Saturday, May 22, 2010

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

“I hispert back, "O, what we ben! And what we come to!" Boath of us were siffling and snuffling then. Me looking at them jynt machines, and him lissening to their sylents. Right then I didnt know where I wer with any thing becaws all on a sudden I wernt seeing any thing from where I seen it befor... Now all the sudden Eusa and Eusas head and the little shyning man had becom some thing woaly diifrnt in my mynd to what they were before. How cud any 1 not want to get that shining power from back way back? How cud any 1 not want to be like them what had boats in the air and picters on the winds? How cud any 1 not want to see them shyning weals terning?”

Minor Spoilers Below.

If you didn’t make it through the excerpt above, there’s a chance Riddley Walker isn’t for you. Told entirely in a severely degraded form of English, Riddley Walker follows the titular protagonist through approximately two weeks of his life, from his Naming Day on his 12th birthday. The setting in which Riddley Walker takes place is post-apocalyptic in the extreme. Although it’s never made explicit, it’s implied that there was a nuclear war which literally blew England (and possibly the entire world) back to the Stone Age. There are no guns, no computers, no electricity, and only the vaguest traces of the modern world remain. The government, what’s left of it, spreads information through religious/political puppet shows called Eusa Shows. Eusa himself may or may not have been a real person, but is now remembered mainly from Eusa Story, a religious myth which tries to explain, in terms the remaining humans can understand, what the human race used to be capable of and how they’ve ended up where they are today.

Summarizing the plot itself, which revolves around the attempts of several factions to create gunpowder, is pointless, since the real beauty of Riddley Walker comes from the themes and, especially, the language. As mentioned above, there’s hardly a sentence in the entire book written in modern English, save a short story about a painting of St. Eustace which is immediately (mis)interpreted by Goodparley, the acting Pry Mincer. Words are respelled and repurposed, first, to create dual meanings (such as “oansome” for lonesome, which rolls “on my own”, ”lonesome”, and “one” into one word); secondly, as an easy way of world-building—it’s immediately obvious that things here are different; and thirdly, to draw us into Riddley’s world and viewpoint—We’re forced to slow down and experience the world at the same pace as Riddley.

There’s a lot to this book, which took me a couple months to get through in spite of being only a couple hundred pages long, but I honestly don’t have a lot to say. There are difficult sections, but there are also moments of transcendent beauty, like the passage above, and their sheen is that much greater as a result of the ruined world surrounding them.

1 comment:

Hamish Mack said...

That's a good summation of Riddley Walker. It took me two or three tries to get through it the first time but now it is possibly my most favourite book.