Russell Hoban said that he was a good speller before he wrote Riddley Walker and a bad speller after finishing it. The first sentence shows why: “On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the last wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadn’t ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.” Two thousand or so years after an atomic catastrophe—“the 1 Big 1”—civilization and the English language hobble on, the language marginally healthier than the society.
Riddley Walker, just twelve during the story’s action, is supposed to be his tribe’s “connexion man,” a seer or shaman who interprets the world and its signs. Riddley gives his first connexion the day after his father’s death; its failure—Riddley falls into a trance, goes silent, and disappoints his audience—soon leads him out from the people he has known and into the wilds of “Inland.” He encounters mutants, vicious dogs, scheming politicians; he sneaks through enemy encampments, rifles dead men’s pockets, and witnesses old acquaintances die, but the action is more melancholy than exciting: Riddley senses that his adventures have a shape, but he can’t comprehend it. He knows that he is in a larger story, or perhaps repeating a past story, but he does not know the storyteller or their purpose.
Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, named Riddley Walker as one of his ninety-nine best English-language novels since 1939, and more than one reader has pointed out the similarities between Alex’s droog slang in Clockwork and Hoban’s Riddleyspeak. The similarities are there, but I think the differences are far more striking. Alex and his malchicks mask their viciousness in borrowed Russian; they add to their language to subtract their feelings. Riddley speaks from the heart in a language culled of all inessentials:
Whats so terbel its jus that knowing of the horrer in every thing. The horrer waiting. I dont know how to say it. Like say you myt get cut bad and all on a suddn there you are with your leg opent up and youre looking at the mussl fat and boan of it.
Whatever he might lack in fluency, he more than makes up for in honesty.
Few science fiction settings have yielded more clichés than the post-apocalypse; generation ship and time travel stories might have more worn-out or over-familiar ideas, but it’s a close call, and post-apocalypses have become such features of the TV and movie landscape that their repeated ideas are ever more grating. I’m sure that many novels that seemed fresh and daring in 1980 now seem stale and timid, but Riddley Walker is not of this company. First, of course, there is the language, which draws us into an utterly changed world and gives us some idea of its challenges: The reader’s grappling with the language mirrors Riddley’s struggle to survive life in “Inland.” Next, there is the strangeness of the world gradually revealed. There’s a vestigial government, but most people are illiterate, so official news is delivered by puppet shows. There are folk memories of the catastrophe that wrecked the world, but they’ve somehow become mixed in with the legend of St. Eustace as portrayed on the walls of Canterbury Cathedral. The crucified Christ seen by St. Eustace has transformed into “the Littl Shyning Man the Addom” seen, and pulled apart by “Eusa,” a man too “clevver” for anyone’s good, whose tale has become a sort of religion. One last bit of strangeness: This science fictional world has hints of fantasy. Like Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, which appeared around the same time, Riddley Walker defies the conventions of every genre it might belong to.
I’ve talked about Hoban’s challenging language, his sense of melancholy, and the bleakness of his world, but I’ve so far neglected to mention that Riddley Walker is also a very funny book. Any story in part inspired by Punch and Judy shows needs a sense of humor, and Hoban’s book has it in abundance. Misunderstandings of the vanished world abound; halfway through the book, Hoban devotes several pages to a plausible, convincing, and hysterically wrong exegesis of a recovered text from our era. I grinned from ear to ear and wished the passage were twice as long. Riddley’s language is both funny in its deformation and beautiful in its insight. “Yesterday,” for example, has been transformed into “wester day.” The phrase sounds silly to our ears, yet it also makes poetic sense: a “wester day” is a day that has gone west with the sunset. I don’t want to give the impression that all the humor is subtle or intellectual. Punch gets some good dirty jokes in.
Riddley Walker runs little chance of going out of print, but its fame may have grown in the past few years, as major writers have begun following Hoban’s path. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is probably the most prominent example; its sixth part takes place in a post-apocalyptic world presented through a similarly post-apocalyptic language. There’s even a devil figure, Old Georgie, who is not too different from Riddley’s Mr. Clevver. The film of Cloud Atlas retains the strange language, but it was not the first movie inspired by Hoban’s language games: George Miller is an admirer of Riddley Walker, and so the desert children in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome speak a strange slang as they await the return of a vanished Captain Walker.
Will Self’s 2006 novel The Book of Dave includes a long section in a Riddley-esque demotic derived from the rantings of an embittered taxi driver named Dave, whose preserved writings have, quite unfortunately, formed the basis of a future society. Both Mitchell and Self have proselytized for Hoban, as have writers like Neil Gaiman and Patrick Ness. Another recent novel, Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, also invents a language, though he aims to revive a catastrophic past, not imagine a collapsing future. The narrator, a partisan fighting the Normans who conquered England in 1066, speaks in a language that sounds like Old English but is readable for those of us without degrees in philology. Modern English, Kingsnorth maintains, would be wrong for the story, as today’s language contains the legacy of the Norman invaders The Wake’s antihero so loathes.
I came to Riddley Walker after reading several other Hoban books, after reading Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Kingsnorth’s The Wake. I knew from my experience with its successors that its language would be challenging; I knew from my experience with Hoban that any challenges would be worth the effort. I thought I’d come to Riddley prepared, still I found myself blindsided: Not only is this probably Hoban’s best novel, it’s one of the classics of the last fifty years. I look forward to reading and rereading it for decades to come. I just hope I manage to keep my spelling abilities intakt.
Matt Keeley reads too much and watches too many movies; he is helped in the former by his day job in the publishing industry. You can find him on Twitter at @mattkeeley.