This is a review I originally wrote six years ago on a briefly kept LiveJournal blog, but in the interest of trying to gather all my eggs into one basket (isn’t that supposed to be a bad idea?), I’ve moved it over to this blog. If you happened to read this the first time through, the only things I’ve changed are the rating system and a few minor tweaks; otherwise, I’ve added a few links at the bottom.
Russell Hoban’s 1980 post-apocalyptic masterpiece Riddley Walker was a book handed to me with the words, “It’s a little difficult, but you’ll enjoy it.” Half right. Hoban’s book follows the adventures of the eponymous Walker, a twelve year-old boy who has just passed his “Naming Day,” thus becoming a man. He lives in a world that has self-destructed in a conflagration that the survivors call “the 1 Big 1,” the nuclear apocalypse with which our generation continually seems to flirt. This is not, however, a tale of the few stragglers suffering through fallout and nuclear winter so familiar from dozens of films covering similar territory; rather, much like Walter Miller Jr.’s excellent novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz, the story is set ages past the event, over 2000 years in this case.
Humanity has devolved, culture appearing only in the form of a travelling puppet show which serves as entertainment, education, and political propaganda all at the same time. Hoban cleverly echoes this devolution linguistically. The story is set in southeastern England, in and around Canterbury, and the language the characters speak has its roots in English; however, like humanity in general (in which society has been reduced to individuals struggling to survive), the language has devolved to individual phonemes, with complex words often broken up into smaller units (surprise = sir prize, Canterbury = Cambry), most still recognizable, but many requiring a bit of work to decipher. That said, Hoban’s work is much easier to understand if you read it aloud – often, hearing the words gives you the phonetic equivalent, and when that doesn’t work, context helps quite a bit as well. This was the “It’s a little difficult” that my friend referred to, but to be perfectly honest, the language contains an inner logic that makes it fairly easy to comprehend, once you get a couple of chapters into the book. And if you’ve already tackled Finnegans Wake or A Clockwork Orange, you’re well-armed to make the attempt.
The beginning of the story finds Walker becoming his village’s “connexion man,” a position vacated when his father dies in an accident. This requires him to make pseudo-mystical comments about the travelling puppet show I mentioned earlier, a show that travels from town to town and presented by two “Eusa men,” representatives of what stands for a government in this rather ephemeral society. His comments are intended to provide wisdom to his fellow villagers; however, Walker experiences a truly mystical vision, which frightens everyone around him – and ultimately, leads (amongst other things) to Walker leaving his village entirely. Once Walker leaves his home, he becomes “dog frendy” (dogs, not terribly impressed with our tendency to self-destruct, have finally given up on humanity – except as tasty hors d’oeuvres), and works towards finding the secret of the “1 Big 1.” What he ends up stumbling upon is something a little less destructive, but altogether just as dangerous within the context of a world that largely relies on sticks and stones (and brute strength).
I shan’t give more details than that – read this book, it’s well worth the effort and the time. The edition I read is a new expanded version, which includes notes from Hoban, a couple of drawings he’s done in relation to the novel, and a brief glossary. Well worth the price.
Steve’s Grade: A-
Riddley Walker is an amazing tour-de-force, portraying a fascinating (and frightening) vision of a world set two millenia after a nuclear holocaust. Fans of science-fiction, literature, and linguistics should not miss, but be prepared – it is not an easy read.
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