RIP Russell Hoban

Russell Hoban, author of Riddley Walker and other cult classics, died last night at the age of 86. The first “review” I ever wrote on this site was for Riddley Walker (the review is so bad that I won’t link to it out of shame); that was back when Biblioklept’s primary mission was to document stolen books. I stole the book from a dear friend and subsequently lent it to a student who never returned it. Oh, the circle of theft! Riddley Walker is the sort of book that begs to be stolen (or never returned, or passed on to another). It’s an apocalyptic Huckleberry Finn, a coming of age story set against the backdrop of a new dark age. Riddley Walker is deeply weird and strongly strange; I don’t know what a “cult” novel is, but I know of no better example.

Riddley Walker might be Hoban’s most famous work (aside from his children’s works, including the Frances the Badger series), but readers who stopped there would do well to pick up some of his earlier books. The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz is a fantasy piece about fathers, sons, and map-making; Kleinzheit, a baffling schizophrenic novel, explores death and illness in an animistic world; Pilgermann plumbs the medieval intersection of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, narrated through the eyes of the ghost of a castrated European Jew on a bizarre holy quest—it’s like Hieronymous Bosch on LSD.

The Guardian has a short but lucid biographical obit for Hoban, which ends with Hoban contemplating how death might affect his career:

Death, Hoban predicted in 2002, would “be a good career move”. “People will say, ‘yes, Hoban, he seems an interesting writer, let’s look at him again’,” he said.

The grim humor there was always part of Hoban’s program, and I hope that he’s right: I hope that folks who haven’t heard of Hoban will pick up Riddley Walker, and perhaps those who haven’t read beyond that book will make time to read another.

I Review Attack the Block, A Charming, Confused Film About Teens Fighting Aliens

Attack the Block is a strange, charming little film that imagines what would happen if aliens attacked a council estate in inner-city London on Guy Fawkes Night. (In Americanese, a council estate is a project, an urban ghetto marked by violent crime, disenfranchisement, and low opportunity). The teenage heroes of Attack the Block are slang- (and sword and bat) wielding youths right on the precipitous edge of adulthood; Attack the Block narrativizes the strange intersection of children’s games with the kind of real-world concrete violence that entails lifelong consequence. Moses, the gang’s perceptive and courageous leader, already has one foot strongly planted in the adult criminal world. The alien invasion—an attack on the block, which is to say the entire known world for these kids—affords Moses a real chance to rise to the talent—and violence—writhing inertly within him.

We first meet Moses and his gang of charming ruffians in the middle of a mugging. They rob poor Sam, a female nurse whom they don’t recognize as actually living in the same building as them, but a meteor crashes into a nearby car, interrupting the robbery. A bizarre ape-featured creatures erupts from the explosion; Sam takes the opportunity to run away and Moses and his gang follow the alien. In a tense scene that establishes Moses’ badassery (and thoughtless recklessness), they kill the thing. After scaring a few of the estate girls, Moses takes the creature’s corpse to the “weed room,” the most secure spot on the block. The weed room is owned and operated by Hi-Hatz, a ruthless drug dealer/would-be rap artist who is equal parts menacing and comical (Nick Frost plays his front room dealer). However, the alien corpse only serves to attract much larger, gorilla-sized aliens who, um, attack the block in manic droves. The kids’ response: go grab their store of weapons (bats, novelty swords, fireworks, and chains), jump on their bikes, and set  out to kill the suckers. In the process, they’re reunited with their victim Sam, a conflict that underlines the core message of the movie, which concerns understanding our neighbors (so that we can, like, kill outside invading forces). The film is in a sense about the misplaced “othering” that functions in ideology, an “othering” that prescribes social and economic roles and prevents empathy or progress.

Attack the Block, a British production, was directed and written by Joe Cornish, whose sense of exactly what the film should be doing is muddy to say the least. Tonally, Attack the Block is all over the place: it’s not sure if it wants to be a hard-edged horror film, a “kids-take-the-night” adventure film with ironic edges and a fun-loving spirit, or a study in contemporary British views on race and class with preachy undertones. Is the movie ultimately dark or sweet, message-driven or an exposition of economic disenfranchisement and nihilism? It’s never quite clear. This messiness is awfully charming though, just like the creature effects which are, uh, very BBC. Attack the Block is at its best when it smashes its ironic self-awareness of the hoary tropes its trotting out (from War of the Worlds to The Goonies) up against an earnest, heart-felt spirit, a spirit that perfectly matches the enthusiasm of a bunch of repressed and forgotten young males actually getting to go prove themselves by doing awesome shit. Cornish’s best scenes restage the classical conventions of British romantic adventures, right down to a new-fashioned joust scene that’s both rousing and comical.

American viewers may feel we hold a monopoly on films about youth in the projects trying to survive (a survival which Attack the Block obviously literalizes through the magnifying lens of a sci-fi horror invasion); this sense of cultural entitlement can lead to strange moments of cross-cultural cognitive dissonance that won’t be unfamiliar to anyone who’s felt the minor alterity of watching a British synthesis of Hollywood tropes (Guy Ritchie’s films come immediately to mind). There’s also the issue of dialogue and slang; perhaps Cornish used LPs from Dizzee Rascal and The Streets to flesh out his lexicon (or maybe Cornish is just that “down,” but one senses affectation either way)—in any case, I was never quite sure if a British audience would find the youths’ speech legitimate, but I did very much enjoy it. It only compounded my sense that Attack the Block is sort of like a crueler E.T. scripted by Russell Hoban. There’s a lovely streak of Riddley Walker in Attack the Block.

Attack the Block, despite—or perhaps because of its flaws—is a charming, spirited film with a strong protagonist in Moses. It’s one of the few films I’ve seen that actually gains something (some ineffable quality I don’t know how to name) in trying to appeal to fans of different genres and backgrounds, and if it made me cringe at times with its clumsy tonal shifts, it also thrilled and moved me in turn. Recommended.

Book Acquired, 9.30.2011


The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz by Russell Hoban. It’s his first novel. Picked it up at the used bookshop today. Love the cover. I’m sure it’s as weird as the other stuff I’ve read by him (Riddley Walker, Pilgermann, Kleinzheit).

How to Enjoy the Apocalypse: A Post-Rapture Reading List

We published this list last year under the heading Ten Excellent Dystopian/Post-apocalyptic Novels That Aren’t Brave New World or 1984, but what with the Rapture going down and all, why not post it again, this time with links to pieces we’ve written on these novels—

1. Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban

2. Camp Concentration, Thomas Disch

3. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess

4. Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood

5. The Hospital Ship, Martin Bax

6. Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs

7. VALIS, Philip K. Dick

8. Ronin, Frank Miller

9. Ape and Essence, Aldous Huxley

10. The Road and Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy

Russell Hoban on What Inspired Riddley Walker

At The Guardian, Russell Hoban writes about how a viewing of The Legend of St. Eustace at Canterbury Cathedral inspired his post-apocalyptic classic Riddley Walker. The anecdote will be familiar to anyone who’s reread the introduction to Riddley Walker, but Hoban’s essay still interesting. From his essay–

The first time I stood in Canterbury Cathedral and tilted my head back to look up, up, up to that numinous fan-vaulting I felt the uprush past me of all the centuries of prayer, of hope and fear and yearning, yearning for answers and, if possible, salvation.

Breathing in this atmosphere I made my way through the nave to those stone steps trodden by successive waves of pilgrims, some with beads, some with cameras. Up those worn- down steps, past the place where the remembered blood of Thomas Becket seethes on the stones, to the north aisle where on one wall remains the faint earth-green tracery ofThe Legend of St Eustace. Facing it on the opposite wall is Professor Tristram’s reconstruction of the 15th-century painting.

Whatever talent I have for writing lies in being friends with my head: I know its vagaries, its twists and turns, its hobo journeys in fast freights, riding the blinds to unknown destinations. Sometimes I get thrown off the train in the middle of nowhere; sometimes I get to the Big Rock Candy Mountain. If you Google for Eustace you’ll find that he has no official standing among the beatified. Perhaps his legend turned up on the back of some Middle-Ages cornflakes box and grew from there. Being thus non-factual, Eustace is quite at home in a work of fiction. According to the legend he was a general in the Roman army to begin with, but one day hunting in the forest, he saw a little crucified Jesus between the antlers of a stag, as vividly shown in the 15th-century painting by Pisanello.


Riddley Walker–Russell Hoban

I never gave Riddley Walker back to Patrick Tilford (aka TLFRD). A few years ago I loaned it to a student who never returned it. Said student never returned Dune, or The Left Hand of Darkness, or several Jules Verne novels either. Doesn’t matter, I know that he read them.

This book is a favorite. Russell Hoban’s coming-of-age story takes place in a future that has regressed to the iron age due to a catastrophic war. Hoban writes in his own language, a mutated English, full of fragments of the 20th century.

I couldn’t find an image of the edition I stole/lost. This edtion from 2000 features an introduction by Will Self, whose latest book, The Book of Dave, apparently was directly influenced by Riddley Walker. Will Self’s book Great Apes deeply, deeply disturbed me. Nothing repulses me more than images of chimpanzees dressed as humans; Great Apes is the literary equivalent.

Great Apes was an airport bookstore buy; I suppose at some point on this blog I will address the “airport bookstore buy.”