I’ve finished The Book of Dave and it has been one of the most intense and enthralling novels I’ve read for a long time.
At one point, Self uses the phrase ‘deep time’, and this is the book’s real appeal for me. It is soaked in time and place, and the two are irrevocably linked. The past is heard through Dave’s recollections of stories told by his grandfather: how, during the war, sand was dug from Hampstead Heath to fill sandbags, and when buildings were reduced to rubble by German bombs the rubble was deposited back in the pits from which the sand was dug. The city’s past is cannibalistic, a constant series of recyclings which infest the present.
It is in the present, in London circa 2000 AD, that Self is at his best. The grime of the contemporary city is phenomenally well-expressed. The London Show continues, in its two thousandth year at the same venue. The then rumbles seamlessly into the now, and Dave’s present is full of the knowledge of his city and its past.
The future reflects the past, and London’s auto-cannibalism continues, albeit somewhat distorted. Names become warped with repetition through the generations, and it seems that the real tragedy of the future inhabitants of Ham is their lack of a distinct past. Their history all stems from the book of Dave, and the reader’s awareness of its twisted psychoses exposes the flaws in any society’s dependence on a revealed religion or a single version of events. These people need more history, a second book to set the record straight.
So, history is powerful in this book. But by my reckoning, the present is the most intriguing part of the book. I initially wondered whether this could be labelled a failure in terms of dystopian literature, since the depicted future is not the most immediate part of the novel. On second thought, this seems like a very narrow reading. This is not a dystopia, but something much broader.
I think that our present is always likely to be the thing we can relate most closely to, particularly in a novel with such a sense of place. But I also think that our present, Dave’s present, acts as the conduit for the history and future which Self creates. Does that make sense? It is the focus. Dave’s actions, shaped by the past, shape the future which we are privileged enough to see running alongside the present.
I can’t articulate any of this as well as it is implicitly expressed in The Book of Dave. But this sense of deep time is one of the biggest things I took away from this novel.
Oh, and the storyline is ok as well.