Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Book of Dave

by Will Self

I only just noticed the subtitle: "a revelation of the recent past and the distant future" — which pretty well sums up the whole idea of the book, although it doesn't even begin to hint at the complexity of its execution. This book's layers have layers, and those layers have layers too; hierarchy and archaeology are definite themes.

The recent past is the story of Dave, a cab driver in London who's been through a rough divorce. He's got a number of "issues," as pop psychologists like to say, most importantly his estrangement from his son, and he goes pretty crazy for a while, actually spending a short time institutionalized. To explain too much about his episode would possibly give away too much about the plot, but, yes, he does make a book of sorts, as the title indicates.

The distant future is a post-apocalyptic, post-global-warming world in which rising sea levels have made the UK into an archipelago of smaller islands populated by a feudal society of religious oligarchs, land owners, and uneducated villagers. At least, that's what you'll surmise after reading a bit, since the details are left intentionally vague. The religion of these future people has echoes of Christianity (particularly the medieval, Inquisition-y brand) but is based primarily on the worship of Dave, who gave them a book that is more or less their bible.

The restriction of access to knowledge in general, and control of Dave's book in particular, is the linchpin of the social and religious hierarchy, and the Davist belief system is particularly at odds with the pastoral lifestyle and Natural (capital on purpose) intelligence of the residents of a certain very remote island — which also happens to have exclusive access to a highly prized natural resource and is therefore subject to very rigid control by the authorities. Unbeknownst to the islanders (although the reader begins to suspect it very early on), the island is also the cradle of Davism, where the book was found. Being quite remote and having some other local cultural quirks as well, the island is a thorn in the side of the religious power- and knowledge-brokers, a persistent and recalcitrant source of heretical anti-Davist ideas. It might even be the source of a new revelation: further messages from Dave himself might lie hidden in the forbidden, unexplored areas of the island.

The book could be read as a fairly obvious lampooning of organized religions based on alleged divine revelations and holy scriptures, but to the author's credit the book really is more than that. It also grapples with the notions of historicity and personhood, knowledge, experience, faith and reason, love and anger and forgiveness, and the meaning of humanness itself.

A friend of mine who's a major history buff and nonfiction reader once mentioned that he was in the mood to read a bit of fiction, and I instantly recommended The Book of Dave without even doing a full reference interview. It's a challenging book that I'd recommend to anyone intelligent, analytical, and curious. The book is on par with one of my other all-time favorites, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, and I am hereby officially putting it in my Top 10!

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