ham, as he tries to navigate the inquisitorial perils of the Church of Dave in pursuit of the truth about what happened to his father.
The Book of Dave stakes a claim to true speculative (or even fantasy) fiction status before a word of text has been written – that is it say, it begins with a map (actually four of them). Self elides any deep discussion of the origins of the watery inundation of the British Isles. However, a shadowy outline of East Anglian coast and Thames estuary, can be perceived beneath the almost Norwegian like coastline of fjords that rising sea levels have made of the Cotswolds and Chiltern hills. Mark Lawrence in his Broken Empire Series invented a far future world by simply melting all the glaciers in the aftermath of a “Day of a thousand suns” that the reader quickly associates with some kind of nuclear holocaust. Self terms his own climate change flood apocalypse the “Madeinchina” a reference to the marks embossed on the detritus of plastic “daveworks” that a vengeful ocean flung up in strange plasti-coral reefs around the island of Ham.
Self has pursued a high degree of geographical fidelity in his imagining of the future. The two thousand year timescales are scientifically appropriate for his envisaged sea-level rise. It takes a long time to melt the two kilometre thick ice sheet over Antarctica, so generating the 216 feet sea level rises that would make an island of Hampstead heath, for that of course is what Ham is. As the highest point in North London, Hampstead Heath is transformed into a St Kilda like island at the southern limit of the country of Ing – itself a sort of resurrected Mercian middle England. However, one could argue (with the aid of one of my favourite websites here) that Self has still edited his geography a little to favour his narrative, for the high ground of Epping should have made some appearance to the near East challenging the totality of Ham’s isolation.
While the contemporary passages conform to reader expectations of style and syntax, albeit of a literary fiction type, Self renders the future speech of Ing in a ferociously phonetic form of cockney speech patterns and accents. This language is termed mockni and is the lowbrow conversational language. The priests and teachers use a higher (and more recognisably written) speech called Arpee (which itself appears to be a phonetic representation of RP or received pronunciation). The struggle of the reader sounding out the syllables of mockni is akin perhaps to the difficulty of decoding the middle-english of Chaucer’s Canterbury tales. Indeed, Self’s apocalyptic future has regressed to a kind of medieval tableau of fiefdoms and loyalties under a king and with priestly castes and languages akin to latin (arpee) jostling along beside old English (mockni).
However, much of the future world’s nomenclature is derived from aspects of the cabbing experience that are entertaining if a little taxing (pun fully intended) on the reader, so much so that the book includes a glossary with helpful translations. The sky is the (wind)screen, the sun is the foglamp, rain is screenwash. Some terms, such as the automatic salutation “ware 2 guv” could feasibly be derived from The Book of Dave in which the tormented taxi driver flung down the entire “Knowledge” of a cabbie’s runs and routes along with a polemic commentary covering governance and family life in a world of parental separation. It is less clear how other taxi terms could pass from the contemporary story into the future, for example Dave experiences the trauma linked to the phrase of being “broken on the wheel” in the past story after he has buried the book, but being “broken on the wheel” is an integral part of the enforcement of religious conformity in the future story. But then, this is literary fiction, posing questions more than producing answers.
Critical to the future story is Carl’s relationship with invented creatures called Motos. These echo the talking cow that Douglas Adams regaled his readers with in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Zaphod Beeblebrox was eager to “meet the meat” which suggested which cuts of itself would be most tasty and then, before popping off to slaughter itself, assured the traumatised Arthur Dent that “I’ll be very humane.” However, Self’s Motos are animals more of pathos than comedy. Their level of sentience and language is described as equivalent to a two and half year old child and they speak mockni, albeit with the additional complication of a lisp. In my mind’s eye they resemble a cross between a pig, a person and a duck, with a fondness for wallowing in mud and swimming. They are however, led willing lambs to the slaughter by the young boys who have been their minders. Their hide, meat, blubber and oil are all used as part of Ham’s small economy. Even the two millennia of elapsed time that Self has allowed seem insufficient for this level of evolution, but there are hints within the text that the Motos might be products of some kind of genetic modification or design. They are apparently only native to Ham but there are some inconsistencies in their treatment with the story. Their value is well known to nearby communities, and they appear to be a significant element in the overall economy of Ing with their prized Moto-oil. However, the creatures are sufficiently alien in Nu-London to be regarded as side-show freaks and the number of animals seems insufficient to support their sustained contribution to the local economy.
The future story has something of the feel of the film Galaxy Quest, where a distant civilisation have mistaken the transmissions of a Star Trek like TV show for a documentary and have modelled their entire civilisation and technology on its fictions. But again in The Book of Dave, the laughs, when they come, are bitter rather than raucous. Self’s intention may be to poke fun at the absurdity of all religion, of the vaunted infallibility of their holy books. However, there is a second book of Dave, the cabbie recovering from his breakdown makes one last attempt to connect with his son and to repudiate the chaotic ramblings of his first effort. This book too ends up buried on Hampstead Heath and its later re-discovery 500 years after the first, offers a sharp divergence – like a new testament – from the teachings of the old book. The softer realisation that family life, even in separation, should not be a matter of conflict. However, such views are considered heretical and the prophet (geezer) who discovered them is fated to be accused of heresy (flying) and his fate is bound to that of Carl.
There is some lovely writing and flashes of humour buried in the deciphered mockni, but notwithstanding the maps, this is not speculative fiction of either traditional fantasy or science-fiction. Self channels what were then (early 2000s) contemporary issues such as Fathers for Justice and the Iraq war in his present story in a creative and imaginative tale that plays with language and ideas. I enjoyed it enough to read it fairly quickly and finish it in the small hours of the morning. The world building absorbed me and my reading of mockni began to flow before the book was finished. There are themes of the abuse of animals and nature, the seeping corruption of technology, the dangerous foundationless intransigence of religion and – in its ultimate message, the meaning of fatherhood.
Where Self’s image of the future fails to do climate change justice is in the matter of … climate. The potential of rising sea-levels to make a future Atlantis out of London and East Anglia is an alluring concept. A chance to challenge the reader with a vision that both is and is not our world. However, as Ballard noted in The Drowned World, melting ice requires – and generates – a hotter climate. Ballard made sweltering crocodile-infested tropical lagoons out of flooded central London; Self sticks to a temperate climate where names change but animals and plants don’t, with oaks rebranded as crinkleleaf and great skuas renamed bonkergulls. The water surrounding Ham is as dangerously cold as any contemporary winter night on the old North Sea. To that extent, Self has ducked the opportunity to interrogate climate change.
The 120 metre sea level rises at the end of the last ice age – which made an island out of Britain – were double what could be achieved from now, even by melting the entire remaining ice shelves. However, that melt spanned around thirteen millennia (between 19,000 years ago and 6000 years ago) with an average rate of sea-level rise of one metre per century. It was not a smooth process, and some catastrophic ice sheet collapses will have triggered local tsunami that became ingrained in oral history as a flood myth. Nonetheless, the narrative attraction of simply portraying our own world drowned sidesteps much of the process and outcomes of climate change. It at once over-estimates and under-estimates the impact of climate change. Even a one metre sea level rise is a catastrophic event, yet climate change is not simply a matter of sea level rise. There are the increased extreme weather events alongside overall temperature rises, disrupted oceanic currents and temperate regions becoming sub-tropical. Self chose to make his future world alien to us through its mockni language and culture more than its geography and climate. To that extent, climate change served Self’s story, better than Self’s story served climate change.