Back to The Head of Orpheus: a Russell Hoban Reference Page (home).
Through The Narrow Gate:
The Mythological Consciousness of Russell Hoban
by Christine Wilkie
Reviewed by Chris Moon
It is of little surprise that Russell Hoban, an author who clearly has something to say and has said it across dozens of children books, nearly 10 adult novels, as well as plays and film, might at some time have drawn the critical gaze of professorial analysis. That analysis was to come in 1989, in the form of Christine Wilkie's Through the Narrow Gate: The Mythological Consciousness of Russell Hoban (Associated University Presses, Inc.)
The book is slim, only 135 pages, and a good portion of this is taken up with Notes, Bibliography and Index, so if you're thinking of putting the $30+ down at Amazon for the special order, you may want to realize you're only buying about 118 pages worth of book, and to what value those 118 pages are to the average Hoban reader is what the rest of this review is about.
My first complaint about Through the Narrow Gate (TNG) is that nowhere can I find any information about the author. To her credit, Wilkie has both assembled an impressive bibliography (quoting several pieces that would appear later in Moment under the Moment along with material that escaped that publication), as well as putting an educated light upon Hoban's writings that is grounded solidly in depth psychology and comparative religion/mythology. All of this makes one want to look up Wilkie's credentials, especially given how these particular schools of thought have fallen out of favor (notably depth psychology) over the past two decades. But alas, to this end the book is silent leaving the curious or skeptical reader at a complete loss.
But getting to the book itself, Wilkie faces a sizable dilemma and it is not one I am sure she entirely overcomesnamely that in attempting to analyze Hoban's work she faces the very real danger of capturing the written content of his books while missing the active content; the same danger, I might add, that anyone who has tried to formalize the rules of the sacred or mysterious has always faced. Story telling, especially with Hoban, undergoes a process I can only call magic, where not merely the words but the motion of the words and the motion of ideas within the words takes on a higher order of significanceperhaps a higher state of language. Wilkie clearly recognizes this, but no manner of terminology can really express the heart of the mystery as an emotive cluster of idea, thought and imagery as Hoban does in the process of telling a story. The effort on Wilke's part is noble, and there are particular themes which can and should be dwelt upon as they help amplify many aspects of Hoban's writing, but the dilemma remains, nonetheless.
One aspect of this material that readers might object to is being told when something equals something else, and I would recommend, as in all symbolic distillations, that the author's commentary be taken with a grain of salt. While Wilkie seems inerrant in her assessments, her strong wording often misses the fundamental relation of author to book and book to reader: Just as Hoban refers to the book as a sort of artifact produced by the process of writing, the book is also not equal to the reader's experience, and I cannot believe that books such as Pilgermann were meant to elicit one singular and consistent thought, but instead trigger a range of possible connections between the reader and our hero Pilgermann, who is in that exact same process of attempting to see the connections in the patterns of an incomprehensible universe. For this reason, the author perhaps might have taken more care in her wording.
Despite my objections however, TNG was an intelligent and fascinating (though altogether too brief) overview of Hoban's books up to and including The Medusa Frequency as well as chapters detailing the movie version of Turtle Diary, the stage adaptation of Riddley Walker, and The Carrier Frequency. In the course of reviewing the books, Wilkie does an excellent job, and gives numerous quotes which were selected with care, often imparting an overall sense of the book in only a hundred words or so. She also enforces both her ideas and Hoban's through the use of external sources including interviews and essays. In general her conclusions about symbolism and deeper meaning are reasonable and I found few occasions to disagree with her arguments. As to what use these arguments are to Hoban readers however I am unclear. Perhaps I simply have misunderstood the audience this was written for, but most people who are consuming books like The Medusa Frequency are probably well aware of the symbolism involved, either because they've read a lot of the same source material, or because they have some intuitive sense of itremember, shaman priests didn't go out and pick up a copy of Eliade's Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy first, and the collective unconscious doesn't require owning stock in Bollingen presssome readers are going to 'get' Hoban without all the academia, purely because Hoban does an excellent job of explaining himself. All of this leaves me wondering just what is really being accomplished. Again, the answer might be quite simple if we knew something about the author; and could hence understand her purpose.
I am hoping at this point I have not overwhelmed anyone with an exceeding amount of negativity, for as stated above, in almost all cases Wilkie does a terrific job, and for the most part I am only nit-picking at the difficulties this sort of project has to face, as well as getting a little of my bewilderment down on paper. But before I get to the really great things about this book I still have a few more gripes. First and foremost, the chapter on The Carrier Frequency is completely inadequate. Like most people, I haven't seen The Carrier Frequency, and in between all the inspiring things that Wilkie has to say about it is an altogether uninspiring quote that sounds a bit like badly recycled Riddley Walker spoke in Jar-Jar-ese. It probably isn't representative at all, but the whole two pages of this chapter left me baffled.
Another disappointment, though minor: I really don't consider the Mouse and his Child's acquisition of territory and their decorating of the doll house at the end of the book to represent the taking up of the 'mores and pretensions of Establishment.' (p.27) Wilkie cites this as a thematic conflict but I personally think she has missed just where Hoban is coming from. While elsewhere she points to the metamorphosis of the Mouse and Child as an important and reoccurring motif in all of Hoban's books, she fails to see that while the actions of the toys do in fact resemble that of 'Establishment', Mouse and Child are no longer part of that dismal stream of consciousness that lies within the consensus of limited reality, and in so being changed, the results of their actions do not produce the same vapid fare that the Establishment at the beginning of the book produces. Instead, the utopian vision described in the aftermath of Manny's demise seems to me the author's subtextual message that only after this act of Individuation, the passing through self-dissolution and rediscovery, do those same actions taken by Establishment come to mean more than hollow gestures but come to at last have real meaning.
With these small complaints out of the way let me get to all that was right with the book. Most rewarding to any Hoban fan will be the interview near the end which is by far the longest section in the book and listed only as an appendix. Though in every interview and essay there is a considerable amount of overlap, Hoban seems quite humbled and almost self-effacing in this particular encounter, delving into much more personal territory. Central to the second half of the interviewthat is, where he begins to talk more about himself and his familyis the ruination of that family he had in America, to which end Hoban offers no justification and takes all the blame. How many Hoban fans will want to be let this far in to his personal life I don't know, but again and again it all comes back to the 'living in the heart of the mystery', and Hoban resolves himself to that mystery. Hoban makes clear that he is living the actions in him, not writing to write books but writing to write. In this same light, these more personal elements seem only a part of Hoban's reqwyrd Chaynjis and perhaps add more perspective to his books than do all of Wilkie's analysis, and in this I mean that what Hoban says here is of substantial importance.
Having said all this, and without wanting to give a blow-by-blow, chapter by chapter review of the book proper, let me conclude by weighing the goods with the bads, and give you my advice as to whether TNG will be worth your effort in searching out. Once again, I found the interview quite rewarding, and enjoyed a great deal of Wilkie's commentary elsewhere. Her assessment of each of the characters in The Medusa Frequency as a mythical archetype is fairly entertaining whether you buy into it or not. Also, the last chapter which surveys Hoban's children writings is probably the most inclusive overview you are likely to find, along with many astute observations and a few wonderful quotes from Hoban taking aim at stories with a message. Though not of interest to most, TNG also includes a fantastic bibliography, citing articles about or by Hoban I have never even heard of. This is the key to a fun-filled afternoon in the Library.
Among the book's negative scores however are its brevity, its lack of usefulness to the Hoban fan, as well as its general unavailability. It also doesn't operate on the same premise of book reviews, offering no real criticisms or evaluationssomething which might have made the book more interesting. One further (and perhaps deciding) point worth mentioning is that there is little that is covered here that isn't covered in The Moment under the Moment except of course the academic discourse, to which Hoban offers his own variant in Momenta variant I should add that I find much more appealing. Ultimately, Hoban on Hoban makes for a better read than anyone else on Hoban (of course, look who they are competing against!)
My suggestion to those interested in Wilkie's text is to check the library or see if a cheaper copy can be obtained used. I can see this book being the source of a great deal of friendly discussion and debate, but in and of itself does not seem to be something I need to add to my personal collection. To TNG's credit however, this was published a few years before Moment and if that book were not available (or is not available, I keep forgetting how hard it is to obtain a copy) TNG would be a great alternative for a glimpse into some of what lies at the root of Hoban's writing.
Note: Through the Narrow Gate: the Mythological Consciousness of Russell Hoban is currently available as a special order through Amazon.com. It can also be ordered directly from The Associated University Presses at the following address:
The Associated University Presses
440 Forsgate Drive
AUP's telephone number is (609) 655-4770, and their email is AUP440@aol.com. The cost of the book is $32.50 and the order number is 3339-0.
Back to The Head of Orpheus: a Russell Hoban Reference Page (home).