18 July 2010

Read This: Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

One of the worst parts of being a grad student in English literature was slowly coming to look upon the act of reading as a chore. When you have to read, process, and produce gobs of insight in short order, it can really crush the enjoyment factor right out of you.

One of the best parts of being a grad student was having great professors who had incredible taste in literature. One of these, a very nice man who ran a course called "Modern and Postmodern Novel," introduced me to Riddley Walker.

Now that the emotional dents caused by grad school have started to smooth themselves out, I've been going back over my bookshelf and picking up things I remember thinking were cool back in the day. I just finished re-reading Riddley Walker, and let me tell you, it's everything I remembered and more.

Riddley Walker is basically post-apocalyptic fiction meets Tom Sawyer. It's 2300 years after some kind of man-made catastrophe, probably nuclear in nature, has plunged humanity, or at least England, into a new dark ages. Riddley Walker has just turned twelve, which makes him a man by his culture's standards. Through a series of happenstances, he finds himself running away from his semi-nomadic group and heading off for adventure with a pack of wild dogs and a boy his age called "the Ardship of Cambry." Hilarity, heartbreak, explosions, and an encounter with Mr. Punch ensue.

The thing that makes Riddley Walker both challenging and fascinating to read is the language. Reading page one of this book is like cracking open The Canterbury Tales for the first time. Your brain processes it at first as "foreign language: cannot read." By the time you're done page one, you're sort of getting it, but the language continues to be surprising and amazing through the entire book.

Here's what I mean:

Where they are theyre up side down in the groun. Like youwl see a picter of your self up side down in the water theres a stoan self of your self in the groun and walking foot to foot with you. You put your foot down and theywl put ther foot up and touching yours. Walking with you every step of teh way yet youwl never see them.

Theywl stay unner the groun longs youre on top of it. Comes your time to ly down for ever then the stoan man comes to the top of the groun they think theywl stan up then. They cant do it tho. Onlyes strenth they had ben when you ben a live. Theyre lying on the groun trying to talk only theres no soun theres grean vines and leaves growing out of ther mouf....them stoans ben trying to talk only they never wil theyre jus only your earf stoans your unner walkers. Trying ot be men only cant talk. They had earf for sky wylst you had air.

My spellcheck went crazy while I was typing that.

The entire book is full of the tragedy of everything Riddley's world has lost, as well as the natural energy and hope associated with change - change that Riddley himself helps to perpetuate. It's everything that great science fiction should be: rigorously imagined, and fired with the passions of its characters. There's enough difference between Riddley's language and ours that Hoban gets to sneak in some concepts not fully imaginable to most people today, but obviously real and true in Riddley's world.

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