Riddley Walker

Author: Russell Hoban

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1980

I read it: November 2013

riddley

Except perhaps for “Riddles in the Dark,” I can’t think of many actual book chapters that I can conjure instantly by name (okay I admit, I can think of several Tolkien chapters right now). But “Sloosha’s” has that power, ever since reading it out loud to Laura in the summer of 2012. It’s the middle section of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, and the full title is “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After.” It is written in a devolved dialect from a future society that resembles a primitive tribal culture, and as such the English is uniquely phonetic. I read it with Laura when she got to that part and I hadn’t yet started the book, then I went back and read it regularly (silently) when going through the whole novel.

My friend Jim introduced me to Riddley Walker, which is “Sloosha’s” antecedent. Here is an entire book written in a similar type of modified English, about a post-nuclear society living in a relatively simple and modest fashion. The book kicks off with Riddley becoming a man on the day his father dies, and he takes on the burden of being the next “connexion man,” a brand of prophet/visionary whose job it is to participate in ceremonies where he becomes a vessel for the myths of their times. He does this primarily through puppet shows, with a Punch doll as a central character. The main deity of Riddley’s people is Eusa, a modification of St. Eustace, and another figure is a sort of atomic Christ whose death was the cause of the end of a previous era. The book is deep in its ruminations about the power of story and the quest for self-understanding and the understanding of a whole world whose knowledge is lost. Riddley’s people have combined religious symbolism with a scientific past they can’t quite grasp, and they know there are hidden secrets that explain everything from tiny “party cools” to the vast “gallack seas.” Something akin to Riddley’s journey probably occurred many times in our past, and may occur yet again should we whittle ourselves down to a surviving few.

I read this entire work out loud. It seems that the only way to wrap your head around the language is to trust your tongue. Plus Isaac was just a couple months old and it was a good way to spend time with him and get him used to my voice–little does he know all the Riddley we’ve been through together. The book made me impressed once again with Mitchell’s variation, and at times I think I still like his better. Maybe his has a smoother pace and clearer plot points, but they are both excellent. And it was neat seeing the seed of the “Sloosha’s” title pop up when Riddley describes a “‘befor Cambry’ and ‘after Cambry’ meaning befor or after what happent ther.” Riddley and Zachry are kin, and they are us, trying to articulate our histories to connect with the outside world. As Riddley says, “Our woal life is a idear we dint think of nor we dont know what it is. What a way to live.” What a way indeed. If we do send this world up in flames, I hope some tattered Riddley Walkers and Cloud Atlases can survive the trash heaps, because we could use them to help figure out how to live, an’ ev’rythin’ after.

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3 thoughts on “Riddley Walker

  1. Thanks. Pleased to see this transcendently wonderful novel appreciated. Hogans work child or adult novels are all of a piece – a questing mind and spirit. I’ll explore your blog again. Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox (plugged in now).

    • Thanks for commenting, Thom. I remember seeing your blog when we connected through my other site. I will have to visit the jukebox again here soon.

      I’m so glad my friend recommended this book to me. It’s such a rich reading experience. It takes some effort, but that’s part of why it’s so satisfying. I had the pleasure of describing the book while walking with a friend recently, which was fun in itself.

      I remember reading a bit about Hoban’s book The Mouse and His Child, and I hope I remember to buy it at some point. It’s just a matter of whether I read it now or wait for my son to be of reading age. I suppose I can experience it both ways.

      Take care.

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