This book took me just over two weeks to finish, but it felt like longer, so it doesn’t surprise me that it took me a lot of words to try to get my thoughts in order. I’ll say up front that I by and large liked it, which is worth keeping in mind when reading this monster of a review (if anyone does).
The Book of Dave is extremely structural – the two interacting stories are really four (80s Dave, 00s Dave; Symun, Carl), and while I’ve seem some reviews say that these two/four threads makes it complicated or hard to understand, I disagree. (I am the kind of reader that forgets to read chapter titles or introductory dates and becomes easily confused by time jumps, so I say this sincerely.) And while I can appreciate this on a technical level, it made reading the book necessarily disjointed – I could follow it, but at the cost of a cohesive, immersive experience. This isn’t a problem per se, not every book needs to be straight narrative or atmosphere (can you imagine? euch), but it’s not the kind of book I usually go for.
But speaking of “technique” – it is pretty incredible. It isn’t intrusive the way it nearly was in The Luminaries, instead using the worldbuilding and language of the postapocalyptic future to enhance the story of Dave in the recent past and vice versa, and individual moments benefited: learning that the book was printed on metal, which is how it survived, for example, was a great reveal and a great peek into how this world came from that one. (Cloud Atlas, a comparison one can’t help but make, didn’t really deliver on this in Sloosha’s Crossin.)
The language, Mokni, deserves an individual mention. This is of course one of the selling points of the book and it was mostly done really well (I’m sure it would be even more successful for someone from England; as an American there were many times I found myself flipping to the glossary in vain, but that’s no fault of the author). But, every once in a while there were jarring moments that pulled me right out of the story. Obviously towards the beginning I was flipping to the glossary, but even later, some things just didn’t fit, like whenever the phrase “for Davesake,” “oh my Dave,” or anything like that showed up. The linguistic callbacks to the present-day story of Dave are subtle or at least nuanced for the most part, but in places a new word just replaces an old, non-car-related one, with no grammatical difference, and I wasn’t convinced. It’s too obvious, in a “get it? Dave is the new god?” way.
Because mental illness and misogyny make up so much of the book and its premise, these missteps become serious and worthy of picking apart.
Which brings us back to the present-day (recent past, I guess) storyline, where I am forced to ask, “did Will Self do any research at all about people with schizophrenic or psychotic mental illnesses?” I’m going to go with no, or at least not enough. Not with people with those illnesses rather than doctors, for sure. Mental illness does not suddenly make a person a bigot. This didn’t start as an issue in the book – maybe Dave is just a bigot! – until suddenly he turns into a sweetheart and Team Dad at the psych ward, regretting his past opinions and actions, and the story cracks. I’ll repeat myself: prejudices don’t spring into existence because of psychosis; maybe one could argue that preexisting prejudices are put in a crucible, but either way they have to exist already, and Self couldn’t decide whether he wanted Dave to be genuinely misanthropic or “demented” (shudder, I hate that word), just like he couldn’t decide if Dave was Jewish or not. (In general, the aforementioned sweetheart plot point rang hollow, like an editor told him to cut a chapter of development and he stuck in that scene instead.) Otherwise, the psychosis becomes solely a plot device in order to make Dave have the vile opinions upon which he bases the Book… which isn’t just offensive, it is lazy.
Please don’t get me wrong – I am not reacting to my dislikeof Dave Rudman, but I did settle in to his half of the story and I adjusted myself to being in his cab and his head. To suddenly find out that the worst of all cliches is true – that deep down, he wasn’t The Misanthrope, he’s just Misunderstood! – completely invalidated any sympathy I had built up earlier in the book. I stomached Dave the first few times I met him, just to find a new guy who mostly respects women, who objects to violence against them, who respects the idea of his son as more than an object. Why was I or the author trying so hard to find nuggets of sympathy for a bigoted abuser? Why wasn’t the character’s arc moving towards that new self instead?
The only answer I can really see is that the book thought said new self was buried underneath his illness, which once again comes back to a fundamental misunderstanding of mental illness and of misogyny. A third time, with feeling: the brain is not an episode of the Price is Right, and just medicating a patient cannot suddenly reveal something brand new and amazing behind a curtain (a point actually made already, earlier in the book, by Dave’s previous experience with antidepressants triggering his psychosis). The magical and implausible disappearance of his mental illness is not character development, it’s a cop-out.
Okay – I’m really saying the same thing over and over (redundant AND repetitive!). It’s just that because mental illness and misogyny make up so much of the book and its premise, these missteps become serious and worthy of picking apart. The story of Dave has to be solid and convincing in order to make the sections in Ing, necessarily built on pure imagination and invention, plausible. For most of the book, this works; in several key ways, it doesn’t, by stubbornly refusing to afford mental illness in both Dave’s “real world” and the, uh, actual real world, the same serious thought and respect that Self managed to put into an invented world that includes sorta-human-baby-walrus-cow-combos (which, …actually, another time, maybe).
And that, sadly, knocks it down a few points in my book.
(Consider this a 3.5/5, but just by the length of this review I had to err on the side of criticism.)