This interview is © 1998 Jim Poyser. Used by permission.

Words! Theywl move things

Russell Hoban's 'Riddley Walker' and the power of words

By Jim Poyser

Originally published in The Bloomington Voice and NUVO Newsweekly.

You don't have to be on vacation to read Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, but it sure helps. Last summer, I spent a week on Washington Island, which lies at the tip of the thumb in the mitt that forms the state of Wisconsin. It's two and a half hours north of Green Bay, situated in the beatific waters of Lake Michigan. There wasn't much to do up there, in the way of pressing activities, and so, reading time was extensive.
What did I read?
A 1980 experimental novel that posed a devolved, post-apocalyptic world, by a writer whom I had grown to love through his children's books. Hoban is author of the Frances the Badger series, books whose playful sense of language always keeps the reading fresh -- no matter how many hundreds of times I've read them to my children.
Riddley Walker has just been re-issued in a handsome new volume by Indiana University Press, complete with illustrations by the author, a new afterward, a glossary, and other amenities. An old paperback version of Riddley Walker, though, has been sitting on my shelf within reach for over a decade. Why did I avoid it all these years? Here's the first sentence:

On my namin day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint lookin to see none agen.

One has to be in an adventurous mood to tackle prose of this nature. The rewards, however, are bountiful.
The entire novel is written in this language-devolved jargn and it takes some gettin yused 2. Here's a clu: read the first few pages -- if not the entire novel -- OUT LOUD. That's what I did, sitting along the shore of Lake Michigan, slowly being suckerpunched by the sun, canting my voice with a slight Irish brogue. Or was it Scottish? No matter, I caught Hoban's vernacular drift quickly enough.
Even so, as I progressed, I continued to read parts of the novel aloud. It helps unveil Hoban's harder-to-decipher neologisms. It's a nuked language he has fashuned, words whose vowels have been stoln and consonants morfed. Riddley Walker is set in the future, hundreds of years after a nuclear war (the "1 Big 1" they call it) decimated civilization. What has evolved is a highly oral culture. Its stories are "tol by mouf" and take the form of a puppet show -- a "figger show," as 12-year-old protagonist Riddley puts it. This peripatetic figger show moves from community to community, telling and re-telling the story of Eusa, Mr Clevver and how they created the Littl Shyning Man -- in other words, how the atom was split, and the atomic bomb was invented.
Riddley's people spend their days digging up the artifacts of the previous civilization, with the focus on finding machines. It's to little purpose, however, since this society can not generate electric, nuclear or solar power in any way -- though there are those who would like to rediscover how to.
One day, Riddley discovers a puppet while digging in widders dump. He describes it in this way:

This here figger tho it wernt like no other figger I ever seen. It wer crookit. Had a hump on its back and parper sewt there in the clof... The face had a big nose what hookit down and a big chin what hookit up and a smyling mouf. Some kind of little poynty hat on the head it curvitover with a wagger on the end of it.

Riddley Walker has found a Mr. Punch doll -- a la Punch and Judy. He says that "We wernt allowit to keap nothing we foun in the digging," and so, on an impulse, he takes the puppet and runs a way, beginning a jerney to discuvver the see krets of the Mr. Punch doll, as well as the nohow to re-create the 1 Big 1.
One character tells our eponymuss Riddley: "Words! Theywl move things you know theywl do things. Theywl fetch. Put a name to some thing and youre beckoning." And so in Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban creates his own language to make that point again and again in ever miraculous ways. In the world Hoban has berthed, a world run by song, verse, and puppets, words fetch power. It's a place where art, religion, science, are all rolled into one cultural life.

The Interview

Russell Hoban was born in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, on February 4, 1925. He lived there until he went into the Army in 1943. While in the army, he was married, and he and Lillian then moved to New York City in 1945. In 1955, they moved to Connecticut, and by 1969, the Hobans, who by then had had four children, moved to London for -- as per their plan -- a two year visit. However, Russell and Lillian split and she went back to the United States with the children. Russell Hoban remained and is still living in London. In 1975, he married Gundula. They have three children.
In addition to Riddley Walker, Hoban has authored a number of adult novels, including Kleinzeit (1974), Pilgermann (1983), The Medusa Frequency (1987), Mr Rinyo-Clacton's Offer (1998), and Turtle Diary (1975, which was made into a 1985 film starring Ben Kingsley and Glenda Jackson, with a screenplay by Harold Pinter).

Jim Poyser: It's difficult to find your books here. How do your books sell in England and overseas?
Russell Hoban: My books don't sell anywhere. That is, my novels don't. What I mean is the sales are negligible -- as are the advances.
JP: Is the novel writing the most dear to you?
RH: Yes, it is, because it's the deepest and most intense exploration of being alive that I know.
JP: Your novels reflect that intensity. They can be quite challenging -- and strange -- to read.
RH: My biggest regret is that I am not strange enough. I find that consciousness is so strange, just being alive is so strange, that it's almost ungraspable if you try to think about it. In writing about it, even when I'm at my strangest, it still seems pretty unstrange to me.
JP: What do find so strange about consciousness?
RH: Let me read you something I'm working on for a speech to Children's Literature New England in Cambridge:

'All of us live in our minds. Maybe you'll say "oh no, I live in the world, in the real world" but the real world is only available to you through your mind. So you do in fact live in your mind. That's pretty scary, isn't it? The mind is busy all the time, night and day, making sense of what our senses take in: The sounds of traffic, the images on the TV news, the smell of the baby, the taste of strawberry shortcake, the touch of naked skin. Here is the car, there is the office, here is a clock, you're five minutes late for the rest of your life which is now just beginning. Now playing: The Rest of Your Life, starring everybody and everything and also starring you. Night and day, the mind, which is maybe your individual mind, and mine, and may be the one big mind we're all part of, is busy putting the world together and also making its independent connections while you and I are otherwise occupied.'
One doesn't know, really, whether one is part of one big Mind or whether there are really individual minds. There are scientists that have put forward the theory of the anthropic universe, which is that the universe is what it is because we are there to witness it. And I have sometimes thought that we are the organ of perception of the universe. That is our function, that's what we do, that's what we are.
What I do is what I think most people avoid. I think most people for their comfort and their peace of mind stay within the limited reality consensus that the only reality is what you can see, what can you touch, what is available through the senses. And I think they prefer not to trouble themselves with trying to work out anything more than that. I find that I am addicted to the investigation of the life of the mind and the life of the mind is very very strange indeed.

The Head of Orpheus website, maintained by Dave Awl, is recommended by Hoban as a cyber-place to study his work:


Back to The Reading Room.

Back to The Head of Orpheus: a Russell Hoban Reference Page (home page).