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"The Big What-Is-It"

Mr Rinyo-Clacton's Offer,
Russell Hoban,
Random House hardback, NZ$39.95

"In a poster on the wall a large black rugby player hurtled towards me at full speed. 'IMAGINE A TRAIN HURTLING TOWARDS YOU AT FULL SPEED,' said the poster. 'NOW DOUBLE IT.'"

Ever have the feeling that life is bearing down on you? Do you find yourself on streets with non-functioning doors and no backs to things? Jonathan Fitch - victim of low-budget afternoons - does. If you sympathise, you are bound for places you perhaps did not know existed.

Mr Rinyo-Clacton's Offer involves death, destiny and loss. Jonathan Fitch conveniently subscribes to the belief that men are programmed to have sex with as many women as possible, has just lost his job as a salesman for a 'self-realisation' programme and, thanks to his infidelity, his raven-haired girlfriend Serafina.

Mr Rinyo-Clacton looks like Lord Lucan and frequents the Royal Opera House. He extricates Fitch from a stupor in Piccadilly Circus tube station. One thing leads to another and, in an erotic, shocking and yet comical scene, Fitch extends his talent for doing things he later regrets. Among them, Fitch accepts Rinyo-Clacton's offer of a million pounds cash in exchange for the 'harvesting' of his life after a year and, as a consequence, lives with the possibility of being HIV-positive.

Hoban's friendly voice welcomes readers to his unique, universal vision, enabling us to accept the fruits of his imagination. Occasionally obscure works of art illustrate the protagonist's thoughts; to such an extent that these pages are like rooms in a museum. Familiarity with each masterpiece isn't necessary but, without resorting to 'Artspeak', Hoban ensures you want to make their acquaintance as soon as you put down the book.

Hoban's last novel was the sci-fi mystery Fremder. In it, deep space sparkled with snatches of music - as if we were encountering our own radio transmissions on their way to other galaxies. There are enough familiar moments in this book, too, to keep you occupied for months.

German poet Rainer-Maria Rilke said hello in The Medusa Frequency and Fremder; Dutch artist Samuel von Hoogstraten's perspective box, 'Views of the Interior of a Dutch House' (in the National Gallery, London) appears here and in The Last of the Wallendas. Jazz master Thelonious Monk put in an appearance in The Moment Under The Moment and Assyrian King Ashurbanipal - lion hunting from a chariot on a relief in the British Museum - provided the premise for Hoban's first novel, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz.

Mr Rinyo-Clacton's Offer belongs to a literary tradition that can be traced back, via von Chamisso's 1814 Peter Schlemihl, to Marlowe's 16th Century Tragical History of Dr Faustus and includes William Hjortsberg's Falling Angel (inspiration for Alan Parker's film Angel Heart). But this book is wickedly funny. Even urban clichés are fed fresh symbolism and mundane pop lyrics are invested with poignancy. Only Hoban knows how to do this and, as far as I know, only he bothers to try. He has gradually appropriated part of the language and deserves a prize for offering neglected words employment: paradigm, palimpsest, epiphany, occulting... He transports you to a world where phrases like "the Big What-Is-It" are less nonsensical than they ostensibly seem.

Occasionally, he prods you in the ribs to make sure you're paying attention: "I smelled money and something else, medicinal and disciplinary, that I thought of as bitter aloes. As far as I know I've never smelled bitter aloes but the name suggests the smell I have in mind."

After getting a whiff of Mr Rinyo-Clacton, you might find yourself biting that chariot wheel with Boaz-Jachin and his father Jachin-Boaz; or getting a taste of Kleinzeit's medicine; being liberated with William and Neaera in Turtle Diary; roading it out to Cambry with post-nuclear Huck Finn, Riddley Walker; braving the journey to Jerusalem with Pilgermann; receiving transmissions from Hermann Orff's lamp-lit binnacle in The Medusa Frequency; or space-walking with Fremder. You don't have to do any of that to enjoy this book but, in the world of Russell Hoban, the deeper you dig, the more treasures you unearth.


The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz (1973)
Kleinzeit (1974)
Turtle Diary (1975)
Riddley Walker (1980)
Pilgermann (1983)
The Medusa Frequency (1987)
The Moment Under The Moment - Stories, a Libretto, Essays & Sketches (1992)
Fremder (1996)
The Last of The Wallendas And Other Poems (1997) - suitable for older children

Chris Bell


Book review: Mr Rinyo-Clacton's Offer, Russell Hoban
Reviewer: Chris Bell
Commissioned by: John Corbett, Editor, Shelf Life - News & Views About Books (New Zealand A4-format magazine), for the July 1998 issue. Available from: Shelf Life Publishing Ltd, P. O. Box 9697, Newmarket, Auckland 1031, New Zealand. Overseas subscriptions US$39.95 for one year (minimum 6 issue).

© Shelf Life Publishing, 1998

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