Saturday, May 22, 2010

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

Note: I wrote this review a month ago, and saved it so that I wouldn't spoil anything for Brent. Any similarities between our reviews means that he cribbed off of me, and not the other way around.

On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen. He dint make the groun shake nor nothing like that when he come on to my spear he wernt all that big plus he lookit poorly. He done the reqwyrt he ternt and stood and clattert his teef and made his rush and there we wer then. Him on 1 end of the spear kicking his life out and me on the other end watching him dy. I said, 'Your tern now my tern later.'

Sweet baby Jesus, I love Riddley Walker. I'm not really in the habit of re-reading books, but when I saw that the AV Club was doing their monthly book club on Riddley Walker in April, I encourage Brent to read this with me.

I am happy to report that it is as awesome as I remember. Riddley Walker is set approximately 2700 years in the future, in an England having advanced roughly to the Iron Age after a nuclear war that occurred around present day. England, now called Inland, is ruled by a shadowy government called the Ram, and order is maintained by the Pry Mincer and Wes Mincer (derivatives of prime minister and westminster) who maintain a traveling puppet show that tells and re-tells the culture's central myth, the Eusa Story. The Eusa Story is cobbled together from disparate parts; while it tells a broken version of the nuclear war that ruined society, it is also mixed with the story of St. Eustace, as well as government propaganda. Like most religious texts, various versions of it are told, and it is interpreted in wildly different ways.

When his father dies in a bizarre accident, Riddley becomes his community's conexion man, responsible for interpreting everyday events as well as telling the significance of the traveling Eusa show. Shortly after his initiation into this role, Riddley is drawn into a conflict between those who wish to seek the sort of knowledge that brought civilization to ruin and those who would stop them.

I have been thinking on Riddley Walker for a few days now, and it is a difficult book to characterize simply. It seems to me that it is ultimately a story about knowledge--what it is, how it is gathered, and what it is worth. In 2700 years language would surely have evolved into something much different from English, but the strange, broken idiom that Riddley speaks is representative of the perverse, askew version of Western culture and religion in which he lives. Knowledge, like language, has not been lost, but shifted, changed, twisted. Early in the book, Riddley is told the story of "Why the Dog Wont Show its Eyes," about how man and woman received the "1st knowing":

The man and woman seen the fire shyning in the dogs eyes. The man throwit meat to the dog and the dog come into them by the fire. Brung its eyes in our of the nite and then they all lookit at the nite to gether. The man and the woman seen the nite in the dogs eyes and thats when they got the 1st knowing of it. They knowit the nite the same as the dog knowit.

There seems to be a distinction being made between the "1st knowing," a sort of primal understanding of things represented by their shapes, and more advanced forms of knowledge. To understand the shape of something is to know it instinctively, to be able to feel it in three dimensions. In the legend, the man and woman become more "clevver," gaining the sort of knowledge that is represented by numbers instead of shapes, and they lose the 1st knowing.

Hoban presents this progression of knowledge without judgment. On the one hand, it is easy to lament the way that man has lost this primal knowledge, and it is easy also to sympathize with Riddley when he encounters the remnants of twentieth-century era machinery:

How cud any 1 not want to get that shyning Power back from time to time back way back? How cud any 1 not want to be like them what had boats in the air and picters on the wind? How cud any 1 not want to see them shyning weals turning?

And indeed it seems that progress is inevitable; Riddley is unable to stop the Pry Mincer of Inland in rediscovering the secret ingredients that create gunpowder, and it is unclear as to whether or not he should. Riddley is set deep in this conflict, but he seems to be on different sides at different times, desperate to act but unsure what for or what against.

There is much that I would like to talk about but am unable to touch upon. Riddley Walker is a complex book that rewards revisiting, and I think that it would take many more times re-reading to fully understand it. Even so, I recommend it highly--this is one of my absolute favorite books.

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