Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban

As usual, the world has been destroyed in a nuclear apocalypse. Long, long after, near the end of a new stone age, a young boy wanders around eastern Kent, with unusual spelling.

I’m sorry if that sounds an unsympathetic and simplistic description of Riddley Walker, but I’m not exactly well-disposed to it right now. My train of thought as I’ve gone through this novel has been, broadly:

At first: dear god, what is this and do I really want to have to wade all the way through it?

At second: ok, I can get used to it, looks like it might be interesting…

At third: hey, this is actually really good! I mean, not much has happened yet, but it’s pretty involving!

At fourth: ha, that was a good scene! But could something happen at some point, please?

At fifth: err… what’s going on? Anything? Is there going to be some point to any of this at some point? Please? PLEASE?

At sixth: gaaah! stop! just stop! just stop!

At seventh: ok, come on, nearly there, nearly there, I CAN DO IT, I CAN make it through this book, i CAN!

At eighth: ahh… hang on a moment, something interesting’s happening again, is this going to –

At ninth: oh, it’s over. Err…. hmm.

So far as I can make out, Riddley Walker is at heart two simple things: a coming of age story, complete with ruminations, illustrations and perplexities about the nature of adulthood (a theme not confined to the young characters, but extending to the old, many of whom have never truly grown up); and a postmodern dissection of the old Enlightenment certainties that lie at the heart of most modern storytelling, a denial of the comfortable idea of a single uniting narrative.

Both aspects of the book are familiar, but both also are innovative, and have genuinely interesting points to make. To some degree, they are even brought to overlap, conceptually, as issues of independence, and the freedom to interpret independently, break into that open sea (pun intended, for those who have read the book) of postmodernism.

Unfortunately, some things are lost along the way. These include plot, characterisation, and a vague idea of what’s going on about half the time. The good stories that deal with perspectivist issues do it while maintaining a narrative and conceptual coherence that lends meaning to the whole: they are like fugues, in which the massing of sound can be turned into music only when we can make out the individual lines. As a fugue becomes more complex, the lines blur and interweave and we cannot follow it all in straight lines, but we know that the tunes are there, wherever we look; but when the composer is not the equal of the fugue, the lines dissolve into pure chaos. At some point, there is no difference, musically, between a badly complicated fugue and randomised sound. The genius of counterpoint is to bring the meaning out of that chaos. The same is true in literature. That ability, the ability to tell stories even while acknowledging that they are not the only story, is what distinguishes perspectivism from nihilism. Russell Hoban tries to do this. I’m not sure he succeeds.

There is a lot of good here. Individual thoughts, images, speeches, are noteworthy and memorable. Some episodes are well-written and exciting. There is something in the sweep and majesty of this total assault on narrative that more conventional authors could learn much from. But…

I should explain what I’m talking about (which is more than Riddley Walker does). The basic structure of the book is the story of young Riddley Walker, of a semi-nomadic clan living somewhere near modern Wye, wandering around, as potentially momentous event happen around him. To put it simply, three things are hung on this structure:

  1. As he goes, people tell him stories, and he tells stories to us, which illustrate both the history of these people (i.e. our possible apocalyptic future), or at least their beliefs about it, and their current attitudes toward various things;
  2. Various events unfold, through the course of which all our preconceptions about who is the hero, who is the villain, what is the objective, what is the danger, are all turned around;
  3. Riddley interprets the world around him, moving from accepting what people tell him to trying to understand the world for himself.

The first thing is a fairly traditional thing, and it’s not particularly well or badly done here. It’s done probably better than I could do, but I don’t think it’s on the levels of, say, the stories told in The Book of the New Sun. We piece together What Has Happened, while noting with amusement the ways they have misinterpreted the past. We note that as the apocalypse seems to take place in our future, we are to some extent as ignorant of it as these people are of our own time – what exactly IS the Ring Ditch around Cambry, for instance? [And yet other things seem rather anachronistically backward – when the book was written, for instance, they were just building the M20, but there is no sign here of any motorways existing, though A-roads still remain]. Some of the stories are rather boring and over-familiar; others are very good. I particularly enjoyed the Punch-and-Pooty show. [Derivatives of Punch and Judy are of key political importance in this world.] But those alone aren’t to support the whole book.

The second thing is a familiar-enough concept, but very rarely done as skill-fully or as whole-heartedly as here. This does, unfortunately, place some weight on the plot, but not so heavy a weight that it could not have been born. I think this is the greatest merit of the book.

The third thing is the greatest demerit. Riddley tries to understand the world, but he is hopelessly unable to do so. With neither philosophy nor technology to call on, his theorising is at the level of a child. Sometimes he (or someone else) hits on some particularly elegant phrasing and we take note; other times, he comes by roundabout ways to something we know to be true, or something that will progress the point. Oftentimes, he does not. There is something important here, I think, about the way we come to the book being the subject of the book to some extent. So much is being said about ways of seeing, about the role of interpretation in experience, the fallibility – or perhaps we should better say variability – of our ways of understanding the world, that I feel that this too is sleight-of-hand: we come expecting to find a post-nuclear warning story and find something more complex; we believe that we should be judging much of what is concluded by how well it aligns with our grasp of science, but for the characters that is not the purpose of it all at all, that is only a side-effect. We are talking here not only about how the results of interpretation can vary, but about how the purpose, the meaning, of interpretation is variable. In some ways it seems to be telling us how different humanity can be, how Riddley and his people interpret things in a fundamentally different way; and at the same time it also tells us that we ourselves are different from how we think we are, that we are not so different from these people as we might believe. I think that this is all fascinating, and I am very sympathetic toward the general project of the book.

But a book is a book, and a book lives or dies by its virtues as a book, not by the virtue of the author’s intention.

The fundamental problem of the narrative is the alienation of the protagonist both from the world around him and from ourselves. I might phrase it more directly by paraphrasing and summarising the key plot developments of this novel: SOME THINGS HAPPEN. That’s pretty much it. The protagonist doesn’t ever really do anything, things just happen while he’s around. On the occasions when he does sort of do something, he has no reason for doing so, he just sort of feels like it, sometimes with a little metaphysical warbling to accompany the moment. Every step he takes is literally absurd. Inexplicable. An author can get away with a few moments here and there in a novel where the protagonist does something without knowing why, simply because it feels right. It’s a true reflection of how we often act, particularly at important moments. But when every decision is taken like that, it cuts the heart out of the story. Without reason, without will, without purpose (the closest we ever really get to purpose is a vague idea of being on one person’s side or another, but these allegiances themselves seem to simply be forced on the character by his passing whims), there IS no character. Perhaps it would be possible to have a sort of inverted narrative of things that happen TO a character, to define him that way, but that doesn’t happen here either. The protagonist is, with maybe two or three exceptions, only tangentially affected by anything that happens.

It feels like the author is trying to run by only moving one leg.

Indeed, he even comments on the pointlessness of it all:

I said, ‘What can I do then aswl be my oan doing?’

                Words came: Whats the diffrents whos doing it?

Well, that might be an interesting philosophical point that a novel might address: but in terms of narrative structure it’s a big difference. Novels are like music: they have a rhythm to them. When the tune comes back at the end of a movement, it moves us more than the first time, because we have lived with it through all of its travails and growth and self-doubt in the development. We need to feel a story. A story is a series of events that together form a pattern; which pattern it forms, which story it is, depends on how our feelings about it are ordered. Here, there is no pattern; there are no feelings.

Please don’t think I’m a literary conservative. I’m all in favour of experiment, of finding where the limits are of what we can understand. But I think this has gone past the limits, at least of my own understanding. Riddley’s impotence would be fine by itself, if we had some compensation: is another character the protagonist after all, perhaps? Is Riddley’s society itself the protagonist? Are we the protagonists? Is God the protagonist? Nothing and nobody! There is nobody here who does things and deals with the consequences, who suffers and learns and changes. Nobody does anything. A few people have things done TO them, but even there we are not pushed toward actually caring in any way, shit just happens to happen and we shrug and move on. And there is no story in “shit happens”, no matter how you spell it.

So what do we have instead? Well, mostly just thinking about stuff very badly. Sometimes this in interesting, sometimes it is amusing, but there is little rhyme or rhythm to it. The thoughts do not develop coherently – there is nothing deep enough or novel enough or well-enough expressed to make this work as a philosophical treatise, but what else is it meant to be? A brilliant short story, I think, that got rather out of hand. A vignette, writ so large that we can’t see what it’s a picture of.

The worst offender by far is Chapter 15. Possibly the longest chapter in the book and it consists of… what? Page after page of rambling free association. He sees something, that makes him think of something, that makes him think of something else, that makes him think of something else, suddenly he decides to do such-and-such for no apparent reason and that makes him think of… OK, so a bit here or there is clever, and sometimes several paragraphs in a row make sense. Others don’t. When he can’t stick with the same image for two clauses in a row, who can be bothered to work them all out? Well, perhaps I might have done had I thought it would make any difference. But no, by then I know that none of this stuff will make one iota of difference to anything that happens afterward.

Basically, it’s like reading something written while massively, massively high. LSD springs to mind. The whole book is a bit like that, but when Riddley himself starts getting visionary, the audience has no hope at all. And that is the climax and centre-point of the book.

The language is also worth mentioning. Notoriously, the book is intentionally written with bad spelling and grammar, to represent English of the future. Well, on the positive side, it conveys the primitiveness of Riddley’s society – albeit in a slightly patronising and racist way, since it perpetuates the ridiculous idea that simple societies have simple languages (English’s subordinate relative clauses, for instance, are replaced with simple parataxes – “He baked the cake that I ate” would I think become (using modern English words and spelling) “he baked the cake which I ate it”). This insistent position of barbarity makes it easier to express gnomic wisdom while sounding childlike rather than pretentious. There is in places an elegant rhythm to the language.

But is it really worth it? It’s not really consistent – some words and phrases feel anachronistic even now, let alone in the future, the spelling rules and sound changes are mostly but not entirely consistently carried out, the lack of commas, colons and semicolons (bizarre, beside the retention of perfectly 20th-century rules for punctuating quotations!) just makes some passages hard to read through first time, and as for the base idea that in centuries, perhaps millennia of illiterate barbarism, English spelling, vocabulary and grammar has changed less than it did in the few hundred years from Shakespeare to us, it’s just… well, frankly, the whole enterprise feels mostly like an excuse for making bad puns. And when your novel relies on the cod-philosophical pun as its cornerstone, you know you’re in trouble. “Because a woman is a wooman ant she,” Riddley ejaculates at one particularly theologically insightful and climactic moment, “She’s the 1 with the woom shes the 1 with the new life coming out of her.” Gee golly gosh, Mr Hoban, thank you for that wisdom! And the other 27000 fatuous puns. One or two, it’s a little funny. Three or four, ‘oh, that’s clever’. 27000 and I bang my head against things.

I don’t want to sound as though I hated this book. It’s truer to say that I was frustrated by it. There is real potential here. The beginning of the story – when we still actually see the world around Riddley rather than just the inside of Riddley’s head – and to a lesser extent the end of the story, when we come a little closer back to earth, feel as though they should be parts of an important book. And when I write out what happens, it sounds like a really good idea for a book, with a clever and profound plot presented innovatively. But instead of the heart of the story, we’re given acres of fatuous cod-philosophy broken up with passages of description and senseless action – the fatuousness obscured only by obscurity an nonsensicality. Don’t get me wrong – a novel doesn’t have to be world-shakingly profound, and this novel is sufficiently thought-provoking and innovative to stand proudly in that respect, but when a novel seems to rely so greatly on its ruminative dimension, its ruminations must be held to a higher standard. This is neither a treatise nor a story. The book is over now, and I have learnt nothing, felt very little, and enjoyed myself only in patches. So what, fundamentally is the point?

That said, I don’t regret reading it. I may read it again some time. But it won’t be soon. And there are some nuggets here; it just takes rather more digging than the prize really merits.

Adrenaline: 2/5. In places, it’s exciting. But for a large chunk of the middle of the book, it’s as dead as smallpox.

Emotion: 2/5. I feel I should feel. I can sort of see how I might: taken as a whole, and interpreted as a sort of record of a transcendental experience or a religious conversion or a mental breakdown, I can sort of see its trajectory, see how I could be feeling something. But it doesn’t really work, and I’m left with a few moments of pathos here and there.

Thought: 4/5. If you really sit down and work through every pun and every metaphor, there’s a lot of mental exercise here. But I don’t think it’s worth it. Even so, it has some novel ideas – and the plot does a good job of keeping the reader guessing right to the end.

Beauty: 3/5. Some great images, some elegant developments. And the prose: how you take the prose will be quite a personal thing. I felt the beauty of it now and then, but by and large I found it brutal and unsubtle. Similar effects can be accomplished with more elegant writing – some of the narrative voices employed by Margo Lanagan spring to mind.

Craft: 4/5. Hoban’s chief sin here is probably ambition. It’s a very difficult book to write, and though he doesn’t quite succeed, he still does quite well with the challenge he set himself. Simply maintaining that narrative voice throughout the book is a respectable achievement. He manages the twists in the plot with surprising élan, making them unexpected but not incongruous.

Endearingness: 2/5. Some parts, I liked. By and large, I feel tired, annoyed, and a little cheated.

Originality: 5/5. What can I say?

Overall: Good. OK, this review may not scream “good”; but I think it’s a fair word to use overall. It is, I think, a failure in the end, but it is an ambitious failure, and an innovative failure, and a memorable failure, and I can see why others have been impressed with it. There’s certainly much here to like… it just doesn’t quite really work as a whole.


2 thoughts on “Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban

  1. pattiglenn@yahoo.com says:

    Alternate histories: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Michael Chabon.

  2. I just finished reading this book, and I have more or less the same feelings about it as you express in this review. Basically, an intriguing experiment which doesn’t really work. You complained about all the things I wanted to complain about—the plot which is just a sequence of random events, the insubstantial characters, the intellectual vacuousness, and the disappointment of Chapter 15—I think this was supposed to be the climax of the book and it just seemed incoherent and meaningless.

    One funny thing I noticed was that the book is almost completely devoid of women! As far as I noticed there was only somebody called Lorna, who seems to be a fairly minor character. Diversity and representation issues aside, if somebody’s going to depict a future society, I’m interested in what role women play in that society and will be disappointed if they don’t seem to address the question at all.

    I will say one thing in its defense with regard to the language gimmick… a realistic version of future English from two thousand years in the future, especially after massive social change, would probably be incomprehensible to present-day readers, so it’s just impractical to attempt realism in that respect. I think the best thing to do was to just make the language different enough from present-day language to get across a certain sense of alien-but-familiar and I think Hoban did that pretty successfully, perhaps you could even say impressively well. So I quite liked the language gimmick, if not so much the more important elements of the novel such as plot and characterization.

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