This was one of my books of shame that I just couldn’t finish the first time I tried to read it. The main reason will be quickly apparent to anyone who picks it up. The dialogue of the book is spelt phonetically, in a sort of quasi-cockney vernacular, not wholly unlike one would imagine the script looked like for Dick van Dyke’s character in Mary Poppins. Here’s an example of the kind of writing you may expect if you embark on it…
So how about the second time I tried? Well, this time round I managed to finish it. The story is set in two different eras. The first is a sort of post-apocalyptic world where much of England has been flooded. There are few disparate Isles, each with their own population. Our story focuses on the inhabitants of Ham (meant to be Hampstead). The other is set in the late 20th and early 21st century, focuses on the life of a London taxi driver, Dave Rudman. Though it is not made explicit in the early part of the text, it may be inferred from it, as well as from this and other reviews you may read, that Dave wrote some words of advice to his son, who he rarely got to see, after a custody battle. These words of advice were found, many years later, after the apocalypse and have formed the basis of a new religion. So in short, it is a satire about both religion and the banality of modern life.
The pace of the book is somewhat slow, with even the timelines of each story being non-linear. In this respect, it seemed as though Self was trying to copy the style of One Hundred Years of Solitude though this was not nearly quite so confused as Marquez’s bizarre tale. The other book that I could not escape analogy with was The Handmaid’s Tale, as the back story which provides the backdrop is only slowly revealed, almost necessitating a re-read just so that you get the background first and then the ‘real’ plot second. But Self is content to muddle the two up. But it just about works. Just.
But what’s all about, really? Well, once you dig through the language and some of the more turgid passages, there are a couple of worthwhile stories to be discovered. One of these stories is that which looks at the nature of religious fundamentalism. The future society has based its rules on a single book that was discovered, regardless of its origins. It has developed its own traditions based not on anything truthful, but of the rantings of a mentally disturbed man on the wrong side of a bitter custody battle. Yet when he was better, he wrote a second book, recanting much of what said before. So what happens when this second book is later discovered, once the traditions of the first have been entrenched? Well, you can probably have a guess, but I’ll let you have a read.
The other story is a critique of modern life in working class London. Or at least, how Self envisions the working class. At the time Self was writing this, Fathers For Justice were frequently in the news for their public stunts dressed as superheroes as they fought for equal rights when it came to custody of their children. The book follows the failed relationship that Dave has which ends up with him joining a Fathers For Justice type group (though it is not named as such, it is unmistakable) trying to get to know the Lost Boy and give him some fatherly advice.
As indicated above, it’s by no means an easy book to get into. But once there, just how good or bad is it? Well, I’m glad I read it, though I don’t think it’s everyone’s cup of tea, especially if you’re offended by coarse language. When I reviewed Cloud Atlas, I compared one section of it to The Book of Dave, which I described as “truly terrible”. I now that that epithet was too severe. It’s by no means the finest work of fiction ever written, and it hasn’t left me searching the bookshelves for another work by the same author. But if the idea of a London-centric post-apocalyptic world based on the rantings of a taxi driver appeals to you, then go right ahead.