[b:The Book of Dave|581933|The Book of Dave|Will Self|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348211857s/581933.jpg|467232] isn't here to make your life as a reader easy. It's a book that kicks sand in the face of the casual, more easily distracted, reader. I first started it back in 2008, and I wasn't focused enough. The book became harder and harder to follow. So I gave up, less than a quarter of the way through, and popped it back on the shelf. Since then it has sat there, like a guilty secret, a book by one of my favourite authors – unfinished. Calling to me, mocking me, asking me if I felt happy with it sitting there unfinished on my bookcase.
It wasn't that I didn't like the book, I always wanted to finish it. But, the book is written in a deliberately confusing style and I got distracted. The chapters alternate between a 'present day' (early 2000s) and a future, post-apocalyptic, time. Both stories are set in London, but one is the London of the 1980-2000s, and the other is the London of the 500-520s AD (After Dave). The present-day story tells the tale of a London cabbie, Dave Rudman, a somewhat pathetic character who it seems you are to both pity and feel disgusted by, as he meets a woman, has a son, gets divorced, and has a total mental breakdown. During that breakdown Dave writes a book, his manifesto, and he buries it in the Hampstead back garden of his estranged wife for his son to find. The future chapters tell of a small village, Ham, where Hampstead used to be. The rest of London is flooded, and Dave's book has been discovered several hundred years ago before, and somehow, the ravings of a depressed cabbie have spawned an entire religion.
Not only do the chapters alternate between the two parallel stories, they also jump around in time. Neither story is told in a linear fashion, although both stories jump forwards and backwards in parallel. If this isn't going to be confusing enough, both stories are written with a phonetic approach to dialogue. The present-day characters speak a phonetic cockney that frequently has to be read aloud (at least in your head) to understand it. However, the future dialogue, Self has taken to a totally different level. Again, the dialogue is written phonetically, but it's a made-up 'mockni' language. As a crutch, of sorts, for the poor reader, Self has provided a glossary at the end so you can keep referring back to that when you hit a word you don't understand. But even then, lots of words aren't in the glossary. Some of these you can guess from context, others you have to read aloud (in your head isn't always good enough – cue strange looks on the bus), sometimes in a funny cockney accent, before your brain will make the connection and the conversation will become clear. As a final nail in the coffin of easy to understand dialogue, Self has dispensed with any form of quotation mark and instead you have to rely entirely on context to understand where the spoken sections start and stop. To be fair, the lack of quotation marks isn't nearly as limiting as you'd think – I soon barely noticed them not being there – and while the regularly flicking back to the glossary is hard work at first, as the book progresses you find yourself needing to do it less and less (so long as you're not getting distracted while you're reading that is).
The book is maybe a little longer than it needs to be, and maybe a little bit more confusing than it needs to be. But, the premise of the story is fascinating, and Self's love of language for its own sake shines through. The parallels between the two stories is expertly done – the more you read, the more you spot the hidden clues and connections. So many parallels could be explained just by the presence of the book of Dave, the future culture has been built entirely around his warped view of the world, their language is a degeneration of the already obtuse cockney spoken, and presumably written, by Dave himself. But Self takes it still further. You notice that some characters in the two stories have very similar names. Initially, I assumed this was coincidence, maybe they named themselves after people in the book, but as the story unfolds you realise that the parallels run much deeper than that. I'm glad that I forced myself to go back to it, and glad that I persevered when even this second reading seemed to be going so slowly – two weeks to read less than 500 pages is very slow for me.