Riddley Walker: Opening thoughts on the end of the world

Riddley Walker: Opening thoughts on the end of the world

Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club’s monthly book club. We’re currently discussing this month’s selection, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, in a series of posts to be followed by a live online chat Thursday at 3:30 p.m. CST and a feature interview with Hoban on Friday.

Todd VanDerWerff: Predicting the end of the world is a kind of warning: Stop consuming fossil fuels, or you’ll warm the planet so much that life can no longer survive. Reduce your consumption of oil, or there will be so little of it left in a few years that we’ll go back to an agrarian age. Don’t fall under the sway of a charismatic foreign leader, as he may be the antichrist. Whether you agree with any of these predictions or not, making them, and making them fervently, is an attempt to say “Hey! Wake up! Pay attention! It's all going to pieces!”

But writing a novel about the end of the world is all too often wish-fulfillment. The author doesn’t necessarily want the world to end, but that element certainly creeps in around the edges. Once the world burns, everyone will see that dumping extra carbon into the atmosphere was wrong. Once suburbia collapses, everyone will see that building such a sprawling society of oil-based crap was a monstrosity against nature. Once Christ returns and tosses all who oppose Him into the Lake Of Fire, then everyone will see that the Christians were right from day one. Reveling in the apocalypse, really getting into the end of the world, is all too often a way to say “I am right, and you are wrong.”

I thought about this as I returned to Riddley Walker, a book I first read in college and one I’ve returned to several times over the years for individual passages. It avoids the problems of most post-apocalyptic novels by setting its story more than 2,000 years after nuclear war nearly wipes humanity off the Earth. It isn’t about the really cool destruction of national landmarks, or human attempts to eke out a marginal living amid the rubble, or the way the coming of the nukes proves the author right about how destroying all nuclear weapons was the right thing to do. It’s about bigger things than any of that, about community, struggling forward, evolution, and what it means to be a man. It’s achingly sad and haunting, but almost sweetly so, as if the world Russell Hoban presents were still capable of grace, could it just figure out a way to stumble back onto the path.

I’m lucky enough to have the special edition of the novel, which collects the complete text with a series of thoughts about the novel and its evolution from Hoban himself. There’s a handy glossary and a series of notes that Hoban jotted down while writing the novel (mostly to keep himself oriented within the novel’s complicated pre-history, almost none of which makes it into the book directly). Reading early drafts of the novel make it seem almost pedantic, and Riddley has a tendency to overexplain everything when he can use standard English. As a glimpse of how the book evolved, these notes are invaluable. But the primary attraction here is a short afterword, which Hoban uses to lay out the book’s evolution from a standard post-apocalyptic tale to a comically tragic road novel that’s spare in detail and striking in how much it leaves out.

Here, Hoban talks about how he came to use packs of formerly domesticated dogs as one of the book’s chief symbols:

“That Page One had domesticated dogs in it but soon these disappeared and in later drafts the only dogs were the killers that Riddley became friendly with. I like those dogs; there needed to be danger outside the fences and they were it—forlorn and murderous, full of lost innocence and the 1st knowing.” (225)

Here, I think Hoban tips his hat toward what makes his novel work as literature where nearly every other post-apocalyptic tale (and I’ve read damn near all of them, what with my childhood obsession with Biblical eschatology) falls apart or never escapes the category of “good yarn.” Hoban feels no need to preach about humanity’s downfall, nor does he need to make it a time of strained excitement. He's telling a story about the loss of innocence, reworking the most basic of Biblical tales into a vivid story of what comes not just after, but so far after that few can even imagine it. Riddley is not yet a man who can awaken this long-dormant potential in his species (though his journey through the book takes him very close to this point), but the dogs, killers though they are, can still somehow sense this in him. (The only other post-apocalyptic work I’d say attains this level of literary success is Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, which is similarly interested in how humanity puts the pieces of its knowledge back together.)

That haunting notion of what lies between us and these people, in the empty gaps between boards in the fence, in the yawning darkness that surrounds them at night, in the missing pieces of the words they speak that we know should be there, is what makes the novel a success. Riddley Walker is the most successful post-apocalyptic novel because it’s as much about what isn’t there as what is, about the great yawning chasm between Riddley and the reader, a chasm neither party can cross.

To put it another way: I grew up in a land where it’s common to stumble across the ruins of a house that has been swallowed by prairie. Coming across one of these houses in, literally, the middle of nowhere, looking down into the only pieces that remain (often only foundation stones and the remnants of a root cellar) means getting a brief glimpse into a past that’s all too often glossed over. Riddley Walker is the only novel I’ve ever read that captures that mournful feeling of standing at the edge of one of these lost structures, wondering who lived in it and being unable to even imagine them.

So before we get into some of the more obvious topics for discussion (and yes, the language is coming tomorrow), I’d like to know how much you guys like this very specific subgenre. How does Riddley Walker compare to other tales of the end of all things? Did you like its approach better or worse? And would you agree the book’s sense of sadness is more predominant than its humor, even though it’s a very funny book?

Donna Bowman: I couldn’t call myself well versed in the literature of the end of the world. To the contrary, I’ve avoided most such books since I became a parent several years back. I find it too painful to imagine the suffering of an apocalypse, or the deprivation of a post-apocalyptic existence, especially in the detail that literature gives us.

But I loved Riddley Walker. Part of the difference was that I read it for the first time back in college, having picked up a copy for two bucks at a remainder table somewhere (the same copy I read this month—it still has the price sticker on it). And what struck me then, and kept me going past the overwhelming sense of loss this time, was the sense of a world re-enchanted. Where knowledge has been destroyed, “knowing” emerges to fill the gap. And those of you who’ve followed Wrapped Up In Books from the beginning will remember that I am easily seduced by hints of magic, transcendence, a world inside or beyond that we struggle toward.

There are moments of humor, Todd, yes, but I would never argue that the book is funnier than it is sad. It is almost unbearably sad at times, although that may be my own anxieties as a parent coloring my reading. I think of the way Riddley narrates the day Brooder, his father, was crushed by the machine in the muck, ending with a matter-of-fact statement that he’s done with telling about that day.  I think of the fear mingled with go-for-broke courage that characterizes Riddley’s journey to the “senter” and his conversations with the men who want to reconstitute technological knowledge, and the emotional notes I feel are uniformly bleak. What makes the book sad is its narrator cut free from the framework of tradition and social structure, having to construct connexions out of whatever bits and pieces and blips come his way. Again, it might just be the mother in me that aches for a teenager in such a plight. But there’s no way the flashes of humorous frustration Riddley shows on his journey could become the dominant emotion in that setting.

Zack Handlen: I don’t seek out books about the end of the world, but I enjoy them. I’ve mentioned The Stand before, and I thought Canticle was a remarkable, moving work. I’ve also read the first Left Behind novel, which wasn’t. In addition to the appeal Todd mentions above—“It’s a do-over! Everybody, we get a do-over!”—there’s also a tremendous appeal in imagining familiar environments suddenly turned into places full of great peril and adventure. The reason that the first half of The Stand is so much better than the still-good-but-pretty-deflating second half is that once you get past the corpses and the dead loved ones and the sudden lack of basic amenities, there’s a freedom in a world nearly emptied of its people, the lure of a new-old frontier without laws, money, or clear social obligations. 

Obviously this isn’t so much the case in Riddley. A couple of weeks ago, I was struggling with the book. The language was tricky, but I didn’t feel lost in the phonetic spelling so much as the lack of familiar cultural touchstones. When presented with a narrator with such a strong voice, part of my job as a reader becomes translating what he says into things I can recognize, and that caused me no end of problems. There are elements in Riddley’s world that are connected to our own, but there are also psychic powers, and Eusa, and connexions. I was expecting a more one-on-one relationship between our now and Riddley’s, and that made the early going a slog.

I kept on, though, because I honestly loved Riddley’s writing style, even if I didn’t entirely get what he was describing, and as I gradually gave up turning everything in his world into a symbol from the modern day, I began to appreciate Hoban’s commitment to never making things too direct. This isn’t an allegory for nuclear war or the dangers of technology, although it addresses both. Like Todd says, the themes here are less connected to a specific time and cause, and more a reckoning of how society constructs itself. (I guess that would be a kind of little into big?) The amount of thought and logic that goes into so much of Riddley’s customs, like the “connexions,” which is basically just a new form of a priest interpreting the word of God for the layman, or the real source of “Eusa’s Story,” was exciting once I got past the initial confusion. I didn’t get a lot of it, but I got enough. By the end, I was thoroughly engaged, and there are scenes in the last quarter of the book that resonated with me as strongly as anything else we’ve read so far. (And yeah, I found it more sad than funny, although the ending was—well, I hope we’ll get to that.)

Emily Withrow: This is the first post-apocalyptic book I’ve read, so my response on this will be short. The only other book I’ve got in memory is worthy of our old “Ask The A.V. Club” feature, a children's book that buried people in trash, published during the late-’80s rise in environmental consciousness. There was a long waiting list for it at the school library, since we all found it so hilarious; the anthropologist aliens (?) provided an extensive report on our demise and speculated about what our culture might have been like. Obvious social commentary, but deliciously lost on children: Our god lived in a box (the television! so wrong, aliens!) and we all died with remote controls in our hands. Most other details of the wasteland are sketchy at best.

So I came to Riddley Walker with no real knowledge of this as a subgenre in literature; I’ve only the toppling-skyscraper images of movies and that book from fifth grade. I’ve neither purposefully avoided them nor pursued them. But wow, Riddley Walker pulled me in, and fast. The seamless blend of those early tales from Riddley and Lorna, which reminded me of the medieval literature I’ve read—lais in particular—and the first mentions of the Power Ring immediately involved me in the book’s central questions. That cryptic gap between Bad Times and his present had me rooting early for Riddley’s askings and working hard to put together the clues as best I could. I’ve no post-apocalyptic background to latch on or compare to, so I'll leave it at that, but suffice to say that if any others come even close to so effectively blending loss and wonder, sign me up.

Leonard Pierce: Todd, I’ve read more than my share of post-apocalyptic literature, and I think you’re absolutely right in your estimation of the reasoning behind a lot of it.  Even when it isn’t, as you posit, an excuse for the author to engage in some ideological hectoring, to talk us away from a doomsday brought about by overconsumption of oil or totalitarianism or what-have-you, it still can leave a sour taste in the mouth: In lots of doom-of-man stories, but most especially in the glut of zombie fiction we’ve seen lately, the apocalypse doesn’t even reach the level of moral scolding.  It’s just an excuse to remove societal governors and allow for some thrilling but shallow nihilistic violence.

While I don’t necessarily think it’s extremely rare, I do think the successful post-apocalyptic stories I’ve encountered share a common inclination not to engage in the pitfalls you note, from showy big-screen destruction to moralistic finger-wagging to ain’t-it-cool violence without consequence.  Aside from Riddley Walker, which I think imagined and realized its end-of-the-world setting with a great deal of subtlety and grace, I'd also mention Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, Gene Wolfe’s Book Of The New Sun series, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and one of the finest and simultaneously the most depressing films I’ve ever seen (Donna, this one's a sure bet for you to avoid), Michael Haneke’s Time Of The Wolf.

What qualities do they all share?  What are the common threads that allow all these stories to avoid falling into the morasses of lecturing, spectacle, and empty savagery?  For one thing, they’re deliberately ambiguous.  In each case, the original cause of the fall of human civilization is either treated very lightly or never revealed at all, and in each case—and this, I think, is critical—it is treated as fait accompli. It’s over and done, and salvation is not on the way from anywhere. No one needs to investigate the proximate cause of man’s downfall, any more than they need to travel back to the Garden of Eden and talk Adam and Eve out of original sin. The deed is done, and can never be undone, and for Riddley Walker, no less so than for the Kid, or Severian, or McCarthy’s unnamed father and son, or Anne Laurent and her children, the events that led to humanity’s demise are of little or no relevance. What matters is the new world they live in, with its new rules and its new realities.

And this, with appropriate irony, is what allows post-apocalyptic literature to be so relevant to us as people still living in the world-that-was.  By focusing purely on effect, and leaving cause on the margins; by keeping the scale small (“How will I get my next meal?” instead of “How can I overthrow the evil overlords?”), these authors root down into what is eternally human.  The success of Riddley Walker as post-apocalyptic literature is identical to its success as literary fiction in general:  Hoban makes it clear from the beginning that he’s not asking us to solve a puzzle, or to behold the sorry state of humanity, or to learn some pedantic political or ethical point.  He’s asking us to watch a universal story of loss and growth and pain and discovery, which is illuminated by its setting rather than buried underneath it.

None of which is to say that the the choice to make it a post-apocalyptic story was a frivolous or unneeded one. I was as captivated as anyone else by the eerie descriptions of iron machines buried in muck, of wildlife reduced to rare hogs for meat and wild dogs for menace, of curiously reversed naming conventions and place names with their meanings long lost.  But while unsuccessful books would bury us in these details, taunt us page after page with hollow enigmas, and give us easy heroes and villains, Hoban’s setting serves to illuminate, and illumination should enhance the text, not replace it.  His story sets the stakes very early on, when Lorna sets Riddley to thinking about the idea of humanity, of “that thing what’s in us lorn and loan and oansome,” and though there’s no shortage of amazing imagery and evocative settings between there and the end, Hoban focuses intently on that theme until the very end, when Riddley wonders why Punch will always kill the baby if he can.

That’s what makes Riddley Walker such a fine book, I think.  And it’s what makes Riddley Walker, yes, a book more about sorrow than about humor—a book about what’s lost and why even if it’s regained, it will likely be lost again. (Though its humor is interesting; it’s not surprising, given the centrality of the Punchinello to the narrative, but it’s jarring—if not ineffective—to see such a book where the humor doesn’t come from satire, but from farce and slapstick.)  It wisely makes the decision to let what is still recognizably human guide the narrative, to make set rather than setting tell the story.

Ellen Wernecke: I think at this time in my life, I’ve seen more post-apocalyptic movies than I’ve read post-apocalyptic books. It’s not that I’ve been avoiding the genre, not consciously, but filmic takes on the end of the world offer a slightly different attraction: You go into them for two hours, then you go out into the sunlight and think about making dinner. None of them has stayed with me as much as, say, The Road, the one post-apocalyptic book I thought of intermittently throughout Riddley Walker.

What struck me the most about the sadness of Riddley was its inescapability. There’s no ritual that can resurrect the technology buried in the ground or provide humanity with the knowledge needed to run it. Everything that was lost has to be gained back painfully, by inches, most of which young Riddley will never see. It’s that idea of continual struggle over thousands of years, with the knowledge that staying feral and lawless would be easier, that made his predicament so depressing.

In that vein, it’s comforting to know that humor will survive even in the blast zone, but the humor never outweighed the sadness for me. More surprising than the jokes for me, however, were Riddley’s unexpected insights, the way even while fighting for survival, he can get twisted up in the philosophical queries we (with all our numbers and all our machines) similarly haven’t been able to solve.

The concept of groping for those answers, not in an organized way but amid the monumental effort of trying not to come to an ignominious end (like Riddley’s father, whose useless death was one of the saddest things about the book), is what ignited this book for me, because even when I wasn’t sure what Riddley’s lone wandering was going to add up to, I was hoping to see how each person he met shaped his view of the world. His journey as a character is far more spiritual than spatial, and its scratching at despair brings forth an urgency. To paraphrase Samuel Beckett, he can’t go on, he’ll go on.

Keith Phipps: Now that I think about it, I guess I’ve read my share of post-apocaylyptic books over the years. I read one of my favorites a couple of years ago: Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, which shares with Riddley Walker a sense of how tenuously held together civilization is. A plague has devastated 20th-century America, and by the end of the book, just one generation out from the catastrophe, most technology has taken on the quality of mystery. Humanity, however, persists, and in both books, there’s a sense that what makes us human remains the same at the core of things.

You know what Riddley Walker got me thinking about? Voodoo. (Or Vodun, if you want to use the proper word.) Voodoo is a syncretic belief system, able to bring in disparate elements from other religions so long as they fit an overarching pattern. Thus in the New World, West African beliefs and Catholic notions could stand side by side. I once saw a museum-exhibit Voodoo shrine dedicated to Baron Semedi that incorporated a figure of Darth Vader. Why? Because the Star Wars bad guy resembled the Voodoo loa enough to fit in.

I bring this up not to digress too far from Hoban’s book—which I liked, even though it sometimes left me feeling like I was swimming in murky water—but because I think there’s syncretism at work in Riddley Walker’s world as well. Even if no legend of St. Eustace or Punch puppets remained to draw from, I suspect that Riddley’s world would end up retelling variations on the same stories of good vs. evil, technology vs. the natural world, and so on. The details change, but the stories at the core—the stories humanity needs to tell and retell to make sense of the world and which Riddley commits—remain the same. If coherence sometimes eludes teller and listener alike, that’s true of our world too.