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.

 

Dragonsinger, by Anne McCaffrey

Even the books that seem simplest and most conventional can still surprise. The big surprise for me with this one, re-reading it for the umpteenth time, but after a period of some years, was how unusual the central plot was. Ostensibly, there’s very little plot indeed. Menolly, heroine of Dragonsong, has arrived at her intended place in the world, the Harper Hall, and that’s pretty much about it.

In the absence of (serious) external obstacles to overcome, however, the flow of the narrative is instead directed internally: in essence, this is the story of Menolly overcoming her own fears and doubts to become an independent part of the world. It is the story of a girl entering adulthood, and the story of a person who, as one character puts it, has ‘lived too long alone’ coming to live in society. In that respect it is a fitting companion to, and to an extent even retrospectively improves, the first novel in the trilogy, in which problems were resolved chiefly by running away. Accordingly too, this novel of overcoming modesty puts the heroine in a rather more sympathetic light than the first, in which Menolly teetered dangerously on the edge of a rather tiresomely petulant teenage rebellion. The result is a sweeter and more touching book.

The idea also has its drawbacks, however. Without any genuine threat, mystery or entrapment, with the heroine placed in a nurturing environment in which many are dedicated to her and she is clearly at a great advantage over others, there’s no real tension – and the psychological journey is not laid out precisely or evocatively enough to create its own sense of momentum or progress. Menolly’s internal plotline is less an engine and more a spine upon which has been strung an extended vignette. Paradoxically, with less threat, the protagonist is less active, and her internal plotline is overshadowed as the screentime that might be given to her thoughts is hogged by other actors, who push her around taking advantage of her passivity.

If it’s a vignette, there are three sides to that picture. First, the Hall is an educational establishment, and the novel is basically “Menolly’s Schooldays”, though with an older and more gifted protagonist we are spared the raw drudgery of many school stories. This seems to be dealt with fairly well, elements of school, university and a guild system woven into a convincing establishment, but not one that is particularly memorable or thrilling, and not one into which we get much of an investigatory glimpse – it is strictly from pupil’s-eye-view. The second side is music, because that is the chief occupation of Harpers. Here, I am undone by my nature, since I found this story of composition and performance, quartets and music theory, inherently exciting and wondrous and and the same time comfortable. A composer is a far more fantastic creature than a dragon, in my soul. The very subject matter ensured a degree of affection from me. And it is not handled too terribly either – although it does at times feel that some of the musical remarks are a little reminiscent of Star Trek technobabble. All the terms make sense, I just sometimes got the feeling that McCaffrey didn’t know why they made sense, that maybe she was choosing from a list of things to say. In sum, the musical dimension of the book does not destroy it, but it feels to inspire to the degree it should. One major problem is that McCaffrey doesn’t have much clue yet about what sort of music she wants Menolly, Robinton and Domick to each be writing – beyond the fact that the former two write ‘accessible’ music that everybody can instantly understand and love, while the latter writes complicated music, for musicians. This fails to understand that accessibility in music, beyond the bare minimum, is largely cultural, not inherent – styles of music many would consider inaccessible and ‘artistic’ today were barn-stormingly popular in their day. Even Bach – the most obvious model for the Petiron/Domick school of composition – was a successful composer in his time, writing some very popular religious music for ordinary people, even if he was better known for his playing and improvisation. Indeed, this distinction between composers with tunes and composers who are just ‘good’ in some way that doesn’t involve melody just doesn’t begin to become relevant until the twentieth century, or very near to it. Take Bach – the most elevated, complicated, sophisticated “composer’s composer” you could name, but he still wrote tunes that people could hum in the street, and they still do so today (eg. “Wachet Auf”, “Air on a G String”, and several tunes from the Brandenburgs). What’s more, Bach’s more recondite music was largely overlooked in his own time. The distinction McCaffrey tries to draw between High and Low art is simply anachronistic, and feels ill-thought-out, as no further details of style are given to bolster it. Finally, it would be good to have just a few clues as to musical style. I know this is a fantasy world and not identical to any earth musical tradition, but let’s just have a few hints about what is important. Should we be imagining something baroque/classical/romantic? Prog rock? Ars Nova and Ars Subtilior? Renaissance? Carnatic?

The third dimension is the fantastic nature of the world. This is a post-apocalyptic science fiction fantasy in deep space on a planet ravaged by an interstellar fungus and protected by bioengineered teleporting dragons. Surprisingly little of that is visible here. I’m not sure if this is to its credit or demerit. Certainly, the book is deeply reliant on the rest of the series, not only for general background explanation and worldbuilding but also because the plots of the other books impinge into the events of this. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that all the things that actually happen here are things that happen onscreen in Dragonquest, and if you haven’t read that first, this book must seem very perplexing. As it happened, I DID read this first – but I’m rather atypical in terms of how much unexplained off-screen action I can accept. In any case, this raises the uncomfortable issue of how this trilogy is meant to interact with the main sequence again – as I commented when reviewing the first book. Meanwhile, I rather wished this book itself were a little more fantastic, as too much of it seemed worldly, even modern, in its feel and its details. Characters even eat cereal for breakfast, for instance. None of that is lethal to the book, but does feel like a wasted opportunity. The really alien elements – the dragons, and Thread – are glossed over here, presumably because they were already familiar after their introduction in earlier books.

The word, therefore, in the broadest sense – from the solar system right down to the walls of the hold – is not broken, but not particularly deep or glistening. That attraction being absent, the characters have to take up much of the slack, and here McCaffrey really is disappointing. Menolly is barely a character – partly because she is young, partly because she is shy, and partly because her thoughts and behaviours are often pushed around by events, making it hard to see much of the underlying personality. What we do see is of course likeable, if a little Mary Sue-ish. Well, VERY Mary Sue, actually, but it’s less of a problem than in the first book – here, the only thing that REALLY matters is her musical genius, and that’s the central conceit of the book. The rest can mostly be set to one side (although it’s still suspicious how good she is at everything musical, from copying sheetmusic to assembling drums – the story would be better if her talents were more strictly limited to composition).

Around her there are sixty or so characters, by the dramatis personae – but most are cameos. Of those who have more time, Sebell and Talmor are faceless male benefactors; Robinton is mostly free of personality beyond inspiring religious-level devotion in all who meet him, for no clear reason (although we do see some glimpses of the more complicated, troubled character McCaffrey seems to fall in love with later on – but the combination of Robinton’s own facade and Menolly’s limited viewpoint restrict our access to his soul to a few lines here and there); Silvina and Dunca play opposing sides of the matriarchal cliche; some girls play the brats and bullies, another plays the shy nice girl who befriends the heroine; Piemur is, in the words of the book itself, a “scamp”, who seems drawn from some Dickensian-lite portrait of a jolly urchin. Morshall, Jerint, Arnor and Oldive are one-note cliches. Groghe seems like a cliche, displays hints of something more, but doesn’t get enough screentime to follow through on the promise.

The one truly interesting character is Camo, the mentally disabled servant. Some may find the rather unsparing depiction of his mental inadequacy, and the off-hand use of terms like “dull-witted”, somewhat offensive. Others may simply find his antics painful. Personally, I found him a high-note: note because I didn’t find him annoying, since I did, but because I think the author manages to be very matter-of-fact about him. Central is the point that there is absolutely no reason whatsoever for there to be a man with learning disabilities in this book. None at all. It provides a minor plot point, but that could have been handled just as well without him. Camo is not there to advance the plot, and he’s not there to laugh at either (he’s more painful than amusing), and McCaffrey doesn’t try to make the character less painful to watch in any way, and nor does she try to make him more entertaining. The fact that he’s “dull-witted” (clinically so, his “brains are addled”) is simply a fact about the character that is never explained, and never really even commented on. The terms people use to describe him aren’t meant as insults or mockery, and in that way I think the author does very well in presenting mentally disabled people in a low-tech setting in a way that might reflect how (in a more intelligent and caring environment, which the Harper Hall is) such people might be seen and dealt with, without having the book actually be ABOUT their disability.

See? Even the simplest and least promising books can still surprise!

Adrenaline: 1/5. I read through it fairly quickly, but more because I found it comfortable than because it gripped me. I think if it had been longer, I would have struggled with it; you’d have to really care about the characters and/or the setting in order to be engaged, I think – there are no thrills and cliffhangers here.

Emotion: 2/5. I did care a little about the characters, and there were a few touching moments.

Thought: 2/5. It’s simplistic and straightforward – but a little more cerebral than those adjectives might suggest, because it is mostly psychological. And because so much is off-screen that it can be hard to hold it all together.

Beauty: 3/5. It’s got music in it, and joy in music. The prose isn’t outstanding, but I think it does a good job of conveying the joy Menolly feels, and her gradual opening to the world.

Craft: 3/5. Don’t know what to say about it. If this is the sort of book you like, there’s nothing really wrong with it. If this is the sort of book you don’t like, there’s nothing to make it worth reading in spite of that.

Endearingness: 4/5. Empathetic main character, slow and easy pace, beautiful emotions, wondrous (to me!) setting – I know this isn’t a great book, but even so I find myself re-reading it repeatedly.

Originality: 3/5. It’s quite different, as sci-fantasy coming-of-age stories with dragons in them go.

Overall: 3/7. Bad, but with redeeming features.