Dave Rudman is a sad sack London cabbie. He has grown soft in the middle, his hairline is in the midst of a jarring recession, and he bears the miniature cranial potholes of a hair transplant surgery gone bad. While he has chums who are good for commiserating with over a few pints, his only true friends are his cab and the streets he drives -- the unchanging calls and routes he intimately knows.
One chance pickup -- a redheaded former model on the rebound -- and a shared moment of weakness and, nine months later, Dave is a daddy.
But nothing in Dave Rudman's life has prepared him for being the patriarch of a family. His social skills are mostly confined to the eight-minute conversations he has through the intercom with his fares, maintaining brief moments of eye contact through the rear-view mirror. A few years after his son, Carl, is born, Dave's out-of-his-league wife, Michelle, files for divorce. That's when Dave's life falls apart, and the seeds for a disturbingly Spartan and misogynistic future society are sown.
Depression, stress, hatred, self-loathing and antidepressants converge at an intersection in Dave's brain, and Dave Rudman ("road man?" "rude man?") goes off his nut. During his long, solitary hours in his cab, he begins to imagine his own version of a perfect world. A world where Daddies and Mummies are segregated. A world where all kids are kept by the Mummies for half the week and then sent to the Daddies for the rest of the week at the Changeover. A world where a man should be able to recite the runs and the calls by rote, so he always knows where he's going, unlike the ill-mannered, hateful tourists who foul his cab. A vision of a New London takes shape, and Dave decides to write out his vision in the form of a book for his son to one day discover. He has the manifesto printed on metal sheets and bound with steel coils and, sneaking into the home Michelle and Carl now share with Michelle's lover (whose initial snub years earlier had put her on the rebound in the first place), he buries it under the garden.
Five hundred years later, "The Book of Dave" has become the basis for a horrible new civilization. The "davine" drivers lord over the peasants of Ing, imploring for the almighty Dave to guide them to the New London, as they watch over their flock of fares in mirrors they wear attached to their heads. The London (and perhaps the world) that Dave had known has been destroyed in a great flood, the cause of which is never made known. Little remnants from the past such as plastic bottles, pill dispensers, disposable razors, and so forth, have become precious Daveworks, relics of the blessed time of Dave.
Dave's vision of segregating the Mummies from the Daddies has been achieved, but the paranoia, hatred, and xenophobia of his demented book have manifested themselves as atrocities authorized by the drivers and the lawyers (which now simply means dads who have large land holdings) upon those stationed beneath them.
Will Self's concept of a future society based entirely upon the delusions of a madman seems as if it would be a subject rife with comedic possibilities, but Self instead takes the story into very dark and disturbing territory. He simultaneously tells two stories: the story of Dave's midlife crisis, recovery, and his decision to write a second book that repudiates all of the madness of the first; and a future tale where one Simon Devush is banished from the Isle of Ham after claiming to have discovered a second Book of Dave that had been hidden by the authorities and his son's quest to find his dad and learn the truth about Dave.
Both stories are about fathers and sons trying to connect -- to cross geographical or social barriers and to have the relationship Dave was never able to have with his own father. It's as uplifting a message or theme you're likely to find, but in both worlds, it seems next to impossible for fathers and sons to coexist, which is one of the reasons Self's "The Book of Dave" can be so oppressive.
Self is a master of wordplay and the book is rife with ingenious twists of phrases and malaprops that take on new meaning in fresh context. The future society (circa 500 years After Dave) speaks in a language called Mokni, a phonetic bastardization of Dave's own cockney slang. The more educated speak Arpee, which is closer to the Queen's English. Until you get the hang of deciphering Mokni, entire chapters of the book can be virtually unreadable, at times resembling Anthony Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange" or James Joyce's "Ulysses."
Take, for instance, this snippet of conversation where two men discuss why they shouldn't trespass in "The Forbidden Zone":" Wot cood B wurs van diggin in ve zon, eh? Eye no wot sumuv U lo bleev in yer arts. Eye no U stil fink vat ve Buk woz fown ere on Am. U granddads iz ol enuff 2 remembah ve Geezer? B4 King Dave vair woz enni numbah uv pissi lyttul playsez wot ad a clame 2 B vecraydul uv ar faif, innit? But ve Kings granddad, ee chaingd all vat. Ee ad a revelashun vat ve Buk woz fahnd in Lundun, aint vat ve troof?"
Beyond the phonetics, some of Dave's phrases have changed the meaning of words, requiring a "Arpee-English with Some Alternative Mokini Orthographies" dictionary at the back of the book. Screen means sky, chellish means evil or deceiving (like Dave's ex, Michelle), and the price of a new bride is chyldesuppawt (as in you best be prepared to pay it).
The language of these chapters can be a major stumbling block and require the reader to actively reread passages, read aloud, and periodically look up definitions in the glossary. If you are willing to make that effort, you will be rewarded with an understanding of Self's incisive and witty language. If you're not willing to make that commitment, you'll need a driver to help you achieve a full understanding of "The Book of Dave."
Perhaps Self's most intriguing invention is the moto, a curious creature that is combination enormous baby and pig. The Hamsters (denizens of the island of Ham outside of New London) cherish these gentle beasts, constantly cuddling them and stroking their soft neck waddles despite their rather repulsive appearance. But, as beloved as they are, the motos are ritually slaughtered for their blood -- the invaluable "moto oil" that keeps Ham running. As their necks are slit and the blood pours out of them, these pitiful beasts call out in childlike voices, "Itun hwurting, Cwarl. Mwy nek hwurtin."
Throughout the book, the motos are subject to never-ending abuses. In a way, they have become the misshapen remnants of the childlike trust and innocence that Dave tries to connect with when he wrote his first ill-conceived book. But just like the Lost Boys of Dave's time and those that come about 500 years later, the motos are never able to escape their fate. They always lose their innocence, and they are always given up for the sacrificial slaughter.
Satirical and pessimistic, Self's novel is both a screed against the rigidity of religious dogma and a wake-up call to readers about the importance of family and communication. It's better to communicate your feelings -- your secret Mummyself -- openly, rather than burying everything where it can be dug up and misconstrued later.
The Book of Dave
By Will Self
512 pages, $24.95
Dan Murphy is a local freelance writer.