Riddley Walker: Thoughts on language

Riddley Walker: Thoughts on language

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: Trubba not, fellow Wrapped Up in Books-keteers. It's time to talk about the one big impediment to most people enjoying this novel: its use of a devolved form of English to convey just what's going on in the story and build Riddley's world. I know from e-mailing with some of you that the language was perhaps not as much of an issue for you as it has been for some I've tried to push the novel on in the past (some of whom can't even get past the first couple of chapters), so I was pleased in that regard. But I'd be interested to see if any of you think the novel could have been told via any other dialect.

First, here's a segment from the expanded edition of the novel, which features excerpts from Hoban's first attempts in standard English and his original 500-page version. If this intrigues you, there are several more examples in the expanded edition:

"The Eusa man stood outside in the rain and sent his partner in first. The partner was well over six feet tall, had a bow and a quiver of arrows on his back, a big knife, and four rabbits hanging from his belt. He had hands that looked as if they could break anything or squeeze it to death. He poked about with his speak, looked here and there behind things. He seemed to take the place in with all his senses at once, took in the feel of it as an animal would." (224)

Here's a comparable passage from the novel itself:

"After meat I gone up on the hy walk and looking out for Goodparley & Orfing. Lissening to the rain dumming down on my hard clof hood and thinking how itwd soun on dog skin. Persoon I heard the horn blow 'Eusa show' then the poynt hevvys come out of the rainy dark in to the lite of the gate house torches. 1 of them lookit up at me and said, 'Trubba not. Eusa show.' I never knowit Goodparley & Orfing say ther oan Trubba not they all ways sent a hevvy in front of them. I said, 'No Trubba' then I opent and in they come hevvys 1st. Goodparley & Orfing dint come thru the gate til ther oan men wer in the gate house. They wunt walk unner a gate house other whys." (37)

The first passage isn't bad or anything, but for my money, it leaves far too little to the imagination. By telling his story in a worn-down English, Hoban is forced to convey almost all of his exposition and backstory through what the words themselves have become. Think, for example, of how the word "diplomacy" has been ground down to "Plomercy," a word used first when the old dog throws itself on Riddley's spear, seemingly. It's simultaneously a pun on both "diplomacy" and "mercy," a nice twisting of both central concepts, and a nasty hint of just what must have transpired in Riddley's world to twist the word to that meaning. There are other places where the language shies away from what happened and what people had to do to each other after the cataclysm, and that shying away gives many of these moments a power that mere description wouldn't have.

I can see why some struggle with the language. I'll be honest and say that the first time I read this novel, I didn't grasp what all of the words meant. (It took me ages to figure out what "blip" and "blipful" were meant to signify.) But I don't think grasping the meaning of everything that happens is necessary to enjoy what's happening in the novel at the same time. As I posited yesterday, Riddley Walker is a novel about the things that come in between the other things, and some of those things are the missing vowels and mutated consonants that make up the argot of his world. At times, it's best to just let the language wash over you, rather than try to grasp the meaning of each and every phrase.

It's also worth pointing out that nearly everything that's funny in the novel stems from the use of language, from the twisting of "Bob's your uncle" to many of Riddley's asides. By and large, a novel this heavy on wordplay shouldn't work, but by inventing a language that's at once familiar and alien to us, Hoban is able to get away with some pretty basic puns with a winking sense of fun. I wouldn't say every joke in the book lands, but far more do than one would expect from a novel about people eking out a marginal existence in the wake of a nuclear war. (And if the language is really tripping you up, this web site is a rather amazing set of annotations for basically everything in the novel, including place names, suggesting where they might sit in a modern England.)

So was I reading you guys right? Did the language give any of you fits? Or were you mostly okay with it? And have you worked any Riddleyspeak into your everyday life, as I have with "Trubba not" and "Master Chaynjis"?

Donna Bowman: No trubba, Todd.  Ah, invented language—how you beguile me! I had read Riddley Walker once years ago, as I mentioned yesterday, but I don't think that gave me any appreciable advantage over any other readers when it came to teasing meaning out of the text. Yet within a few pages, I was immensely comfortable with Hoban's dialect. I find great pleasure in deciphering a book a word, a phrase, a sentence at a time, lingering over every turn of language. Few books are worth that effort, and I don't give it unless the book is worthy. (Jane Austen and Charles Dickens come to mind as authors who always elicit leisurely reading from me; I savor every word and clause in order to enjoy their full flavor, and to delight in the complex ways they interact.)

I fell into that hypnotic state of slow, careful reading every time I picked up Riddley Walker. It wasn't at all uncommon for me to look up from the book and find that half an hour had passed without my noticing, and that I was late for some appointment. The language, in other words, pulled me into the world of the book because it both demanded my attention and rewarded it so handsomely. For the most part, I processed the language on a subconscious level; it was always a bit of a jolt when I had to surface to figure out some set of phonemes that connect Riddley's speech to my own, connecting knowledge I was supposed to bring to the mysterious words Riddley has inherited. I preferred to simply immerse myself in the near-liturgical flow of sound Hoban created, hearing his narration as speech and as incantation.

No episode better illustrates the magic of this language for me than the interpretation of the passage about St. Eustace. It moved me deeply that the characters saw the text they had inherited as a hermeneutic puzzle, capable of revealing and concealing. They were convinced that there was nothing random about it, that its very existence signaled its importance, and that the meaning to be derived from it was crucially connected to the meaning they already possessed in their rituals and scriptures. Listening to Goodparley explaining how it all fit together, I felt myself included in a kinship with him and with all readers. We desire the connexions, we wait for them, we are transported and changed when they appear, we are disappointed when they do not make the world fall into place as we wish. Hoban's magnificent accomplishment, for me, is to reveal by hiding, hinting at the transcendent import of what lies behind his simplified, limited vocabulary.

Zack Handlen: I dug the language. It was so much fun, and the small victories I found in deciphering even incidental words entertained me through passages where I wasn't really sure of the big picture. What's interesting about that "straight" passage is that, more direct or not, it's not really very entertaining to me. So much of the character of Riddley and his environment come through in the way he expresses himself that losing that would mean losing one of the fundamental reasons the novel is as good as it is. 

Okay, I'm going to get unbelievably pretentious, but: I read Ulysses a few years ago. Parts were rough going, I'm sure I missed a good deal of the puns and the references, and whole chapters largely passed me by. (One in particular, the section in the hospital where Joyce mirrors the birth of language with an actual birth, has a paragraph that haunted my dreams. It reads like a 3 a.m. hangover.) But I loved  the experience, and I loved the novel, and even typing this now, I want to go back and go through it again. Part of that is the fun of the puzzle, of deciphering and decoding and making the right deductive leaps, but if that's all there was, it'd be a crossword, not great literature. Let's agree that literature is an artificial construct, all right? The act of reading anything on the page is a stylized abstraction, inherently absurd. To me, great novels are ones that acknowledge this absurdity and use it to their advantage. The riddles and stream of consciousness and buried meaning draw attention to this artificiality and paradoxically reduce the distance between the reader and the story being told. The final sections of Ulysses are like nothing else I've ever read, in their intimacy, compassion, and empathy. They would not have worked without all the play and oddity that came before.

On a much smaller scale, I think the language Hoban uses in Riddley works the same way. By forcing us to concentrate so much on understanding the meaning that's being conveyed, we become attached to the character and his adventures nearly by default, and while it takes patience, once that attachment and the understanding reach equal levels, it's an experience that no other art form can equal. (Tricks don't work on their own, of course. For a long time, I was worried all Hoban had was some puns and a moderately weird science-fiction story, but I was happily wrong.)

Ellen Wernecke: Put me in the “not as much trubba” category, Todd. It turned out that my copy of Riddley Walker (the 20th-anniversary Bloomsbury edition) actually had a glossary in it, but I didn’t discover that until I’d finished, and it’s better that I wasn’t flipping back and forth throughout the book. If you’ve done any reading in a foreign language, you know that forest-for-the-trees effect where the individual words rebel against the overall meaning.

I agree with Donna that it’s the kind of language you have to sort of immerse yourself in, but that once you get into the flow of it, at some moments, you barely notice it’s there, even though it's seemingly a colossal obstacle. The only term I couldn’t figure out on my own was "sharna pax," and the moments when I found it the most distracting was where it was actively pulling against the narrative—such as the scene with Goodparley and Granser when they’re combining the "ingredients" of the 1 Littl 1. As a normally fast reader, being forced to slow down and allow Riddley to puzzle through something that seemed like a foregone conclusion was good mental exercise.

I haven’t read Hoban’s plain-speech draft, but I think that direction would have been a mistake, because the devolution of the language in Riddley brought across the motif of destruction and the aftermath of a civilization-destroying nuclear war for me just as clearly as Riddley’s descriptions of the ravaged countryside and dead towns. Granted, what happened to the language—the shifting, the dropping and mangling of syllables and the decay of the written word—must have happened over thousands of years in which it was less important to be able to express yourself, and more important to save yourself. Just as in the "tel," Eusa discovers money can’t save his family. Communication beyond the power to persuade (of which eloquent speech is part but not all) can’t keep a small band of people alive, or help them determine where to find clean water or how to take shelter against wild dogs.

I feared that the bias against “clevverness" was going to turn out to be a stronger theme, but I suppose I should save that conversation for the world-building discussion. Meanwhile, I’m already planning to press this book on a few friends with a linguistics background.

Keith Phipps: As a fellow Joyce veteran (and Joyce admirer) like Zack, and as someone who will explain why you really have to read Chaucer in the original—mostly because it's not that hard, and it rewards tenfold the time it takes to pick up a basic understanding of Middle English—I liked the language. I will confess it left me swimming a bit at times, and became something of an annoyance when I lost track of what was supposed to be, you know, happening. But I took that as a tradeoff to spend time in such a one-of-a-kind world of words.

Leonard Pierce: When you chose Riddley Walker as our next Wrapped Up In Books selection, Todd, I was immediately grateful we'd brought you into the fold, because it's a book I'd been meaning to read for ages. I bought it more than a year ago when I was on a mini-kick of novels featuring invented languages, and it arrived in the mail the same day as David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, but I never got around to it. Your pick allowed me an excuse to finally crack it open, and as I'm sure should be clear from my first post, I loved it.  But I'm really looking forward to these discussions with you, the rest of the staff, and the readers, because curiously, none of my friends—all of whom are literary nerds to one degree or another—seem to have read the thing, and the two people I know who tried were turned off early on by the language.

Now, I love constructed languages.  I'm a big artificial-reality dork, and while a lot of invented languages strike me as arbitrary and gimmicky, I think when they're well done, they can add a tremendous amount of depth and complexity to a text, as well as whole new layers of meaning.  Sometimes they can be pulled off in a very simple way; Gene Wolfe's Book Of The New Sun series, which I mentioned before, made a language that sounded new simply by repurposing obscure English vocabulary and Latin loan-words.  Other times, it can be exceptionally complex, as with the Nadsat slang used in A Clockwork Orange; I found the book, on first read, to be terribly challenging (though worthwhile) for this reason, because Anthony Burgess' street argot contained completely new vocabulary, strange rhyming phrases, and references that were alien to me.  Only the fact that Nadsat had an essentially English-language structure and syntax let me get through it.

By contrast, I didn't find Riddley Walker's future-Kentish all that hard to understand.  Most of it was just a quirky phonetic English that was easy enough to decipher by reading "aloud" in my head, and the few times new pieces of vocabulary appeared, I found them pretty simple to suss out in context.  There were a few uses of altered meaning or new uses of familiar phrases that I didn't have a handle on, but nothing that kept me from moving forward in the text. And of course, as has been mentioned, a big part of the book's humor revolves around puns, ranging from the vulgar (Bernt Arse) to the whimsical (Do It Over), in the place names, which I found both enjoyable and informative.  I've read a ton of British literature, so I didn't have too much difficulty sorting out the place names with the help of Hoban's map, but I could see how this might bug people not as familiar with English geography.

The important question, though, isn't whether I found the language easy or hard; it's whether it suited the narrative. I think it did, and on levels deeper than the obvious. At the surface, it resembles the language used in a lot of post-apocalyptic literature: a degraded form of modern English, where important clues as to the nature of the doomsday world are made available to us, the reader, but are kept hidden from the characters, who have no context in which to place it. But it also functions nicely as a reflection of the setting: to echo what Donna said so eloquently above,  Riddley Walker's world is one of mystical revelation, religion made of tradition instead of understanding, adherence to forgotten norms (witness the importance of the Punch and Judy show, without Punch)—in other words, it is a perfect futuristic echo of the medieval period.  The language thus serves another purpose, not of concealing, but revealing, of illuminating the past in service of the future. 

Of course, it serves Hoban's purposes as well, as a writer:  it lets him go in on the secrets he wants to reveal while masking the ones he wants to leave open (here I'd call attention to the multiple levels of meaning possible in "Eusa"), but if it were that alone, it would risk the charge of being arbitrary. It's in how the language both hides and shows, how it places the characters in shadow while showing the world in sharp relief, that it works best, and makes it an improvement both stylistically and practically over a telling of the story in more standard language.  

Emily Withrow: Those initial e-mails Todd's referring to, I will admit, filled me with dread. The references to the language made me think maybe I was about to open some dense thing written in an alien language. But once I opened up and realized what was going on, I enjoyed the language, putting on a strong Irish accent in my head to help me along. (This is before I got the Inland/England connection. I'm like commenter The Howling fan Todd; I neglected to read the back of the book and knew absolutely nothing going in.) The language certainly didn't help my speed, though. I'm a slow reader to begin with, and I clocked it around three pages per minute.

What I loved about the language is how effectively it plants us in Riddley's world, mirroring his attempts to grasp at something just beyond his understanding, with a sense at every step that more could be discovered with a little digging. It not only "slows the reader down to Riddley's rate of comprehension," as Hoban says in the afterword, but also captures the shortcomings of the society, significantly limiting what they're able to unearth.

The "straight passage" is a crucial moment, I believe. For those missing pieces here and there, it grounds the Eusa story in something concrete, and though we've known it all along, quite plainly puts forward the severity of the gap between our world and theirs. This moment both pulled me closer to Riddley's world in terms of pathos, and firmly planted me outside of that world. Without the magic of Riddley's language, the passage seemed almost naked to me, sad in its matter-of-factness. Oh, I thought, I'm one of them, and so far away.

Tasha Robinson: I guess I'm glad my edition didn't have an afterword or a glossary, because it was a welcome and personal revelation to me when I realized, three-quarters of the way through the book, how the language was making me slow down and puzzle through what I was reading, and how that process mirrored Riddley's painstaking struggle to set his words down on paper. Everyone above seems to have assumed that everyone in Riddley's world speaks exactly as his words look on paper; I didn't. He admits that most people in his world don't read or write, and he himself is a borderline illiterate, sweating to capture his experiences because he knows he's on the edge of something important—literally, in the sense that he's been nearby but apart as gunpowder was rediscovered and humanity started clawing its way back toward killing the baby, and figuratively, in that he's constantly working for his tels and connexions, trying to puzzle out what it all means. I got the sense throughout that it's all on the tip of his tongue to say what it all means, why Punch kills the baby and why people want to put the Shining Addom back together, and what both symbolize and signify—but he's still young, and it's all a bit beyond him. Still, he hopes that by getting it all down laboriously in text, he can pass it on to future generations, and maybe help them take that first step up from the mud. Having Hoban spell all that out for me in an afterword would have taken some of the sentiment and sorrow out of it for me.

Riddley Walker did remind me at times of A Clockwork Orange, which similarly delighted me but at times frustrated me. I tend to be a fast reader, and I read faster when things get exciting. Clockwork Orange and Riddley Walker both stymied me in that regard, by making me work for meaning. And they both earned my respect for it—they're both beautifully crafted and consistent in the richness, texture, and symbolism of their created languages, but they're also both from crafty writers who want people concentrating instead of skimming. Good for them.

Still, Riddley reminded me more of another book that uses debased language to convey the limits of the author's intellect, and the strain he puts into every page: Flowers For Algernon. As with the "dumb Charlie" segments of that book, Riddley Walker engendered an automatic sympathy in me for the good fight that the narrator is fighting. Meaning is hard. Communication is hard. And yet it's so crucial that it's worth all the sweat and tears that go into it. That's what we get out of the form of Riddley Walker that we wouldn't have gotten from a plain-text version, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

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