The book moves between the present and a few centuries later. In the present, Dave, a London cabbie, loses his mind when his marriage breaks up and his wife, Michelle, takes their young son, Carl (who is not actually their son, but that’s another thing). Furious with Michelle, he writes a vituperative, misogynist book for Carl. He is so desperate to make sure Carl gets his book that he has it printed on metal sheets and buries it in Michelle’s garden. Dave eventually regrets writing the book and tries to dig it up but fails. He writes a second book repudiating his first.
The second part of the book is set a few centuries later after massive floods have changed the face of Britain completely, with a lot of it under water. Dave’s book resurfaces and a religion—and a totalitarian state—grow up around it, taking his rants for “truth”. (The period is known as AD: After Dave.) They use his language: an unmarried woman is an opare, people greet each other with “Ware2, guv?”, a fare is a soul and a believer in Dävinity, and a Driver is a priest. But Syman, a Hamster (one who lives on Hampstead Heath, which is now an island), claims to have found a second Book of Dave. He is captured and tortured by the state. But his teachings lead to a rebellion against the state.
The part set in the present is very good—the characters are well fleshed out, especially Dave. The futuristic one is frustrating, especially as Will Self writes dialogue in Mokni, a phonetic/text cockney, which is hard to read (there’s a glossary at the end, a fact that speaks for itself). I found it very annoying and skimmed through quite a lot of it. The characters are not as interesting, and I found the piglike creatures, motos—a mix of mostly animal and human young child—and their relationship to people a little creepy. I thought the point about so-called received wisdom was interesting although Self makes the point with a sledgehammer. I can’t say I enjoyed this book, but found quite a lot to think about. And you could get lost in the worlds, especially Dave’s self-absorbed one. I just wish Self had stuck a bit closer to real English when he was writing the AD part, which was annoying because it felt like the author showing off how clever he was. (Which, knowing Self, isn’t exactly unimaginable!) It would have made for a better book.