Wednesday, May 23, 2012

38. Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

My brother-in-law discovered this interesting little crossover of post-apocalyptic and high literature and gave it to me for xmas.  It was a really interesting, though at times challenging read.  The book is written by Riddley Walker, who is a 12-year old boy in a post-nuclear Britain.  Though he is 12, he is basically a man and the book starts with his father getting crushed to death by some machine they were digging out of the mud.  Society has regressed to a world of fenced in villages with a mix of limited agriculture and mining for iron, which means digging old dead machines out of the ground.

The whole book is written by Riddley, in his voice and language, which is a devolved, phonetic english.  At first, it's tough to figure out even what the hell he is talking about, but after a while, you start to slowly pick up meaning (by context and hearing the sounds in your head and sometimes by Riddley explaining things).  On top of that, this primitive world has developed its own complex worldview, religion and history that the reader has to pick apart like an anthropologist.  This special language, plus the truly grim and hardscrabble lives these people lead reminded me of Cormac McCarthy at least in the feeling I got when reading it.  What Hoban is going for here, though is much more ambitious and complex than The Road.  It is also the part that made it a bit challenging.

There are various higher-up roles in the society here, including two men who go around from town to town and do a puppet show.  They are more like religious figures and the puppet show is an opaque parable that requires interpretation, which everybody seems to be doing.  Given the state of affairs, these are an amazingly introspective and philosophical people.  Maybe you have to be when your ancestors almost destroyed the world and left you in the mud.  There is a "connexion man" in each village whose job it is after the puppet show to share with the rest of the village a thought or idea. Riddley Walker's dad was the connexion man but when he dies, Riddley takes over and that's when things start getting weird for him.  He soon finds himself on a path that will change their society for ever as well as force him into new levels of introspection and understanding.

That was where the book bogged down for me.  There were pages and pages of Riddley thinking things through, trying to figure out how his mythology jibes with what is going on around him and the new mythology he learns.  It's all quite cleverly done and if you enjoy that sort of philosophical/anthropological mind puzzle, you will probably really get into this book.  It is probably the most succesful PA book that I've read that really seemed to capture realistically what might happen to human culture and language in such a situation.  The philosophizing parts just went on a bit too long for my simple, narrative-addicted mind.  I would say that if you are a student of the PA genre, you have to add this to your list for sure.


gloria said...

Just set up a google alert for the the words Riddley Walker and your review came up. I must have read dozens of reviews of this book over the years. Yours is one of the best. I like your honesty about the sections where it bogs down. Most reviewers tend to gloss over that fact and try to make their readers believe they are above getting bogged down.
Riddley Walker is an amazing book.

Sadly, I can not get any of my friends to read it. I'm forced to discuss it with strangers. Good to know it continues to have plenty of readers and remains at the top of the PA list.

OlmanFeelyus said...

Thanks for commenting and the nice compliment, Gloria! I felt like I really didn't give the kind of effort I should have in the review, so I'm glad to hear that some of it came across.

That's funny about trying to get your friends to read it. I think were I not in such a reading frenzy these days, I might have had trouble finishing it. I know I have at least one friend who gave up halfway through! As I say, if you are a fan/student of the genre, you really have to read this book.