In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews a dystopian novel about a new religion
Toxic masculinity. Patriarchy. Incel. Words like these are all over the internet of late, describing a perceived rise in misogynistic behaviours and attitudes among young men growing up in Britain, America, and elsewhere. Coupled with this is the worryingly small percentage of people – women as well as men – who self-identify as ‘feminists’ (just 7% of Britons, according to one survey). Could the utopian dream of gender equality, which appeared to be making some headway as the millennium came into sight, be retreating ever further into the distance?
One novelist who has explored such a question is Will Self. The Book of Dave: A Revelation of the Recent Past and the Distant Future (2006) reflects current anxieties surrounding the role of the father in a postmillennial world, issues pertaining to divorce and child custody, and the clash between altruism and self-interest. Religion, too, is a central theme: The Book of Dave projects the present-day fear and anger of the titular father-protagonist, Dave Rudman, into a future vision of London in which Dave’s ‘Book’ – written with the sole purpose of providing moral instruction for his son – has been taken up as a sacred text by Londoners dwelling in a neomedieval postdiluvian world five centuries hence. Parenthood in this future dystopia has undergone a sharp split – enforced by the religious mandate of the ‘Book of Dave’ – in which mothers and fathers divide up the care of their children equally between them, with fathers having custody for one half of the week and mothers for the other half, the twice-weekly ‘Changeover’ having become hardened into religious ceremony. Parenthood thus becomes a systematised case of what might be called dual single-parenthood, in which parents both raise their children – but separately from each other.
The essential premise of The Book of Dave takes us back to Richard Jefferies’ 1885 novel After London, an early work of post-apocalyptic fiction which shows the industrial city transfigured by a catastrophic event into a rural, quasi-medieval, pre-industrial landscape. In Self’s novel, London has become Nú Lundun. The language used by Nú Lunduners, Mokni, is heavily influenced by the religion that has grown up around the titular Book of Dave, a book inscribed on metal plates by its disgruntled and mentally ill author, a London taxi driver – Nadsat for the Satnav generation. Indeed, parts of the Knowledge – the test that London cabbies have to undergo in order to drive taxis in the city – make their way into the Book of Dave, which later adherents interpret as sacred hymns. The Tree of Knowledge thus gives way to ‘the Knowledge’, an intimate mental familiarity with the geography of London, neatly encapsulating the neomedieval idea of the village – not so much Marshall McLuhan’s ‘global village’ as merely one of many neomedieval villages within a globalised world.
There are several important influences and intertexts for The Book of Dave, ranging from Russell Hoban’s 1980 novel Riddley Walker to Jefferies’ After London, Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1962), and even works of comic satire like Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979). Self’s novel is as much Swiftian satire as it is admonitory dystopia. Its subtitle, ‘A Revelation of the Recent Past and the Distant Future’, directs us to read the two narratives – presented alongside each other in alternate chapters – as interrelated in more complex ways than a simple ‘cause-and-effect’ relationship might suggest. The revelation is as much to be found in the (almost) present-day narrative as it is in the future dystopian London which Self depicts. The future world is not simply a product of the world of the novel’s ‘recent past’ chapters, which take place between 1987 and 2003: the London of both time-settings is presented as an unpalatable nightmare world, with the present-day narrative exploring Dave’s discontent and frustration as a modern-day father, and the ‘distant future’ half of the novel offering, in one sense, the opposite to this, a world in which patriarchy has been reinforced tenfold, at the cost of women’s freedoms and dignity.
The Book of Dave: A Revelation of the Recent Past and the Distant Future isn’t always an easy read, but then I suspect it’s not meant to be. It’s exploring the mindset of a frustrating and frustrated man, and Dave Rudman, as his name suggests, is the Everyman for the noughties: as the makers of the satellite TV channel said, ‘everyone has a mate called Dave’. We all know a Dave; what Will Self does in this novel is take a look inside the twisted and troubled mind of that Everyman to find out how he got to be in such a state.
I discuss The Book of Dave, along with other contemporary dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, in a book chapter I recently contributed to Katy Shaw’s Teaching 21st Century Genres (Teaching the New English). This volume is well worth taking a look at, as the other essays are fascinating.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.