The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Saturday, September 08, 2007


[Riddley Walker reviewed in 300 words]

Riddley Walker is famous for being difficult, written in the vernacular of a post-holocaust world where language itself has become degraded: “On my namin 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 lookin to see none agen.”

Which might dismay the casual reader, but shouldn’t present problems for anyone familiar with non-conventional English, be it Chaucer or Irvine Welsh. This language is not degraded but powerfully authentic - in fact it’s a literal rendering of the Kent accent, the area in which the story takes place, and once the eye and ear become attuned, the reading is straightforward.

Moreover, Riddley and many of the other people in his world are highly articulate. What has become degraded is their understanding of where they have come from, and where they should be going; it becomes Riddley’s task to make the best sense he can of both, much of it done through the unravelling of stories which combine legend, litany and entertainment in the manner of the Mystery Plays, and have been passed down from “time back way back.”

As he picaresques around Kent, taking one side then another in the struggle to control the present and reawaken the past, it becomes clear that his true role is not to solve his smashed land and people, but to recount, interpret and provoke. A lesser novel would present a glimmer of salvation for all at the end. Hoban offers no closure, only another beginning and the prospect of an ongoing testing. This refusal to give easy answers is a mark of both strength and relevance. Riddley’s plight is ours, but unlike him we have not yet begun to live with its full consequences.


I know Joe disagrees, and look forward to picking this particular crow with him soon.



At 11 September 2007 at 22:46 , Blogger Joe said...

Actually I don't dispute most of that, it is simply that I thought he employed style over storytelling and it made me too aware of the mechanisms of the writing, which stopped me getting into the story and left me with no characters to empathise with either. Clever writing but poor storytelling

At 12 September 2007 at 18:37 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

OK, I get where you're coming from. I haven't posted at length on what I saw as RW's shortcomings, which were, are, the arbitrary direction of the narrative in places (Riddley goes to or does XYZ purely because it is required that he do so in order to reveal a facet of his world or push the plot - such as it is - in a particular direction), the interminable riffing on theological points which can only be of interest to the characters, and the over-use of Riddley's rather down-home, Forrest Gump observations tacked on to the end of paragraphs.

I didn't feel any particular lack of characterisation, although characters were often only sketchily drawn. From my limited reading of picaresques, that's often the case; moreover, Riddley isn't concerned with telling us what a particular person was like (with the exception of Goodparley), only with relating what happened to him.

Most of all I'd say this novel is about voice, and in that way the writing is the novel, with the story coming very much second. This didn't really bother me on a first reading, but I do understand how it might bother others. To take a crude comparison, it's a little like going to see Jurassic Park. If you buy into the "Gosh-wow! Real-life dinosaurs!" sensation, the paper-thin plot and matchstick characters don't detract from it that much. Riddley Walker is primarily about giving the reader the feeling of what it's like to live in Riddley's world, in a completely different head-space, and I think it manages that very well indeed.

I've just bought a second-hand copy of The Mouse and His Child purely on the back of reading a page at random and being struck by the pungent, slightly disturbing, symbolically rich - in other words, Riddley-esque - prose. It seems to have the same strengths, so it'll be interesting to see if it has the weaknesses as well.


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