B-Sides: Russell Hoban’s “Riddley Walker”

Growing up, I knew and loved a string of books written by Russell and illustrated by Lillian Hoban. My sister and I read them—The Mole Family’s Christmas, The ...

Growing up, I knew and loved a string of books written by Russell and illustrated by Lillian Hoban. My sister and I read them—The Mole Family’s Christmas, The Sorely Trying Day, The Stone Doll of Sister Brute—to tatters, often quarreling over who got to go first. Somewhere in our copy of the Hobans’ A Bargain for Frances the sentence “Paul is stuped” is furiously graffitied in Renée’s handwriting.

Years later, I came across a 1980 experimental novel called Riddley Walker, a post-apocalyptic bildungsroman set three millennia after a nuclear war has leveled the earth’s cities, irradiated the environment, and decimated the living. Surely the author couldn’t be that Russell Hoban, the one who wrote the egg song in Bread and Jam for Frances?

Poached eggs on toast, why do you shiver
With such a funny little quiver?

None other. That it sprang from the same pen as the Frances books, though, is far from the most remarkable thing about Riddley Walker, whose New Iron Age characters huddle in small fenced settlements near Canterbury, surviving by hunting and farming and salvaging metal from the remains of their ancestors’ self-immolation. Literacy being both rare and restricted in this England, the larval government communicates through propagandistic puppet shows that are interpreted by each settlement’s “connexion man.” Riddley, 12 when the story begins, is one such connexion man, just come of age.

Four decades on, the book’s unique language—fans call it “Riddleyspeak”—is what separates Hoban’s novel from the rising tide of dystopian coming-of-age books. The Kent shown on the map that heads Riddley Walker (see below) is not our Kent. Canterbury has become “Cambry,” Ashford is “Bernt Arse,” Dover is now “Do It Over.” And the English that greets us on the first page of text is not our English.

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 any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen. He dint make the groun shake nor nothing like that when he come on to my spear he wernt all that big plus he lookit poorly. He done the reqwyrt he ternt and stood and clattert his teef and made his rush and there we wer then.

This looks at first as if the narrator were speaking aloud in an extreme regional vernacular. But it turns out that Riddley is writing his story. And as the novel’s post-apocalyptic premise comes into focus, we learn that its language grows straight out of that premise. Hoban has imagined how English might look and work after a near-total social collapse and 3,000 years of linguistic drift.

As a reader of James Joyce’s most contortionist writing, I approached Riddleyspeak knowing a good pun or portmanteau word when I saw one. I appreciated how a feeling of releaf carried with it a vision of the blasted world regreening; how to breave poisoned air was also to experience bereavement with each brief breath; how keeping a red cord instead of a record made writing both a rubric and an umbilicus.

But Finnegans Wake works by floating thousands of unrepeated neologisms past its reader. Hoban’s book asks you instead to learn a lexically stable if imaginary dialect of English. And hanging over that language acquisition is a haunting historical question: What has happened, in the millennia that separate Riddley from his readers, to produce this language and the worldview it encodes?

That question intensifies around the corroded words from late 20th-century science and technology that appear in Riddley’s narrative. Here, blip means true, to pirntowt is to reckon, to progam is to plan, and when you test a theory you spare the mending. Riddley and his people dimly sense that “chemistery and fizzics” might help them get “that shyning Power back from time back way back … what had boats in the air and picters on the wind.”

The vocabulary of atomic physics, though, has been composted together with bits of Christian theology, pre-Christian belief, post-disaster invention, and the life of Saint Eustace. The result is not 20th-century science revived but a new faith, one that darkly prophecies the rediscovery of “the 1 Big 1,” when “the Littl Shynin Man the Addom” is pulled in two.

History is not bunk in Riddley Walker, but it is a winding stair. We can never set the red cord straight, any more than Riddley can, about what made his world and his language what they are. Midway through the novel, another character presents our hero with a surviving fragment of late 20th-century prose and proceeds—hilariously, grotesquely—to misinterpret it. Just as we’re feeling fluent in Riddleyspeak, the novel hands us back our own standard English as a nearly unintelligible artifact.

This gut punch makes us wonder how well we’ve really understood the book’s alien dialect, whose meaning rests on the radical misrecognition of a lost past—one that happens to contain us. Sure enough, the novel has a word for this reading in the dark: terpitation. Yes, the echo of “turpitude” reminds us that interpretation is a fallen state, one in which our only method is trying to “plot the parbeltys” by “tryl narrer.” It’s a fallen state we share, however, with the book’s characters. These are among the most feverish exegetes in fiction, deciphering and re-deciphering everything from puppet shows to children’s rhymes as if the future depended on it. At times, they seem as uncertain of the meaning of their own world as we are of their words.

That shared uncertainty is a kind of glue for Hoban’s fan community, which every year on his birthday (February 4) posts quotations from his work in public places on sheets of his beloved yellow A4 paper. Literary feast days can be monumentalizing—think Bloomsday—but this one feels fugitive, dimly lit, distinctly Riddleyesque. To come upon a few lines of Hoban taped to a bench or stapled to a telephone pole is to receive an anonymous invitation: come puzzle with us. Come and terpit.

Far from rolling English back to some imaginary pure state, “Riddley Walker” is a heaving stew of loan words, linguistic drift, and cultural shift.

Riddley Walker itself is now a touchstone for novelists who invent strange dialects for the inhabitants of stranger worlds to speak. David Mitchell has acknowledged the debt owed to Hoban by his novel Cloud Atlas (2004), whose far-future middle section is set in a post-collapse Hawaii and narrated by one Zachry Bailey in a Pacific variant of Riddleyspeak. Will Self’s The Book of Dave (2006) is unthinkable without Riddley Walker, to which Self penned a loving introduction in 2002. Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake (2014), whose narrator recounts the Norman invasion in an adapted “shadow” version of Old English, was linked to Hoban’s book in its UK jacket copy and in every second review.

It is a mistake, though, to overstate the resemblance between Hoban’s book and Kingsnorth’s. The Wake’s nostalgia for a pre-Conquest England (and English) aligns all too well with Kingsnorth’s pro-Brexit stance and his claim that high levels of immigration into the UK have forced real Brits to ask, “What does it mean to be ‘us’ in England?” Hoban, who was born in Pennsylvania to Ukrainian-Jewish immigrant parents and spent half his life as an expat in England, had no such impulses. Far from rolling English back to some imaginary pure state, Riddley Walker is a heaving stew of loan words, linguistic drift, and cultural shift.

The novel is a preemptive strike against bids, like Kingsnorth’s, to make the world safe again for English nativism. It is in this that Riddley Walker most spills out of its Cold War context. The novel’s Kent could have been a hothouse for xenophobic localism. But the nuclear war that kicks off the Bad Time is a worldwide disaster with planetary sequelae. The altered coastline of Riddley’s map drowns marshes and makes islands of hills and bluffs, implying that global sea levels have risen some 20 feet. And a key ingredient in the novel’s chemistery and fizzics plot comes from across the English Channel, hinting that the novel’s “Inland” is about to be reinserted into broader itineraries of exchange, conflict, and “Plomercy.” Hoban’s Kent doesn’t epitomize the local; it metonymizes the world.

Riddley Walker deserves its cult status for making us feel spectral in the midst of life: it confronts us with a posterity that looks back at us as blankly as we peer at it. But I keep rereading—and on the slenderest pretext teaching—Hoban’s book as much for the smaller discoveries. Like the best of the Hobans’ children’s books, Riddley can turn a word from a stone you kick on the road into a thing that kicks back. It bids you “[put] your groan up foot where your chyld foot run nor dint know nothing what wer coming,” condensing all of that knowledge-to-come in the word groan.

“Paul is stuped,” wrote my sister. I see now that she had invented her own Riddleyspeak, a writing whose very errors struck home. Stuped: that’s me—wrong-footed, slouching, a biped stunned and bent. Stil, as Hoban’s protagonist says, I wunt have no other track.


This article was commissioned by John Plotz. icon

Featured image: Celebrating the words of Russell Hoban on what would have been his 93rd birthday with #SA4QE and @russellhobanorg (February 4, 2018). Photograph by Jason Lineham