There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
What if the foundations of the world’s great religions were nothing but the discarded ramblings of a lunatic? Such is the premise of The Book of Dave, the latest from Brit Will Self, who displays a remarkable ability to mesh the torments of father–son relationships with a satire of religious misogyny, painstakingly constructing a future society along the way. Dave Rudman is a London cab driver on the verge of losing his son to his ex-wife. During a crushing fit of depression and rage, he decants into a notebook all the mad notions inundating his mind. Little does he know that the result—a ridiculous potpourri of cabbie cartography and rabid misogyny that he quickly disowns—will become in the distant future what Self cheekily terms “Dävinanity,” the religious bedrock of a dystopian England. Centuries later, a man named Symun runs into trouble after asserting that Dave’s Book is rubbish. On picturesque Ham, once suburban Hampstead but now one of the islands comprising the English archipelago, he formulates a radical theology proclaiming that men and women are equal and that children belong to their mothers as well as their fathers. And what could account for this shocking heresy—from a male, at that? Easy, Dave authorized it. In the vernacular of Ham, which turns out to be phonetically rendered cockney, Symun declaims: “Dave sed ee roat í wen ee woz off iz rokkah, vass wy iss fulluv awl vat mad shit.” Self may be taking a swipe at those ostensibly secular politicians of our age who try to gain legitimacy for their views by citing a raft of religious injunctions—think of arguments for and against everything from the Iraq war to abortion degenerating into sanctimonious Godspeak. And even when a dissenter like Symun comes along, he is obliged to cloak his beliefs in religious garb. Despite his claims to Dävine sanction, Symun is promptly shipped off to New London for trial as a heretic. A dark social satirist with a penchant for the grotesque, Self hasn’t given up his tendency toward grandiloquent language and abstruse terminology as displayed in Great Apes and his other fiction. Here, it serves the theory that religious tyranny in the enlightened United Kingdom may not be that far off. Just keep cramming religion into politics and pushing dyspeptic fathers like Dave over the edge by taking away their sons, and conditions will be ripe for such a nightmarish scenario. When—after the loss of his son—Dave’s meandering rage congeals into Messianic delusion, Self shepherds us through Dave’s addled mind and lays bare the genesis of Dävinanity: “No Christian god smothering him in cosy-bundle sweet love; no wiseacre Jewish god, rebarbative yet shrewd in his defence; no Muslim god, geometric, elegant, cruel to be kind; no Hindu god-riot of fairground faces and multiple, writhing arms.” And this is just one of many thematic venues suited to Self’s distinctive style. The panoramic vistas of a rustic Ham, the geographic and cultural labyrinth of modern London, the totalitarian machinery of Dävine New London, and the grisly disintegration of Dave’s besieged mind all merit his furiously erudite and eclectic wordplay.