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Parts not reached by other writers

By Russell Hoban
Random House NZ$39.95

Russell Hoban is not a name that graces the world's best-seller lists. You won't have been hit head-on by his greatest achievements, because he takes risks in a quieter way. Some of his children's books, like The Mouse and His Child, are already classics, others, like The Trokeville Way, are destined to join them. In his novels, as Martin Amis does, he invokes London so successfully you don't actually need to have been there - astonishing when you consider that he was born in Pennsylvania.

His third novel, Turtle Diary, published in 1975, became a motion picture, with screenplay by Harold Pinter, starring Glenda Jackson and Ben Kingsley. His fourth, Riddley Walker, propelled the reader so wholeheartedly into a post-apocalyptic future that it provided not only a new dialect but a new language.

I don't know how familiar you are with Frank Zappa's compositions (I say compositions because I don't mean his public image), but he was perhaps the closest artistic equivalent. Hoban is alive and I hope he maintains this state for some considerable time. However, Hoban and Zappa have given the world an integrated and monumental body-of-work. Names, themes and in-jokes reoccur so reliably that both enjoy a loyal cult following. Such fidelity is theirs because they have created not a microcosm, but a universe.

Mr Rinyo-Clacton's Offer, the eighth instalment in the Hobanology, is about death, destiny and loss - or, in Hoban language, 'goneness'. Jonathan Fitch, a university graduate, has previously worked for a company that published works with names like 'Hermetic Modes of Semiosis in the Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke' (this gag is but another of the golden threads sewn through Hoban's books) and as an advertising copywriter. He has just lost his job as a salesman for a 'self-realisation' programme and, more crucially, his girlfriend, Serafina.

The diabolical Mr Rinyo-Clacton, who talks like a BBC correspondent, finds Fitch in a self-destructive stupor at Piccadilly Circus tube station. In a pact of the deadliest kind, he offers Fitch a million pounds cash in exchange for the pleasure of 'harvesting' his life after a year. Hoban has an extraordinary knack of conveying time, emotion and the essence of a relationship in a chapter hardly longer than a haiku. He demands much of his reader, frequently referring to other works of art in such tantalisingly detail that you feel you must search them out to experience them for yourself. This may sound frustrating; you will certainly find this a more voluminous book than it appears. Fortunately, Hoban imbues his symbology with enough strength for the images to stand independent of their maker, whether referring to a work by Rilke, Caspar David Friedrich or Lafcadio Hearn - they speak freely and differently to each of us.

He has never been a writer for whom plot and character development are paramount. It is atmosphere, apparent coincidence and humour that abound. Yet, towards the end of this book, Hoban executes some exhilarating twists in his story.

I cannot begin to praise him enough; to understand why, you may have to read more than this novel alone. It is but one facet in the body-of-work. Daring and outlandish though his writing has become (often he seems to ride the crest of the wave ahead), his magical-surrealism is never less than a refreshing mental tune-up. If you had never heard of Hoban before, you are forgiven - but do yourself a favour: make yourself an appointment for a brain-massage. I guarantee that his writing will take you to previously undiscovered places in your head.

Chris Bell is a novelist based in Waiuku

Book review: Mr Rinyo-Clacton's Offer, Russell Hoban
Reviewer: Chris Bell
Written for: Gordon McLauchlan, Books Editor, New Zealand Herald (Saturday issue of daily newspaper), 1998.

© New Zealand Herald, 1998

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