Severed isles

<strong>The Book of Dave</strong>

Will Self <em>Viking, 496pp, £17.99</em>

ISBN 0670914436

How you feel about Will Self's new book depends a lot on how you feel about his old books. And how you feel about any of his books depends on how you feel about consulting the dictionary every minute or two. "Umbel", "linchet", "quern", "nubbin" - these are just a few of the words I had to look up during the first 30-odd pages of The Book of Dave. Nothing wrong with improving your vocabulary, but even Self's most devotedly autodidactic readers might baulk at "vair", "toyist", "Norfend" and "crete'" - all taken from the book's first three pages. By the time you get to page 11, you're confronted with this: "Leev on rì smiffeeld, leffpoltreeavenoo, leffcharaowse . . . rìfarringdunlayn . . ." Is Self's spell-check on the blink?

Nothing so mundane. While the even-numbered chapters of The Book of Dave are set in the past ten years or so, the odd-numbered ones take place half a millennium in the future, by which time the seas have engulfed much of what Self variously refers to as Ing, Ingland, Inglan and Ingerland, turning this sceptred isle into several severed isles. Small, fractured, ignorant communities contend with nature, grow crops and dine off the "moto" (a kind of cow-cum-pig-cum-squealing brat). Life is nasty, brutish and short-tempered - which is why the women live at one end of the village, the men live at the other, and the children are forever shuttling between them.

With the mums having to do all the hard labour, it falls to the dads to pass on the Knowledge. Laid down in a sacred and long-buried text called "The Book of Dave", this knowledge consists largely in learning how to impregnate "opares" (teenage girls) and impugn "boilers" (opares who have come through the other side of impregnation and are thus eligible for "chylde-suppawt"). Sound like anywhere you know?

That's right. In Self's none-too-distant dystopia, fings are wot they used to be. Or wot they used to be if you take the England of today for what the Daily Star takes it for. Like Martin Amis, with whom it is becoming less and less possible not to compare him, Self is convinced his country is going to the dogs - and that the beasts doing the barking are what used to be called the working class.

We could argue about that until the motos come home. What isn't in question is that Self has squandered his considerable energies by setting half of his novel in a nightmarishly neological future. The present-day half of The Book of Dave not only tells you all you need to know about the way Self sees the world going, but does so in language so readable it makes you realise the world couldn't go that way if it tried. As long as there are people who use language, there will be people who want to read sentences like this (the book's first): "Carl Dévúsh, spindle-shanked, bleach-blond, lampburnt, twelve years old, kicked up buff puffs of sand with his bare feet as he scampered along the path from the manor." As for the chapter in which Self's anti-hero, taxi driver Dave Rudman, picks up a fare in Park Lane and takes him to Mill Hill, all the while ruminating on what used to pass for his marriage - it is a marvel. Self anatomises London's varied environs with the innocent avarice of a child, at the same time reminding us that the child in question is far from innocent.

Dave is a model of alienation, cut off from the world not merely by dint of his earning a living in a steel box, but because he defines himself through those same cramped quarters. At one point he sees "through the quarterlight of his mind". Later he peers through the "oblong eye of the windscreen lidded with road dirt". Having been thrown out by the missus, he receives a court order to stay away from her and their son. And so, more isolated than ever, our crabby cabbie has taken to keeping a Taxi Driver-style journal of moronic monstrousness. Composed from roughly equal measures of racism and misogyny, this is the volume that will be found, 500 years later, by the no-less-isolated Ingerlish and taken as their equivalent of holy writ.

Alas, no such destiny awaits The Book of Dave. Self is one of our most entertaining ranters, but his bombast has no ballast. Dystopic satires can only really satirise when they allow room for the idea of redemption. Far from being cruel to be kind, though, this novel thinks it kind to be cruel. It just isn't interested enough in people to conceive of wanting to save them. Parts of the novel are as beautifully written as anything you will read this year, but no amount of plush prose can disguise the ugliness at its heart.

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Can America go green?