Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
Indiana University Press, 254 pp., $16.95
What if it’s not great, it starts with a nuclear accident instead of an earthquake, and Lenny Bruce, like the rest of us, is terrified? I speak, of course, of the end of the world as we know it. This is not the apocalypse, with the Four Horsemen and the seraphim and the Beast and all the Jews facing a choice between worshipping Jesus and consignment to hell (not much of a choice, that one: I like bagels and the occasional Seder as much as the next shnook, but I wilt in the heat). This is a catastrophe that ends civilization, but not, alas, human life itself. In the literary rendering of such events it’s essential to make the reader decide that, should he see or hear of an impending nuclear blast or asteroid strike, the sanest course of action is to cut one’s losses, grab the loved ones and reach ground zero as quickly as possible. I’m agnostic about the prospect of an afterlife, but if it’s a choice between being insensate and the existence depicted in The Road, bring on the darkness.
And yet The Road, for all its acclaim and sales and prizes, is a fundamentally boring book. Repetitive in construction, with scene after scene of savagery and destruction; flabby and rather pointless in its plotting; and pedestrian in its concerns (the strong eat the weak; fathers love their sons), Cormac McCarthy’s elegant if almost self-parodically portentous and archaic style give the book the air of a prose poem desperately in need of an editor. Once the shock of the dead baby roasting on a spit and the people imprisoned in a dungeon and eaten limb by limb wear off, the book does not linger in the mind: it’s a poor copy of Blood Meridian. Both novels are relentlessly violent, death-filled affairs that end with similar nods toward life: patterns on river trout in The Road, the implacable fire-kindling hole digger in Blood Meridian.
Twenty-six years before McCarthy published The Road, Russell Hoban, an American author of children’s books who has long lived in London, wrote Riddley Walker. Like The Road, it is set after an unspecified (but likely nuclear) catastrophe. References to a “Power Ring” as the locus of destruction imply some sort of supercollider accident. (The Large Hadron Collider, by the way, is scheduled to go back online this September, and most scientists are pretty much totally completely basically absolutely sure that it more or less definitely will not produce a universe-destroying black hole. I haven’t done any early Christmas shopping.) While The Road unfolds in a disaster’s immediate aftermath (the narrator recalls bits of the vanished world in dreamlike fragments — only in the mind of a Cormac McCarthy character could such crucial memories involve an argument over child rape and suicide, and a pleasant evening at a proscenium theatre), Riddley Walker takes place some two or three millennia later, in a new Iron Age, and rather than focusing on physical destruction, it’s most concerned with the changes in human knowledge and mythopoeia wrought by the wreckage of civilization.
The book’s plot is so abstruse, and bound up in the specifics of its strange and carefully imagined universe, that a discussion of it threatens to be as long as the book itself. As in any bildungsroman — for that’s what Riddley is, though cleverly disguised as an epistemological-political thriller in science-fiction clothes, written in a bastardized English that at first seems contrived but eventually becomes a poetic conveyor of beauty, as capable of unique expression as a new language and reason enough to read the book — Riddley, the twelve-year-old narrator, passes from innocence to experience, and from ignorance to knowledge. The novel begins with Riddley auspiciously slaughtering a boar and an old dog with a spear shortly before his father is killed while digging through cow shit for old scraps of iron (this is almost 2,500 years in the future, remember). What iron they find goes to the government of “Inland” — which is England, just as the towns in the book (Horny Boy, Bernt Arse, Widders Bel, Fork Stoan) correspond to actual towns in the southern county of Kent (Herne Bay, Ashford, Whitstable, Folkestone). He replaces his father as the tribe’s “connexion man” — a diviner and storyteller of sorts, who through “tels” (tales, tell, and foretelling are all contained in this word) is responsible for spiritual comfort, prediction and explication for the tribe.
Riddley discovers that connexion men have a second function. The government of Inland, such as it is, propagates its policies through traveling puppet shows, and it relies on the connexion men to get the myths right. These myths and policies revolve around a religion that includes a variety of figures: Mr Clevver, the Littl Shynin Man, Master Chaynjis, and Eusa. The name Eusa comes from Eustace: one of the few remnants of the former world, aside from iron, to survive the destruction is a fragment of a fifteenth-century wall painting on display in “real life” at Canterbury Cathedral, along with a scrap of paper explaining the painting’s meaning and history. From this bizarre medieval adoration painting (at the back of the book is a reproduction of the work — a vertical composition depicting episodes from the life, afterlife and legend of Eustace, a second-century Roman general who saw a vision of Christ between two antler horns, converted, and was sentenced by Hadrian to be cooked to death, along with his family, inside a bronze statue of an ox) Iron Age humans have constructed, with the twin aids of necessity and misprision, an elaborate mythology. The story of Riddley Walker is the story of the stripping away and hollowing out of this mythology — at least to Riddley (and, consequently, to the reader).
But this book is also about the captivating, evocative and essential power of stories. Precipitating Riddley’s break from society is the first story he ever hears that isn’t an allegory. Which is to say, the first one he hears that exists for the pure human pleasure of storytelling. Around that pleasure the novel turns; through that story Riddley redeems himself.
Riddley Walker is by no means an easy read, but it is a deeply rewarding one. Piecing together Riddleyspeak often requires reading aloud, which attunes the reader to the sharp, frank Anglo-Saxon music that underlies our language. “Thinking on that thing whats in us lorn and loan and oansome” has an almost Beowulfian feel to it, the vowels connecting with each other mournfully, until the sentence moans. Scattered songs feel both timeless and responsive; digging for iron, they sing, “London Town is drownt this day / Hear me say and walk away / Sling your bundle tern and go / Parments in the mud you know / Grief and woe dont you know / Pick it up its time to go.” You can hear the shovels falling on town/drownt, hear/walk; the rhythm regulates. If some of the tricks work less well, Hoban took a rare risk, and it pays off.
Another pleasure is one afforded by almost any novel set on a future earth (or indeed by any everyday mirror): seeing how our world is reflected in it. Scraps of iron, the rudiments of government, a mangled but comprehensible English survive, as does hash (but not booze), and the memory of gunpowder and a distant accident. Characters talk of “boats in the air” and “pictures on the wind” as some sort of ancient wizardry while they dig through mud in ox-plows. Their theology derives from but does not exactly parallel Christianity; glimpses of the devil in Mr Clevver and Christ in Littl Shynin Man persist, but on the subject of rewards and afterlife and comfort and loving one’s neighbor the ruined world has rendered them silent.
Riddley Walker won the Campbell Award for science fiction and was nominated for a Nebula. It remains the only bestseller among Hoban’s several dozen books, and although it retains many admirers, it is now kept in print by Indiana University Press. Ascribing a single cause to a book’s popularity or obscurity is a mug’s game, but surely the literary world’s prejudice against any writing that smells of “genre” is at least partly responsible. For some unfathomable reason The Road is thought of as literature, while Riddley Walker is science fiction; The Road is therefore worth honoring with a Pulitzer and a film adaptation, while Riddley Walker presumably belongs at Comic-Con. This is wrong not as a matter of justice (it is, of course, but that argument is boring, and if you’re going to get exercised about injustices, start with Darfur and AIG; if you make it down to Hoban, it’s been a great century) but of pleasure: serious readers are missing out on books that still do the moral and aesthetic work of literature, even if they happen to be shelved in a déclassé section of the store.