Monday, April 8, 2013

It's the end of the world as we know it...

Riddley Walker

Russell Hoban


Reviewed by: Terry
5  out of 5 stars

_Riddley Walker_ is the book that put Russell Hoban on the map (inasmuch as he is on the map…he is criminally neglected as an author) and will likely be the one work for which he will be remembered (sadly he passed away in late 2011). So far I have read three other Hoban novels and while I have thoroughly enjoyed all of them I must admit that I think this one is his very best.

Many, upon reading the first page, will dismiss the book as “gimmicky” (I am growing to hate that term as applied to books) due to the style in which Hoban writes. Admittedly his language isn’t easy to slip right into given that he has created his own broken, not quite phonetic, future version of English that is further complicated for many readers by being based on the Kentish dialect. Thus we have as our introduction to Riddley and his world:

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.

That’s definitely one of the easier passages and things get more complicated when words and phrases are elided or significantly changed when they refer to things from the deep past (our present), and concepts that people in Riddley’s day don’t fully comprehend or whose meaning has changed in their time. Still, for me _Riddley Walker_ is probably the non plus ultra of post-apocalyptic fiction. Sure there are many others out there that are excellent, and I have by no means read in the genre exhaustively (I still have to read classics like _The Death of Grass_ and _Earth Abides_), but there is something about Hoban’s work that seems to define the genre for me. His ability to capture a world that is at the same time horrifying and homely, a world that shows humanity utterly changed and yet exactly the same as we’ve always been is superlative.

Our hero, the eponymous Riddley Walker, is a young boy just coming of age at a moment when his world stands at a crossroads, change is either going to sweep humanity forward or back into the dustbin of history. Riddley truly is the crux of the novel (both thematically through the role he plays in the plot and stylistically given that the narrative is his own first-person account), the centre around which it revolves and also the primary element upon which it succeeds or fails for the reader. For me his character is an unqualified success. He is an everyman who harbours within himself unknown potential. He is a realist not given to self-delusion and yet in him is a belief in the human spirit, a sense of the positive, that is uplifting without being cloying. Through Riddley we are given an effective melding of hopelessness and hopefulness: a picture of a world steeped in melancholy and loss that may be the dying gasp of humanity or its first step forward out of the ashes.

Riddley's world is a grey one, painted in the broad strokes of grizzled rain, decaying edifices of the past, and a hard life of scrounging amidst the muck and ruins in search of the bare necessities of survival. Despite this bleak setting Hoban still presents us with a fully realized world of warmth, humanity, danger, and loss. It is obviously a post-apocalyptic world that stands on the far edge of the fall: the ‘Bad Time’ of fire and destruction is now only a distant legend (as is the world that preceded it), as opposed to those ‘survivalist’ post-apocalyptic books that take place while the horror of loss and oblivion is still a fresh wound.  As is to be expected Riddley’s world is not an easy one. He lives in an Iron Age society in an England that had been bombed back to the Stone Age and is slowly clawing its way back up the ladder.  The old ways are starting to die out as the nomadic, foraging lifestyle is gradually being replaced by the more settled life of farming. The old tales and stories of our own lost time are perpetuated primarily through the existence of a modified Punch and Judy show. This puppet show is a government-sponsored propaganda machine wherein the main character is Eusa (a degraded and highly modified version of St. Eustace), a stand-in for the perpetrators of Armageddon, in which old knowledge and new superstition are mixed together to create a truly unique experience. Through the Eusa Show and the legends it spawned we come to see the hum drum aspects of our own age both through the eyes of wonder and awe, a sort of golden age when giants walked the earth, and through the lens of condemnation: how could those so wise have been so foolish? How could the god-like beings humans had once been have allowed Armageddon to have occurred? ”O what we ben! And what we come to!” laments Riddley at one point. These people are keenly aware of their loss. Whether it is through fluid medium of stories and legends or the more concrete witness of the ruins of burnt out cities and the hulks of dead machines, the ghost of the past lives on in Riddley’s present and is carried on the backs of those that remain as both a reminder and a deadly weight.

Government lackeys travel from place to place and perform their ‘Eusa Shows’ based on a memorized approved text, usually in order to give a government spin on recent events and enforce the accepted truths of what has been and what will be. In the midst of this endless round of ‘business as usual’ there is beginning to grow a renewed interest in the “cleverness” of the old ways and knowledge, especially that which revolves around power and destruction (known in Riddley’s vernacular as the “1 Little 1” and the ”1 Big 1”)…it’s a common theme in this type of literature: the human fascination with the worst side of our nature that seems inevitably to lead us to commit the same horrible mistakes time and time again no matter how harsh the lessons taught us (see Miller’s _A Canticle for Leibowitz_ for another example of this; these two books would actually make for a good paired reading).

You can get jus as dead from a kick in the head as you can from the 1 Littl 1 but its tha natur of it gets people as cited. I mean your foot is all ways on the end of your leg innit. So if youre going to kick some 1 to death it aint all that thrilling is it. This other tho youve got to have the Nos. of the mixter then youve got to fynd your gready mints then youve got to do the mixing of the mixter and youve got to say the fissional seakerts of the act befor you kil some body its all that chemistery and fizzics of it you see. Its some thing new. Which ever way you look at it I dont think Aunty and her red eyed rat be too far from us.

Of course the huge stumbling block for this book is obvious, it jumps out at you once you flip to the first page: the language itself. Is this degraded form of English nothing more than a gimmick? There will I suppose always be those for whom the answer is “yes”, but for me that isn’t the case…or at least it could have been simply a gimmick if it didn’t work, if there wasn’t more to the text than a degraded phonetic spelling. Luckily the language is built around a great story with much thoughtfulness on the human condition and human nature. Who are we and why do we act as we do? What does it mean to be human at all? Why do we live, and what is the purpose of our seemingly unimportant little lives? How do we connect with each other, and what are the things in life that are truly worth cultivating? How much of our life is determined and how much is freely chosen? All of these questions and more are asked in the text and while precious few answers may be given the possibilities that are presented give much food for thought. The language also allows the required distance between our world and this one of the far off future to be built and emphasized. Perhaps most importantly it allows us to zero in on what matters as we are forced to pay close attention not only to what is said, but how it is said. The strangeness of the language forces you to look at the familiar in a new way, to see things with new eyes as you work your way towards an understanding of what exactly is being discussed or viewed. Finally it also lets us inhabit the mind of our narrator and protagonist Riddley (as well as his world) in a uniquely engaging way.

This book is one of my favourites and it is highly recommended. The labour expended in reading it will be amply repaid as we go “roading thru that rainy dark” with Riddley Walker.

Also posted at Goodreads

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