Riddley Walker: On storytelling and myth

Riddley Walker: On storytelling and myth

Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club’s monthly book club. This post concludes our discussion of this month’s selection, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. Watch this space for a link to participate in our live online chat today at 3:30 p.m. CST, and watch for Todd's feature interview with Hoban on Friday.

Todd VanDerWerff: If I had to pick one big, central idea of Riddley Walker, it might be the way we make myths and use them to sustain us. Zack mentioned earlier that he wanted to talk about the ending, and now seems like as good a time to talk about it as any. The reason I think it works is because it finally marks the point where Riddley makes the transition from someone who receives his culture's myths to someone who makes them. He's there at a rather mythic moment - the reinvention of gunpowder - but even that (though attributed to him since he survives) is something that he's only there to observe. Riddley is the classic writer-narrator, someone who stands on the outside of his world and provides a window for us.

I guess I'd call this co-mingling of myth and reality the hidden spine of the novel. There's not much of a traditional story here. The first half of the novel is meticulously focused on building Riddley's world so when he goes over the fence and out into the life of running with the pack, we're ready for his journeys to take us all over the place and ready to have some half-answers to our half-questions. (If you try to plot out roughly what happens in each chapter and just write it out in straight format, the last half of the book seems incredibly chaotic, events piling up on top of each other. It's a marked contrast to what's a fairly leisurely beginning.) But the annotation site I linked to earlier this week has a pretty fascinating theory on the role of the stories within the narrative. They're obviously important - set off as they are- but they also make the rough journey of human literature, from basic, oral, mythic text to modernist fiction.

The story Lorna tells Riddley in the book's earliest pages is one of the most basic stories of all: the story of how man fell and became lesser. We best know this as the Garden of Eden story now, but nearly every culture has a variation on this story, even if it's strictly localized and not a way for all of humanity itself to be damned. By the time we reach "Stoan" in chapter 15, we've fully made the transition to a more modernist musing. Riddley's ideas, which spring whole from his head and aren't an attempt to explain away how things came to be, aren't exactly Ulysses, but they're close enough for his world. Riddley's importance to the story isn't that he just happens to be there when big things happen. It's that he's a teller of tales, a man who moves about the countryside and spreads the synthesis of his experience. Hoban seems to be arguing that the world itself is built on myth and legend, and that Riddley's mere existence as someone who can bring those traditions together is more important than figuring out how chard coal, Saul & Peter, and Salt 4 fit together.

I do like the way that the novel itself becomes more mystical just as Riddley's thought processes become more in line with what I guess you could call a modern sensibility. (Riddley's certainly not going to become wholly modern, but by the end of the book, he's closer to what we might think than everyone else in his world, though that could just stem from his function as point-of-view character.) When Riddley's in his settlement at the beginning, the world seems dangerous and full of mystery, sure, but we're also getting very primal stories of how things came to be and the foundational text of the original Eusa story.

It's only once he hops the fence that he establishes a mystical connection with a pack of dogs and finds the seemingly deathless Granser. (I hate to keep calling back to A Canticle for Leibowitz, but there's also a seemingly deathless character there, though Hoban tosses far more skepticism on the idea than Miller did. It seems to be a staple of the genre, for some reason.) The first half is a fairly prosaic book about mucking out a survival in a post-apocalyptic landscape that is only very gradually giving way to a return of agriculture. The second half is far more bizarre, for lack of a better word. Some of that has to do with the mere fact that Riddley is running around the ruins of our world, but just as much of it has to do with Hoban's willingness, at this point, to let in some weirdness around the edges.

I'd say that Hoban has clearly structured the book as a kind of long myth that will have meaning to both Riddley's descendents and his ancestors. It's a tale of how things came to be, but by virtue of being written down, it also becomes one of the first pieces of literature in this new world, or at least one of the first pieces that's not given to people via oral tradition or puppet shows. If the Eusa story is this world's Gilgamesh, then Riddley's tale seems likely to become its new Odyssey, something that Riddley's descendents will look at and wonder just how much is true about it.

But I'm also intrigued by Hoban's notions of what will and won't survive in the mythic tradition. He seems to feel as though fertility goddesses will become even more important to this culture of people where birth is uniquely important. Christ's image, if not everything else he signifies, lives on as the Littl Shyning Man. The St. Eustace story exists, but seemingly only because the people of this time lived in a place near to where it was written down in pictures for them to immediately grasp. And Punch lives on as a symbol of gleeful malevolence, again something nearly every culture has. By so thoroughly interweaving these elements with the world of Riddley, Hoban suggests that literally everything is myth. Not just religion and politics, but the very act of living your own life, of getting up and doing your thing. It's an effort to recast everything as epic, and it's an effort that runs throughout Hoban's work (just as his fascination with innocence lost recurs).

But I feel as if I've, again, unfairly dominated the discussion (and I had hoped to keep it short today). Do you have any thoughts on how Hoban uses storytelling and myth in the book?

Donna Bowman: Those are really fascinating ideas, Todd, and so much better than what I would have been able to cobble together than I should just say "amen" and pass the baton to the next person. But I do want to say something about Riddley's transformation into a mythmaker, because I wrote earlier about the power of the Word to put us under its spell.  Riddley Walker is blipful, without a doubt, and that's such a good term for the kind of experience I'm talking about that I'm likely to take it from here and use it in other contexts. And it's a meditation on the blipful, too -- how stories start as pastime, become foundational history, and then pass into sacredness.  

What's encouraging about the end of Riddley's narrative is that it shows him newly committed to the living word, the kind that emerges in the moment (like a connexion).  The problem with scripture (as the first and second century Christian communities knew) was that it was the "dead letter" -- that's the way Paul puts it, ironically as it turned out since his own letters became scripture eventually.  The letter kills, but the spirit gives life.  When texts are solidified and canonized, they become puzzles to be solved.  It's like we have to perform CPR on them to get that chest to rise and fall a few times more, to see the scripture as active and relevant in our present day.  But the performances Riddley inaugurates, even though they are "the same ever time" and Punch "all ways kil the babby if he can," are alive.  We experience them and they become a part of us.  They are ritual, and it's invigorating and propulsive to culture when ritual and scripture start to rub against each other, because there's no one way to codify the relationship of the two that will be universally satisfying. 

And what I love about Riddley is that he accepts the lot of a connexion man and extends the scope of the job far beyond what his father did.  "Its jus on me to think on it," he says at the end. The things that won't ever be known for sure, the big whys and wherefores, still have to be pondered, set down, and performed. That's Riddley's task, and he accepts it. Wouldn't be a bad way of describing the life of a college professor or a theologian. I think I'll foller on.

Leonard Pierce: It's probably no coincidence that we've picked a lot of material for  Wrapped Up In Books that have to do with not only their ostensible subject, but with themselves -- that is, they concern myths and fiction and storytelling, but they are also about myths and fiction and storytelling, and the process by which those things are made.  This not only says a lot about us as readers (and writers), but about the self-imposed time frame of our choices:  like it or not, we are living in the post-modern era, and even among those who eschew it, the specter of metafiction is forever stalking the literary landscape, and manages to worm its way into even the most straightforward storytelling.

As an unrepentant post-modernist, of course, I'm all for that, but as much as I figured out early on that this would be a major component of Riddley Walker (to my read, Lorna's early speculation about the thing inside us that is not us set the tone for the entire book, both philosophically and thematically), I have to admit that I didn't, in my first reading, pick up on the theory you mention at all, Todd.  And that's too bad, because it's a brilliant idea, and one that plays on one of my personal fiction buttons (which were already being pushed left and right by this book):  the idea that great fiction should try and incorporate the world and everything in it, including the fiction itself.  This great truth was first and best revealed by Joyce in Ulysses, but it's been a common factor in most of the books I love best in the 20th and 21st century.  The fact that Riddley Walker might be doing this, in the form of subtly encapsulating the progress of human storytelling, makes me want to read it again right now with that premise in mind.  (And I might just do, since I've already read Destroy, She Said a few times.)

What I did see, and which Donna hints at above, is that Hoban was clearly making a point about storytelling as the book progressed, even though what that point is could be open for a pretty lively debate.  Riddley himself begins as the one telling the story to us -- that is, he is the meta-narrator of the book -- but he ends by becoming a storyteller within the book as well, an event that coincides with hinted-at social upheavals.  And what does it all mean?  For me, it's an indicator that until a people take possession of their myths, until they begin to think of the stories that govern their lives as things that are part of and able to take a lively role in, rather than simply being things to which they are subject, they are held hostage by an outdated and limited notion of text, and thus an outdated and limited perception of society, even of reality.

It's easy to get carried away with this sort of thing (and fun, too -- I do it all the time), but Hoban has no one to blame, or praise, but himself.  He's laying that trap all over the place, and, as I argued in the previous post, I'm pretty sure he's doing it on purpose.  It's tempting to get way too obvious with the pseudo-mystical 'we are all part of one big wondrous story' jibber-jabber; I prepare myself for megabytes of hate mail by restating my opinion that Neil Gaiman beats the notion nearly to death in Sandman.  But Hoban is more subtle and more cunning in his approach, and by having his story's mystical elements come to us second-hand, and putting his ideas in the mouth and mind of a character too unschooled to be pushing them too hard, Riddley Walker delivers an increasingly familiar lesson in a very effective way.

Aside from some thin character depictions -- and ones, at that, I'm very willing to forgive when seen in context of the book's overall approach -- I think Riddley Walker was nearly flawless in doing what it set out to do.  Even the rushed second half, in contrast with the more leisurely beginning, seemed to fit the overall tone of the story, and it definitely works in favor of the explanation you link to above.  This is certainly one of the most successful Wrapped Up In Books selections to my mind; I enjoyed it a tremendous amount and I'm grateful to Todd for finally getting me to read it.  For all we've compared to other books, WUIB-certified and otherwise, I keep flashing back to Little, Big.  That was a book I enjoyed but didn't embrace, and having now read Riddley Walker, I think it does everything I wanted Crowley's book to achieve while avoiding almost all of the places I think the former book went astray.  Their themes, their tone, and their approach were very similar, but Riddley Walker delivered the message more effectively for me -- and did so with an approach both more complex and, ultimately, more simple.

Zack Handlen: I spent much of the first half of the book trying to interpret Riddley's various myths of the past as some kind of heavily fictionalized and confused re-telling of whatever catastrophe destroyed the world. I thought Eusa (USA?) was a scientist who had split the atom (or "the Littl Shyning Man"), creating the big bomb and bringing radiation poisoning and death. The connection to Christ never occurred to me, and the revelation in the book that much of this was based on a description of a piece of religious art kind of blew my mind, but the conclusions I started approaching earlier in the story remained relevant to me. This is a place where the actual past, while having a clear and inarguable effect on the present, has no real solidity. It can still be manipulated by those who want to influence current thinking, and that means stories are essential because, without having any way to prove otherwise, they are factual, not metaphorical. By the end, though, Riddley has moved into telling stories whose purpose derives first from entertainment and then instruction. Unlike the Eusa show, Punch isn't really about obvious morality. It has a message, but that message isn't delivered from the voice of a powerful religious figure.

Instead, the message is one that has to be inferred by the audience, rather than dictated. So, to fall in line with everybody else, the transition here is from leading a populace by pretending a connection to a history that never really existed, to engaging the populace with a morality tale that gives them the chance to draw their own conclusions. The Punch story is simple, but when you get past the humor, it's about the inherent greediness of men, and how that greediness will always take everything it can if it is unchecked. The only ones who can stop it are the audience members who are watching the action; instead of passively observing, they now take active roles in defeating the villain, in protecting the young and the innocent, in pushing pack figures like Punch, or the various manipulators and power-driven fools we see throughout Riddley. I found this moving, and I appreciated how Riddley made a decision to tell this kind of story after everything else he sees, because it gives you at least some hope in all the loss and dissolution: human nature is, at heart, rapacious, but it can choose to be otherwise, and that's how civilization begins.