Recently Read & Reviewed
Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
Russell Hoban’s book (published in 1980 and considered a classic of literary SF) can certainly be labeled and categorized, if you’re lazy. If you’re really trying hard to place it in the right bin, then you’ll have to take a number of issues into consideration. This will be a reductively comic review for a book that spills over excessively from its 220 pages. My personal taxonomy isn’t enlightened but it goes like this:
- STORY. The plot, such as it is, goes like this. Riddley Walker (a 12 yr old) is part of a tribe of people living approx. 2000 years from now in Kent, England. We are to understand that some sort of nuclear holocaust occurred and literally set back progress and technological development by a long time. Thus the people of England have separated back into tribal structures, some that farm, and some that roam. Religion has mutated into a strange shamanic ritual of Punch and Judy puppets and mish-mashed tales of the devil and quantum mechanics. Riddley is sort of forced from his situated tribe out into the world because he has just been “named” and killed a wild boar with a spear. This is a big day for a person in his culture. After this, he takes on his tribal job as a connector/seer. Tho it seems that many are irked by his ability to make friendly with the wild packs of dogs that roam the countryside attacking and eating stray people.
Here’s the thing, tho. This story is solid. It is, as they say, my jam. And yet it didn’t carry me through. The precarious mix of futuristic/chopped English patois and the constant return to a shamanic metaphysics (all of which is my interest!) just didn’t keep me interested enough to turn the page when the linguistic going got rough. I got to the last three chapters and stalled. I was so angry that it was taking me this long to get interested in the story and that the language was prohibiting me from finishing. All of which is my problem, I know. So I jumped to the end and read the last chapter, didn’t see anything revelatory and decided to stop. I am not miffed or confused or feel short-changed. I feel like I got all I needed to get out of the book.
Again, the story wasn’t the issue in and of itself. It is the kind of plot that persists through plenty of SFF. A friend of mine, when I told him I was reading Riddley Walker said, “It’s amazing that even tho the language is so striking he was still able to write an interesting story.” Agreed. And yet I think the language distracted the story in a way that few books have ever had to worry about.
- LANGUAGE. I’ve read A Clockwork Orange and got it. I’ve read Trainspotting and got it. I’ve read those phonetic sections in Iain M. Banks’s Feersum Endjinn and got it. Sections of Cloud Atlas. Got it. I’ve attempted to read Finnegans Wake and stopped. I did not get it. But for some reason, this go round took me much longer to grok Hoban’s style of writing in a broken future patois. (I have seen a version that has an extensive glossary and maps and explanations and everything. I would recommend, despite my bitching, that you DO NOT BUY IT. Srsly, try it yrself. My experience is not a reflection of your capability as a reader, of course.) The answer to these types of issues are actually really easy to solve, I think. You’re meant to read the all of these out loud at some point. The sooner the better. I resisted doing this with Riddley Walker, tho. So that meant that the story was cut-off from me for a bit.
Here’s the beginning of Chapter 11:
Raining agen it wer nex morning. Theres rains and rains. This 1 wer coming down in a way as took the hart and hoap out of you there wer a kynd of brilyants in the grey it wer too hard it wer too else it made you feal like all the tracks in the worl wer out paths nor not a 1 to bring you back. Wel of coarse they are but it dont all ways feal that way. It wer that kynd of morning when peopl wernt jus falling in to what they done naturel they had to work ther selfs in to it. Seamt like a lot of tea got spilt at breakfas nor the talk wernt the userel hummeling and mummeling there wer some thing else in it. Like when you see litening behynt the clouds.
This is gorgeous stuff. I like this. It’s got a cadence and by this point in the book you’re pretty well (“pertywel”) flowing along with it. But it does, at some point, take a toll. And when a character who’s precocious is going on about the soul and metaphysics—which is, in itself, a tough subject and abstract—I grew tired and impatient. Which is a flaw in me. I know that. Yet, I wasn’t digesting the book when I did understand it. Which makes me wonder what the relationship between me and a book is at that point. We don’t match up? We don’t agree? I’m boring? The book hit a dull spot? All of the above?
I guess my real questions have less to do with Hoban’s book in particular, and more with how we finish books in general. I am married to a woman who feels pretty dead-set on finishing books, almost as a moral imperative. On occasion, she’ll put a book down, but serious life issues will need to get in the way or the book will have to be a dripping mess of offensive nonsense. I, on the other hand, give books their fair share before ducking out. There are just so many to read. And, here, I feel like I got what I came for. No resolution Hoban created was going to elevate the book above where it already had been. Again, the plot wasn’t bad, but the Main Attraction here is the language. And if you want to read the language and luxuriate in it—then that’s your bag. If not, then there are other books with similar enough plots to keep you reading.
As it is, I’ve been reading up on Hoban and his book after Riddley Walker, Pilgermann seems more up my aesthetic alley. So I’m going to give that a go in a few months.
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