Saturday, May 16, 2015

Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (1980)

So I knew Russell Hoban (okay, I didn't know I knew him, but you know) as a prolific author of children's books, notably the Frances series, about an anthropomorphic badger. However, he also wrote novels, it turns out, of which this is the best-known and regarded.

...and it really could hardly be more different than Bread and Jam for Frances, I will tell you that much. What we have here is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel suffused with religious allegory written in a kind of broken-down English pidgin peppered with almost Joycean wordplay.

It's easy enough to describe the plot of Riddley Walker: thousands of years after a nuclear catastrophe, humanity (or at least the humanity of “Inland”—ie, England) has been reduced to a dark-ages level of existence, which reenacts its imagined history through Punch-and-Judy shows of a sort. Riddley is a young man who finds himself embroiled in confused and uncertain attempts to regain the power that it used to possess. And that's about it.

The experience of reading Riddley Walker, however—that is another kettle of fish. First, there's the language itself to deal with. Here's how the book opens:

On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen. He dint make the groun shake nor nothing like that when he come on to my spear he wernt all that big plus he lookit poorly. He done the reqwyrt he ternt and stood and clattert his teef and made his rush and there we wer then. Him on 1 end of the spear kicking his life out and me on the other and watching him dy. I said, 'Your tern now my tern later.' The other spears gone in then and wer dead and the steam coming up off him in the rain and we all yelt, 'Offert!'

...and it gets considerably more tangled and allusive from there. The novel is sorta kinda a “realistic” narrative on its own terms (in the sense that there's no “magic”), but it's not at all as straightforward as it might be: certainly less so than Canticle for Leibowitz, to name the closest analogue that comes to mind. Hoban was inspired to write it by a fifteenth-century frieze in Canterbury Cathedral called “The Legend of Saint Eustace:”

The mythology of Hoban's society is formed by a mixture of the events pictured above with a fractured, half-remembered account of the death of the world via nuclear holocaust—which, I must say, is very hauntingly and memorably written. Just to give an idea of the the tenor of the novel, there's this repeated motif of the “hart of the wood:” this is an actual “hart,” a stag—the thing that's always leading people in Saints' Lives and whatnot; it's also the “heart” as in the center; and it's the wood, as in a forest, as in both a literal forest and a figurative place to get lost in; and it's also the “heart of the wood” as in charcoal, one of the necessities for gunpowder, the first step along the road to the re-discovery of nuclear weapons (or the “1 big 1” in the book's parlance); and it's also the heart of the “would,” ie, human volition—the dark, tragic volition (as symbolized by wood and would simultaneously) that leads (again, remember “hart”) humanity to try to destroy itself even when it's lost (in a figurative wood) and doesn't exactly know what or why it's doing all this.  I don't know if Riddley Walker has ever been translated into other languages, but it would be a linguistically fascinating challenge.

There's a lot more like that, and, certainly, a lot that I missed. It's pretty dense, heady stuff, probably the most challenging science fiction novel I've read (I mean, if you don't put Pynchon under that aegis). If you're a big fan of the genre, this is probably what you should want it to be doing, far more than it actually does: revealing genuinely new literary landscapes. You should probably read it.

And seriously, the Frances books are perfectly fun and all, but who the fuck could possibly have imagined that their author could go from there to here?


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