In a more just universe, Russell Hoban would be widely celebrated as the author of one of the most ambitious novels of the later 20th century: Riddley Walker (1980). Miserably, though, in much of the English-reading world – including the US, where he was born – he remains best known for his children’s books about Frances the Badger. They have remained continuously in print for more than half a century. There’s Bread and Jam for Frances, in which she refuses to eat anything but bread and jam, and Bedtime for Frances, in which she rebels against sleep routines. Until, that is, she learns to be good and the fuzzy family in bathrobes and slippers gets cosy again.
Was Hoban trying to outrun the reputation of these books when, in 1969, he moved to London? There he divorced his wife and co-author/illustrator, Lillian, and began to write fiction stuffed with so much guignol sex, mutilation, death and loneliness that no one could mistake him for an author of bedtime read-alouds. It’s true that Lillian’s illustrations give the Frances books a melancholy zaniness, but unlike the grown-up novels that followed between 1973 and 2010, eight of which are now appearing as Penguin Modern Classics, they’re not concerned with blockage, depression and crisis. The adult novels, however, have something childlike about them, and crisis begets transformation.
‘There were no lions anymore. There had been lions once. Sometimes, in the shimmer of the heat on the plains the motion of their running still flickered on the dry wind – tawny, great, and quietly gone.’ The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and the Lion of Jachin-Boaz (1973) opens with these lines, fit for a fairy tale. But the mysterious doubling of the title is echoed in the ambiguity of the opening: this is a world drained of majesty and magic, which at the same time registers their continued ghostly presence.
Hoban is happiest working in flickers and shimmers. The word ‘flickers’ becomes central to the plot of Fremder (1996), a piece of sci-fi ostensibly about the mechanics of deep space travel that is also an Oedipal mystery novel about Holocaust survivor trauma. ‘Shimmering’ governs Pilgermann (1983), a gory historical novel, set during the First Crusade and told by a forcibly castrated, wandering Jew. It was heavily informed – both in theme and style – by the experience of psychedelics. In Riddley Walker, the narrator examines the ruins of an electrical power station near Canterbury, two millennia after a nuclear holocaust, and comments, in his radioactively broken English: ‘Wel really there aint no stilness any where is there. Not 1ce you begin to take noatis.’ This devotion to vibrations, simultaneous here-and-gone-ness, particle and wave, permeates Hoban’s sentences. In Kleinzeit (1974), objects become characters and speak to the protagonist directly: he’s addressed by his hospital bed, the London Underground, reams of yellow paper and a glockenspiel.
The plot of Hoban’s lion tale is similarly Heisenbergish. Jachin-Boaz is a mapmaker who ‘sold husband maps and wife maps. He sold maps to poets that showed where thoughts of power and clarity had come to other poets. He sold well-digging maps … money and jewel maps to thieves and thief maps to the police.’ Jachin-Boaz has taken the measure of everything, without realising that in doing so he’s also reduced himself. His son, Boaz-Jachin, points out that the master map he’s made, meant to lead anyone to their heart’s desire, contains no lions. This provokes a crisis: Jachin-Boaz abandons his family, and their home in a land that’s recognisably Israel, to reinvent himself in a city that’s recognisably London.
The story alternates between the perspectives of father and son, just as Turtle Diary (1975) alternates masculine and feminine viewpoints. These parallel structures suggest both a connection despite separation and a separation even when there is shared experience. The two diarists, Naera H. and William G., come up with a plan to free the sea turtles from London Zoo. But the action gives them only a fleeting sense of fulfilment. Neither thinks they have struck a blow for animal rights, or human rights, or greater ecological consciousness. William feels briefly ‘unlumbered’. Naera, a writer of children’s books grown tired of ‘furry animal picnics’, feels the rescue has risen from the same chasm as her life: ‘Where the moon ended and I began and which was which was of no consequence.’ The turtle keeper who assists them offers consolation of sorts: ‘Nothing to be done really about animals. Anything you do looks foolish. The answer isn’t in us. It’s almost as if we’re put here on earth to show how silly they aren’t.’ It sounds like a penance for the Frances books, in which animals were made to appear silly for our sake.
The novels are clearly a product of the late 1960s and early 1970s hippy shift from political action to ‘self-actualisation’, often through some kind of psychic or spiritual awakening. In The Lion, this shows itself in the doubled masculine crisis of a father’s midlife reinvention and a son’s journey from adolescence to manhood. Hoban’s work at times flows with and at times against the currents of this latter-day Romantic awakening, the New Age, and its fantasies of a wholeness that challenges borders, established religious orthodoxies and the notion of an isolated ego. In Turtle Diary, William G. reads Mircea Eliade on shamanism, attends a mass rebirthing séance presided over by an American woman wrestler turned guru, and seeks out electroshock therapy – all in the hope of what he calls ‘unlosing’ himself. Although some of these encounters are played for laughs, they aren’t dismissed as fraudulent. The effort to expand or alter consciousness can be funny but is always taken seriously.
Hoban mostly manages to avoid the mistakes of contemporaries similarly smitten with alternatives to the hyper-rational world. He didn’t pose as a guru like Ken Kesey, Carlos Castaneda or Robert Bly; nor did he adopt the unhinged expressionism of Hunter S. Thompson. He never wanted to build a movement, evangelise for drug use or found a school. Instead, he leaves space for scepticism and the possibility that there’s more than one way of understanding ‘expanded consciousness’.
Riddley Walker is where the New Age reinventions of Hoban’s sceptical hippie novels meet the terror that modernity has left us without a world, that, as Naera H. fears, ‘there’s no way to live at all.’ To describe it as a post-apocalyptic Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as well as one of the early works of what’s now been dubbed ‘eco-fiction’ would be pretty accurate and also an injustice. It’s a book about the rediscovery of comedy, two thousand years after civilisation has been wiped out. Like all Hoban’s novels, it maintains the lively pace of a road movie. In structure, it’s a series of buddy encounters – boy and dogs, boy and woman, boy and other boy, boy and older man, boy and the devil. The simplicity of the mechanism supports the complexity of the high modernist style, indebted to late Joyce and surpassing its more immediate precursor, A Clockwork Orange, in its cracked narrative idiolect: a mix of various working-class speech genres, phonetic puns, malapropisms and misremembered clichés, smuggled quotations from poets and creative misspellings (e.g. ‘coming full circle’ has become ‘coming fools circle’, and the descendants of civilisation’s intellectuals and scientists, made a caste apart and forced to bear collective guilt for nuclear disaster, try to remember lost knowledge by gathering in orgies they call ‘some poasyums’).
To further ground the prose, Hoban relies on his own invented post-apocalyptic folklore, handed on to the reader in digressive asides. These inset stories are part of the title character’s conversational patter: he’s telling a story about how he came to recognise himself as a teller of stories. Riddley is one of a group of nomadic survivors who live according to an elaborate interpretation of a fragment of the legend of St Eustace depicted at Canterbury Cathedral. Alongside this ‘Eusa story’ – it functions as both religion and science, with the Fall remembered as a literal splitting of a shining man called ‘Addom’ – there are inherited folk memories of a period of cannibalism which followed the nuclear winter, passed down in a counter canon about a chatty devil, ‘Mr Clevver’ or ‘Drop John’, who teaches rudimentary survival skills to a couple in exchange for their child’s heart.
Pieces of the past remain, but only in mangled form (the leaders of the tribal government are referred to as the Prime Mincer and the Wes Mincer). The survivors know that humans once possessed greater technologies and skills: they are bound by nostalgia – ‘we aint as good as them before us’ is a repeated axiom – but trying to recover lost technologies has kept them going in circles. The novel’s success hangs on a hard-won dramatic irony that requires the reader to puzzle out the original references behind this brave new language in order to understand the consequences of misconstrual.
Unlike Tolkien’s Middle Earth and its logical Elvish languages, intended to provide an ordered universe for dualistic fantasies of good v. evil, Riddley Walker’s world is our own, warped to breaking point. The pleasure of puzzling over Hoban’s inventiveness is complicated by the horror of the novel’s premise. The hellish aftermath of nuclear winter isn’t funny, and every pun or chopped up bit of language is a trace of this, as well as a game for the reader. At one point Riddley describes the rediscovery of organ pipes from Canterbury Cathedral:
Time back there ben foun there girt big music pipes as big as fents poals people said. You try to think of how it musve soundit when the Power Ring ben there and working, not just crummelt stannings and a ditch. It musve ben some girt jynt thing hy hy up and with a shyning and a flashing to it time back way back when they had boats in the air and all the res of it. Did it woosh and hum or ben it dumming and beating like the hart of the worl and what ben the music come out of them pipes … You can feel how there ben Power there.
We might think that a church organ does one thing and a generating station another: one belongs to art and the other to science; one is pleasing to the ear, the other keeps the engines running. The post-apocalyptic perspective is that these are aspects of the same creative energy. We can chuckle at the confusion, or we can imagine a civilisation that spent more time on creative rather than destructive aspects of that energy: pipe organs not bombs! That’s not Riddley’s world, or our own, but it was Hoban’s.
Hoban doesn’t exactly call for salvation through art, certainly not loudly. He occasionally tries to develop a more expansive mythology of the artist, as in The Medusa Frequency (1987), an updated Orpheus story. Not surprisingly, it’s his most self-indulgent (and least persuasive) novel, the one that now feels dated, full of facile gender stereotypes he elsewhere avoids. Also unsurprising is the novel’s enduring popularity among his internet fan groups. Speculating on the kind of posthumous revival his work is currently undergoing, Hoban remarked that people would remember him as ‘an interesting writer’. He was being satirical, but it’s on the nose if you think about the root sense of ‘interest’: that which is ‘between being’. Hoban’s novels are nearly always interesting because they move between modes. They flicker and shimmer.