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Wednesday Review: RIDDLEY WALKER

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(This is an experiment – I’m going to try a weekly review of something – book, film, music – something.  If nothing else it’ll get me in front of the computer and posting.)

I stumbled upon Russell Hoban’s book Riddley Walker by accident one summer. I was having a frustrating stint of computer trouble, and started obsessively reading a bunch of post-apocalyptic fiction; I can only assume I was looking for an escape to a world where there were no shorted-out motherboards or packet loss issues or whatever the hell was going on with my laptop.  Of all the books I read then, Riddley Walker is the only one I went on to own outright, and also the only one I’ve re-read.  Twice.

It’s a heady book at first – it’s set a couple thousand years in the future, some time after a nuclear incident of some kind; there are still people left alive, but technology has reverted back to the stone age, with people living in small isolated tribal communities, mining for iron by digging out scrap metal from the ruins of our own society.  The whole thing is written in the dialect Hoban imagines English would have turned into after a couple thousand years of that world:

Seeing that boars face in my mynd that morning in the aulders and seeing it in my mynd now I have the same thot I had then: If you cud even jus see 1 thing clear the woal of whats in it you cud see every thing clear. But you never wil get to see the woal of any thing youre all ways in the middl of it living it or moving thru it. Never mynd.

So the first few pages are slow going for most readers.  But sticking with it sucks you into Riddley’s world – he is twelve, and old enough – in that time – to be embarking on his entry into adulthood.  At first he takes on his father’s work as a sort of shaman, helping to repeat and interpret the “Eusa shows” – heady mixes of half-remembered oral history combined with the biography of Saint Eustace, told by traveling players using Punch and Judy puppets.  But after his first go at sermonizing a Eusa show, Riddley suspects the two performers – known as the “Pry Mincer” and the “Wes Mincer” – have another project in mind, one which could be leading the world back onto the same path which ultimately lead to mankind’s downfall years before.

This is heady, heady stuff, with much to say about the hidden dangers inside technological advances and the need to use them carefully. Riddley speaks again and again about a plot point in the Eusa story, in which the “Littl Shining Man” is split in two; early on it’s apparent that this is about splitting the atom, but Riddley’s story makes a case this could also mean mankind severing himself from the natural world, or even about the Pry Mincer trying to sever people from scientific know-how in an effort to preserve the status quo.

The language and world-building is also absorbing, even though it may take you a couple pages to get into it.  It’s entirely credible how such a take on history would have developed in that world, and the language – tough going though it is – comes to have its own weird poetry – 

I dont have nothing only words to put down on paper. Its so hard. Some times theres mor in the emty paper nor there is when you get the writing down on it. You try to word the big things and they tern ther backs on you. Yet youwl see stanning stoans and ther backs wil talk to you.

This is the same author that brought us Emmett Otter’s Jugband Christmas, A Mouse And His Child and Bread And Jam For Frances.  It is quite unlike all of them – and quite unlike anything else, for that matter.


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