Q: Your 15th book is The Book of Dave, an apocalyptic satire about a London cabbie whose deranged journal becomes the bible to 26th-century survivors of a global flood. You live in Stockwell, South London. How would your neighborhood fare?
A: My neck of the woods would be well under water. It’s a bit implausible—nobody’s expecting a 100-meter rise in sea level—but the book turns up the volume on a sense of futility that people living in many different ages have experienced about life. Before the Renaissance, people had had the spectacle of a mighty civilization that had indeed fallen; only in very recent history—and really, only in the West—have we had this delusion that human civilization will go on forever. The problem of the coming huge environmental changes that our children’s children are almost certain to see is that they seem so unconnected to any kind of human agency.
Q: Is The Book of Dave about religious fanaticism, or evangelicalism?
A: The book is a satire of received religion, about how people want to believe in received religion through texts. We know when most of the Old Testament was written—and it was written: in the seventh century B.C., in the court of Kings David and Solomon, for very political reasons. It’s about the way that, in order to get a state religion going, you just need any old cobblers, and then you can believe in the word of God.
Q: Is this novel a “big book”? Is it a leap for you?
A: Yeah. I don’t want to exaggerate, but I think I pulled off some fairly interesting things. In writing about the future, you’re more trenchantly commenting about where we really are—comparing and contrasting two worlds and finding links between them. In some ways, I was guided by Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, with a phonetically transliterated argot. In doing so with Cockney, I wound up with something that was oddly Chaucerian. That wasn’t intentional. People want their fiction to be like a blob of glycerine that they can shove into their mind, and it’ll release a grand tide of emotion. And who can blame them, really?
Q: How accomplished does a writer need to be before he’s no longer referred to as a “literary bad boy”?
A: Occasionally I’m still called “l’enfant terrible.” I would hope my fate would be the same as my friend and mentor Martin Amis’, where right around now, I’ll be instantly bootstrapped into “éminence grise.”
Q: Do you appeal to a different reader in America than in Britain?
A: I don’t think so. My readers tend to be united by a kind of skepticism, a legitimate streak of misanthropy, whether they’re in Boise, Idaho, or Manchester, England. This kind of stuff doesn’t play well in Peoria, but it does to some extent on the East and West Coasts in the States. Actually, I’ve never been to Boise. But they would love me.