If Will Self isn't a household name in America, it's because as a writer he's too much of a high-stakes gambler for her tastes. On the surface, his novels, novellas, and short stories read like donkeys to the point where the author seems to delight in the purgative red. Summarily, the odds are stacked against him. There's his first novel My Idea of Fun about such curios as eidetic memory and mind-control. The follow-up gambit called Great Apes was a reversal of zoo-humanity where apes run civilization while humans run amok un-loused. Then there was the heads-up action between Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Self's own hand, his paint cards of the Thatcher/Reagan-era re-imagining of Dorian. Another set of stacked chips for the taking. How about the no-limit, no-hold 'em of the fraternal novellas Cock & Bull, the former featuring a woman who grows a penis, the latter dealing with a man's newfound vagina wedged in the hollow of his knee? And watch his chips in the seemingly discarded muck of his short fiction - a dead mother returning to her son as a bored old woman living in North London, inner children as giant "emotos" handling their repressed counterparts, an infant whose baby-gurgling is fluent financial German jargon, a man's life overrun by cooperative insects, a society populated with nothing but Daves - Fat Dave, Old Dave, pro-Dave, anti-Dave, Davina. Risk, risk, risk!
While payoff in the traditional Aristotelian sense never comes to bear (stories often end abruptly without resolution); and while his characters are driven through and spat out of a meat-grinder pell-mell, human only by their offal qualities of envy and dread, Self's bets are hedged by his wordplay. His gutshot premises will usually find their suited connectors by his dizzying prose. A writing Phil Hellmuth, his technical ability is so incredible that the following lines from the title story of his first collection, 1991's Quantity Theory of Insanity read almost prophetic: "If the truth be told I could have gargled and they would have been just as attentive. I've now reached that rarefied position in academia where I have the cachet of a lecturing Miles Davis."
So, what's striking about his new novel The Book of Dave (Bloomsbury, $24.95) is not that the histrionic bets have been curbed - and they haven't, not a longshot, not by the ocean separating Self's London and Iowa's Writer's Workshop - but that there's a resonating emotional core within its verbal embrace. Subtitled A Revelation of the Recent Past and the Distant Future, the novel alternates accordingly between wrecked London cabbie Dave Rudman, who writes a screed on marriage, fatherhood, divorce, visitation rights, custody causality, and general misanthropy; and five hundred years thence to a water-wrecked London, on an island called Ham where Dave's book - printed on metal - is discovered, devoured, and dogmatized as a sacred Codex. From the rant, a primitive A.D. (After Dave) society has emerged, one where children are split from their parents, mothers and fathers are separated, where the language is based on Dave's broken cockney (the book comes with a twenty-page "Mokni" glossary; the etymology is part of the glee of the novel: "pizzaDlivree" translates as "manna;" "manna" is "village;" "lettuce" is "correspondence;" "curry" is "hot meal). Only young Carl Dévúsh begs the efficacy of the book, traveling into the Forbidden Zone, where there may or may not be another, more benevolent, Book of Dave.
Like his other works, The Book of Dave is a social satire. I've always read Self's fictions as a grand design from Candide's blueprint:
Candide: There still must certainly be a pleasure in criticizing everything, and in seeing faults where others think they see beauties.
Martin: There is pleasure in having no pleasure.
To which Self, as a satirist echoes as his theme: "Yet even unhappiness can be a kind of intimacy." Therefore, to measure this disquiet - the dulling white noise, the subversive magazine adverts (Absolut Anything?), the calming jingles ("da-da- ba-ba-baaah: I'm Lovin' It") - the onus of responsibility for any satirist is to outlive his work's shortsightedness, its sell-by-date; acronyms, place-names, and namedropping sag satires within years of their publication. Everyone remembers Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland because above all there was a frontloaded story in proportion to its barbed crux; but when was the last time Saki's Westminster Alice made any sense? Self, perhaps for the first time ever, negotiates between commentary (London's architecture, we're told "were so many CD towers and hairstyling wands") and story. And there's pure story in the rendering between the cabbie's relationship with his cab and his family:
"Dave still drove every day because he had to, but now he didn't merely neglect the Fairway, he abused it, giving it the sly digs and casual kicks formerly reserved for his family, until the cab's bodywork was dimpled by his animosity."