The Book of Dave
Will Self is a satirist and therefore a moralist and therefore a practitioner of a much needed but nearly extinct literary form. It is not hard to understand why. Morality has become the province of religious fundamentalists of all stripes as well as their political allies, joined together even as they oppose one other by a literal-mindedness that leaves no room for self-examination, doubt, or irony. Satire, meanwhile, has been dilutedjust another form of comedy in the postmodern consumerscaperarely practiced and even more rarely heard amid the din of popular humorists whose work is often mistakenly thought to be satirical, for example, the light fare of Dave Barry and David Sedaris and The New Yorker’s “Shouts and Murmurs” column. The film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) is immensely funny, but Sacha Baron Cohen and his fictional persona, clueless Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev, are more like Benny Hill than Lenny Bruce: rudely hilarious much of the time but only sporadically satirical. Interestingly enough, it was around the time that Lenny Bruce’s brand of stand-up satire began running afoul of the law that novelist Philip Roth realized just how difficult it would be to write novels any longer, especially satirical ones. As Roth explained in 1960,The American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist. Who, for example, could have invented Charles Van Doren? Roy Cohn and David Schine? Sherman Adams and Bernard Goldfine? Dwight David Eisenhower?
At a time when reality was rapidly becoming unwitting self-satire and when Orwellian caricature was already becoming political reality, the satirical novelist could either give up or try as best he or she could to exceed an age whose own excesses have become the everyday fare of a media-saturated society. The Rabelaisian excesses of Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (1977) are well suited to that novel’s postmodern political satire, but more often in the work of Coover and his contemporaries, the satirist’s toolsparody, pastiche, farce, burlesque, ridiculeserve either more narrowly literary ends or more broadly philosophical ones. Satire requires a different orientation and a much higher level of dismay and disgust, as in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) or Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (1964). In Britain, curiously enough, the success of the archly irreverent television show Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974) helped make satire a pleasant diversion, lacking the bite of works such as Lindsay Anderson’s film If (1968).
The reduced role that satire has come to play since the late 1970’s makes Will Self’s writing (fiction and nonfiction alike) all the more remarkable and welcome. No other writer has practiced the art of excess so persistently, so perfectly, and so perversely as Self, except for the late writer Stanley Elkin, who always treated his characters and their obsessions with a degree of sympathy and respect rarely if ever found in Self’s hyperacerbic work, where revulsion rules. Surprisingly for a writer who thrives on excess, as subject and as style, Self (unlike Elkin) is often more successful in short burstsessays, short stories, and novellas, The Quantity Theory of Insanity (1991) and Cock and Bull (1992), especiallythan over the long haul, as with the disastrous Great Apes (1997). How the Dead Live (2000) is the chief exception because for it Self devised a central character (based on his mother) whose revulsion exceeds his own. Self’s novel The Book of Dave is not quite that good, but it comes close in large part because Self hitches his freewheeling satirical imagination not only to an especially timely conceit but also to a carefully defined yet still expansive structure.
The Book of Dave is a tale of two Londons and two times. Eight chapters set in the present (1987-2003) alternate with eight others set in the future (510-524 a.d., that is...
(The entire section is 1818 words.)