Book Review: Riddley Walker

Riddley Walker

by Russell Hoban

Russell Hoban wrote one of the fondest memories of my childhood: Bread and Jam for Frances. He wrote a number of books about an adorable young badger named Frances, actually, but Bread and Jam was the one I had, the one I remembered, the one that, as a picky eater, I related to.

So when I found out as an adult that Russell Hoban also wrote several acclaimed science fiction novels, well. There wasn’t really any question. Imagine if Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein wrote full-length novels. Wouldn’t you be curious?

So I looked them up, found out that the most famous one – the one that won the John W. Campbell award for best sc-fi novel in 1982 – was this one, and then I went out and bought a copy.

And then I tried to read it. And this is what I found.

“On my naming 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 anyhow ther hadnt ben none for a long tyme befor him nor I aint lookin to see none agen.”

That’s right: the book is written in gibberish.

And it’s absolutely brilliant gibberish.

The story is a post-apocalyptic coming-of-age novel. Very post-apocalyptic, as it turns out. Riddley Walker is a 12-year-old young man in the ruined aftermath of what used to be England, but is now a feudal society called Inland, people living in small walled communities, hemmed in by packs of wild dogs that hunt and eat any humans who stray too far from their fences. The language they speak and write is in fact English, but it’s an English that has changed as much from our language as our language did from Chaucer’s time. Their myths and legends are of us: the primary one seems to be about the discovery of atomic power with the splitting of the atom; though there is much more to it than that, as there always is in myths and legends. Their world cherishes these legends, but it is a largely oral society; the government, what is left of it, is primarily responsible for spreading the stories that are the basis of their mythology and morality, the Eusa story, which they share ritualistically through traveling puppet shows. The basic canon of the Eusa story is written down and therefore unchangeable, but with each puppet performance, the Eusa men find new aspects to focus on, new morals to be drawn from it, just like preachers with the Bible. The towns where they perform have their own interpreters of these hidden messages and allegories, called “connection men;” when the story begins, Riddley has just become one such, replacing his recently deceased father.

But Riddley only makes one connection: soon he feels an irresistible urge to travel outside the walls, where he seems to befriend a dog pack; this dog pack takes him to Cambry, where he discovers a secret: the Ardship of Cambry, one of the Eusa people. Born without eyes, isolated from all of society, the Ardship has a secret buried deep inside: the secret that brought down the old world, the world that had boats flying in the sky. And the current head of the loose government in Inland, the Pry Mincer Abel Goodparley, plans to tear that secret out of the Ardship, unless Riddley can help.

But maybe Riddley thinks that Goodparley is right. Maybe they have lost much that once existed, and maybe they should try to bring that back. But maybe those secrets are best kept hidden.

I realize now that the book is extremely well known, and that my discovery is not this forgotten novel but rather my own ignorance of it – the thing has over 5000 Amazon reviews, for cripes’ sake – but for me, this book was something of a revelation. It was also a real challenge. That language is freaking hard to read. It makes references to the society that preceded it, but that society, the society of the 1970’s, is in some ways lost even to us: it took me the whole book to realize that one of the phrases, used to describe thinking something through and coming to a conclusion, was “pull data and print out,” as in, “We discussed the matter, pulled data and printed out a plan.” We don’t even print out any more, so it was tough getting the meaning of that and a thousand other words.

But it’s beautifully done, nonetheless. Because the Ardship of Cambry is the Archbishop of Canterbury – but he’s also a man facing hardship, which point Riddley makes in the novel. And the Pry Mincer (Prime Minister) is a man who pries, but also one who minces words. Hoban didn’t just mess with the English language: he remade it. He created something new, and difficult as new things are, but also brilliant.

It’s a hell of a book. I need to keep it and read it again, and I want to do so. Maybe when I do, it will make more sense; on this first reading I felt like there were some pretty serious holes in the story, but there were parts that I just couldn’t understand. But hey: I couldn’t read Shakespeare and understand it all the first time, and the first time I read The Grapes of Wrath or Huck Finn or The God of Small Things, I didn’t fully appreciate them; great literature requires effort. I would call this book an example of that.