Absolutely Bleedin’ Obvious

Ian Sansom

  • The Book of Dave by Will Self
    Viking, 496 pp, £17.99, June 2006, ISBN 0 670 91443 6

According to Hannibal Hamlin, in Psalm Culture and Early Modern English Literature (2004), English versions and translations of the Book of Psalms, the original book of Dave – supposedly written by King David, the Neim Z’mirot Yisrael (‘the sweet singer of Israel’) – ‘substantially shaped the culture of 16th and 17th-century England, resulting in creative forms as diverse as singing psalters, metrical psalm paraphrases, sophisticated poetic adaptations, meditations, sermons, commentaries, and significant allusions in poems, plays and literary prose by English men and women of varied social and intellectual backgrounds, accommodating biblical texts to their personal agendas, whether religious, political or aesthetic.’ Reading the English translations of the Psalms – reading Tyndale, Coverdale, Milton, Sidney, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Francis Bacon, Henry Vaughan, Richard Crashaw and the inspired committee-work of the Authorised Version – one immediately notices that the biblical texts are really quite vile, and that the poets’ ‘personal agendas’ seem almost without exception bizarre, baffling or psychotic. In psalm after psalm, translation after translation, fantasies of punishment and self-punishment segue into expressions of great joy, deep despair and exaggerated, frabjous praise. Indeed, of all the books in the Bible there is perhaps none more sick and giddy, none more clearly and floridly mad, none more self-righteous, more thrilling or demented, more full of fear and anxiety. These are works characterised above all by a spirit of hatred which, according to C.S. Lewis in his Reflections on the Psalms (1961), ‘strikes us in the face … like the heat from a furnace mouth’.

Psalm 1 in the Authorised Version warns that ‘the way of the ungodly shall perish,’ and from then on fury and malediction alternate with hallelujahs in a menacing fist-pummelling parallelism of love and hate: ‘Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little’ (Psalm 2); ‘They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one’ (Psalm 14); ‘They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him; and his enemies shall lick the dust’ (Psalm 72); ‘Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate thee? And am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee?’ (Psalm 139). Even Psalm 23, the traditional psalm of balm and comfort, includes the wish that ‘Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies’; no greater consolation for the righteous, it seems, than to see the wicked go hungry. In his translation of Psalm 3, Milton praises God ‘for thou/Hast smote ere now/On the cheek-bone all my foes,/Of men abhor’d/Hast broke the teeth.’ If a psalmist were to turn up for a few stitches at your local minor injuries clinic, chances are they’d have multiple piercings and facial tattoos, and you’d be wanting to ask them how many hours of sleep they’d been getting recently, whether perhaps they’d been having visions or hearing voices, and would they mind hanging on until the social worker arrived for a psychiatric assessment? Walter Brueggemann in The Message of the Psalms (1984) distinguishes three categories of psalm – psalms of ‘orientation’, ‘disorientation’ and ‘reorientation’ – and in Spirituality of the Psalms (2002), he claims that the attacks of 11 September 2001 ‘suggest how urgent the descent into disorientation is for the practice of faith’. The Psalms are works of disorientated genius blundering around in the dark vaults of the human soul; they’re protest songs; they’re a cry for help.

All of this means that Will Self is well placed to compose The Book of Dave. Self is the English prose laureate of dispute and disorientation, his books one long pinball ricochet of rage, a whizzing, clanking silver-balled whirr of grievances against the rich, the poor, the middle classes, the smart, the stupid, men, women, progress, change, order, chaos, the secular, the religious, and all of human endeavour. In a startling essay written to accompany Perfidious Man (2000), David Gamble’s book of photographs examining ‘the nature of masculinity at the start of the new century’, Self, like the penitential psalmist, unzips and reveals himself, proclaiming his own faults and spreading them before us, tearing apart his parents (‘two adulterers mired in their own self-obsession’), his childhood (‘a masturbating prodigy’), the entire culture (‘utter confusion’), and pronouncing himself, accurately, ‘that most awful’ – and most biblical – ‘of things, a jaded innocent, and a promiscuous idealist’. His often exquisite and apparently exhaustless disgust has increasingly found expression in newspaper columns, magazine articles – what he once called ‘the philistine journalistic culture … the medium of tomorrow’s fish and chip paper’ – and on television, where he is one of the chorusing Grumpy Old Men of the BBC series. Among the talking heads, Self’s is one of the biggest and the best; his thin-lipped mouth one of the widest. He’s a really, really good hater: so, naturally, he’s a good writer.

In 2 Samuel 18.33, King David famously weeps over his son: ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom!’ And this, in summary, is the plot of The Book of Dave. Dave Rudman is a black-cab driver in London; he marries Michelle; they get divorced; Dave loses his son, Carl. Like the story of King David, it’s a story of family breakdown. Also like his namesake, Dave is a verbal genius. Reading Self is often reminiscent not of William Burroughs, as Self himself might wish, or of J.G. Ballard, whom Self obviously admires and seeks to emulate (clear echoes in The Book of Dave of The Drowned World), but rather of Norman Mailer, particularly the vainglorious, dick-swinging Mailer of ‘The White Negro’ (1956): there is the same priapism, the same shameless display, the same gusto and verve, the same excruciating hipsterism, as fascinating as it is appalling (and which achieved its apotheosis, in Mailer’s case, in his flaccid biblical epic, The Gospel According to the Son, 1997).

Also like Mailer, Self has always been more interested in himself than in his characters; he’s not really a people person, or a plot person. His people are all mad, frustrated little Selfs; his plots are all vehicles; so, with raging cabbie Dave Rudman, he’s playing to his very considerable strengths. When Dave climbs into his cab and roars off, what you get is a revved-up, dumbed-down Self: ‘Tatty coaches full of carrot-crunchers up for the Xmas wallet-fuck’; ‘boogaloo bruvvers in Seven Series BMWs, throw-cushion specialists in skateboard-sized Smart cars, Conan-the-fucking-Barbarian motorcycle couriers’; ‘Women, eh … they’re like beautiful flowers … luring you in, then once you’ve dumped your pollen before you know it they’re fat, old boilers with fucking ’taches.’ Dave’s is the same roiling, bubbling proletentious language that you find in all of Self’s books, from The Quantity Theory of Insanity (1991), through Cock & Bull (1992), My Idea of Fun (1993), Grey Area (1994), Great Apes (1997), Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys (1998) to the mighty How the Dead Live (2000): actually a rather sweet, bubbly, breezy sort of prose, a language grand mousseux, a continual fizz, part glossy magazine, part Travis Bickle and part Fred Housego. (By chance I have an uncle Dave who was a cab-driver – before the triple bypass; chin up, uncle Dave – and I can confirm that the glissandos, the riffs, the politics and the self-pity, the arcane and useless knowledge are all echt Cabbish.)

In Don DeLillo’s very classy, uptown slim little novel Cosmopolis (2003), Eric Packer, a billionaire, rides around Manhattan with his wife, his lovers and his advisers, in a stretch limo which he has had his people ‘proust’, cork-lining it against the noise and distractions of the outside world. Dave is pretty much Packer’s opposite: rambling, incapable, alone, taking in the sights of London, ‘from OK Chicken to Perfect Chicken, from Bootiful Chicken to Luvverly Chicken, from Royal Chicken to Chicken Imperium, from Chicken Universe to one forlorn joint in the filthy crotch of Burgess Park that was simply dubbed “Chicken”.’

Like Self, Dave thinks, speaks and writes as though he were continually and vigorously arguing with someone else, and often with language itself. When Dave picks up a psychiatrist, she spots this as a sign of madness straight away:

He mutters to himself, his voice is peculiar … breathless – almost squeaking. He aspirates flat swear words, cunts and fucks, mixing in with what? Is it religious stuff – talk of a book, a prophet? … He’s ill, she thought as he turned off at Chiswick Lane and worked his way through Shepherd’s Bush to the A40. He’s ill and he doesn’t even know it.

Like Dave, when Self goes off on one you’re not always sure that he knows it: the red mist descends; the language gets out of control. ‘Dave sucked on the piebald nipple of a filter tip’: that’s just too much confusion of categories; it’s wrong. ‘Magic Tree air fresheners dangled from their rearview mirrors. All these big blokes, lost in a tiny bloody forest’; nice, neat, though maybe too easy. But ‘Gulls were fucking about’? Perfect: obscenity accurately, gloriously applied. Self is a middle-aged man whose language retains the huge passions and enthusiasms of youth. As an exercise of talent, as a display of verbal dexterity, The Book of Dave succeeds. Selah.

The Book of Dave, though, is also a novel of ideas. It is really about Dave’s book, his magnum opus in which he’s been summarising all of his pet theories and ideas, and which he buries in his ex-wife’s back garden. Centuries later, after the effects of global warming have wiped out England’s green and pleasant land, leaving only an archipelago of islands – Ham, Barn, Brum, Nott etc – the book is rediscovered by the inhabitants of Ham, who base their culture on Dave’s early 21st-century rantings. All of their knowledge is, literally, the Knowledge; they greet each other with the friendly phrase, ‘Ware2Guv’; and the ruler is the Guvnor. ‘Dave ave mursee!’ At least half of The Book of Dave is taken up with chapters telling the story of the Hamsters, as they are called, and a character called Symun’s quest for another rumoured holy book which contradicts the misanthropic ordinances of the Book of Dave.

Self’s pleasure in his double plot is everywhere apparent; he’s like a dog with two tales. The Hamsters’ ‘Arpee’ language – part text-speak, part mockney, all derived from the Book of Dave – can be pretty hard to follow, so Self usefully provides a glossary, which is in itself a minor comic masterpiece, running from A2Z or aytoozed (‘map or plan’), through bambi (‘deer’), bubbery (‘any tweed or rough woollen cloth’), burgerkine (‘cattle’), chrissyleaf (‘holly’), cupasoup (‘broth’), hoodie (‘characteristic garment of the London poor’), opares (‘women from adolescence until they become mummies’) and stabuk (‘breakfast’). The list could go on, and on. And it does. The chapters dated 500 AD (After Dave) may have been great fun to write, but the future is always hard to read. The jokes pall; the exposition becomes first oppressive, then boring; and, structurally, by dividing the novel in two and having both parts running alternately (a chapter about the Hamsters and London in the future; then a chapter about Dave and London now; London in the future; London now), it’s difficult for a writer even of Self’s exceptional energies to maintain momentum. At almost five hundred pages long, and with dozens of characters and sub-plots (many of them familiar from Self’s previous work) you’re effectively getting two books for the price of one; unfortunately, the second book is not as good. So, as a novel of ideas, the book fails. Selah.

The greatest novel of ideas of our times, in case you didn’t know, is Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. No novel in recent years has had anything like its impact in terms of challenging, refining and enlarging people’s thoughts and emotions. It may be an absurd rigmarole – and indeed still hardly a week goes by without some Grumpy Old Man or knee-jerking journalist complaining about how badly written it is – compared to what, an opinion piece in a daily paper? – but when it comes to raising interesting questions for the average man in the street about the role of the church, about art history and, most important, about whether Jesus fathered a child with Mary Magdalen and whether their only living descendant might look a bit like Audrey Tatou, Brown is absolutely without equal. Ministers of religion and professors of science can call all they like for national debates on important issues of faith; some cheapjack novelist has already done it for them.

Self seeks to stir up similar questions and concerns, but is utterly outpaced and outdone. While Brown is genuinely provocative, Self seems merely to be stating what my uncle Dave would call the absolutely bleedin’ obvious. Compared to Brown’s ambitious offences – against the Catholic Church, against all orthodox Christian teaching, against the principles of reason, scholarship and research – Self’s targets seem absurdly soft. The Book of Dave, for example, is written on metal plates and buried in the ground – clearly a pop at Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon, which is hardly a very hot social, political or religious potato. What’s perplexing about the lack of oomph in his satire on religion is that Self is an extraordinarily fierce, intelligent and analytical writer. It may simply be that his brand of light sophistry is ill-suited to sustained satire: this would certainly explain why he’s so good on the telly and why his best book is his first, The Quantity Theory of Insanity (1991), in which his mental energies are successfully constrained and converted into high-powered, medium-length short stories.

You always get the feeling, reading Self, that he’s not so much a writer as a talker, writers tending to be best in their second, third, fourth, fifth or sixth thoughts. Self’s so quick and so sharp, he’s really more of a wit, and he knows it, and seems to hate it. He often writes against himself: he did it with the character Richard in The Sweet Smell of Psychosis (1996), a hack ‘hauling out great truckles of frothy verbiage’, and he does it again here with Cal Devenish, Michelle’s new partner, a ‘former writer, former hell-raiser’, former drug addict, ‘panellist on arts review shows and current events forums, a wag and a wit’.

So far then, one thing in the book’s favour, and one thing in doubt. The clincher, as is fitting, comes at the end of the novel. Suffice it to say that Dave takes up with a woman called Phyllis who lives in a cottage ‘outside Chipping Ongar’ in Essex, and eventually achieves a kind of unexpected, covert deification. In these pages Essex comes to function for Self in the same way that Suffolk works for Thomas Carlyle in Past and Present, as a utopia. Now, I grew up not just in Essex but in Chipping Ongar itself (though no one calls it Chipping Ongar, unless for comic effect), so I was intrigued by this turn of events, and by the following passage in particular:

At the back of the old moat that half circled the old castle mound, a meadow unfolded and reached along to a little kids’ playground tucked in the far corner of a cricket pitch … Dense thickets of furze and brambles extended along the edges of the field, and from these rabbits came hesitantly hip-hopping – first ones and twos, then, when this advance guard detected no danger, threes and fours. A brace of crows staggered to the ground nearby, and the rabbits retreated. A bird scarer half a mile away went off with a flat ‘bang’, and the crows limped aloft. The rabbits came sniffing back. In the lolloping, furtive boogie of the animals, their ear-flick and paw scratch, Dave divined soft answers to the hard questions that assailed him.

This is pastoral, a welcome and natural accompaniment to the urban and sci-fi excesses of the rest of the book, and a nice little spot for Self the ‘jaded innocent’ and ‘promiscuous idealist’ to find some brief, blessed relief. But most amazingly of all, it’s not made up: the description of place is absolutely accurate. There’s a scout hut just by that cricket pitch, and my friend Jeff used to live on the new estate bordering the field to the left. Where Dave sits and divines soft answers I used to go to football practice every Wednesday night; I played left back for the Ongar Saxons and was so fat and so slow the other boys used to call me ‘The Tank’; nothing changes. The Book of Dave sets out to make grand social and political statements in a verbal fury. Its greatest achievement is in praise of Essex.