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[books] Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban - Lakeshore — LiveJournal
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Jay Lake
Date: 2010-12-26 07:55
Subject: [books] Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
Security: Public
Tags:books, language, reviews
Last night, I finished reading Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban (1980) [ Powell's ]. Brighter minds than mine have spent much thought on this book over the years [ Wikipedia | Riddley Walker Annotations ], but oddly enough I still have a few things to say.

This book could be a type specimen in the argument Daniel Abraham was exploring just yesterday about the dynamic tension between sentence and story. One could write a perfectly decent bit of post-apocalyptic science fiction about the recovery of lost knowledge and the dynamics of social and technological power using the plot, characters and setting of Riddley Walker. That's not what Hoban did. He wrote a puzzle story, where the puzzle is in the framing, phrasing and vocabulary of the story — a technique for example much deployed by Gene Wolfe among others, but Hoban takes it to a grand scale. That layer of linguistic manipulation completely shifts the book away from the underlying story it tells and pushes it into another sphere entirely.

Riddley Walker is written in a mode very reminiscent of eye dialect. In point of fact, this is not eye dialect, in the sense that the narrator is explicitly writing things down rather than having his speech quoted. He lives in a world that barely has orthography, let alone dictionaries. Spelling is remarkably eccentric, yet largely phonetic. The sense of the culture that comes through Riddley's word choices, and the reader's efforts at comprehending how the meanings have shifted, is a huge part of the experience of the book.

Science fiction writers especially use linguistic evolution as a story telling and worldbuilding tool, but most of us don't do it with every damned word on the page. This is impressive, and challenging. To say the least.

One thing I struggled with was sorting out which of the linguistic transformations were literary devices of the book, and which were my own misunderstandings of the substrate of English culture embedded in the story. For example, it took me quite a while to recognize that "Pry Mincer" was a corruption of "Prime Minister", and I didn't grok the connection between the Eusa shows and Punch-and-Judy until that was explicitly stated fairly well along in the book. This is not a complaint, just an observation. And in fact, it's that selfsame lexical detective work that makes the book both so much fun and so much work. Sorting out the subtle expansions of meaning in the words "hevvy" ("heavy") and "foller" ("follow"), for example, occupied me considerably.

My best advice, swiped from tillyjane (a/k/a my mom) is to read it aloud. Much like Huckleberry Finn, this book makes more sense that way. Though I never did figure out what "sarvering" meant in the phrase "sarvering gallack seas and flaming nebyul eye". (The Internet has since informed me that "sarvering" means "sovereign", but I'm not sure that makes much sense, either.)

At any rate, you will likely either love or hate this book. I don't see much room for ambiguity. Enjoy.

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Autopope
User: autopope
Date: 2010-12-26 16:31 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
For an encore, you might enjoy Feersum Enjinn, by Iain (M.) Banks.
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User: tillyjane
Date: 2010-12-26 17:04 (UTC)
Subject: sarvering gallack seas
Its a very old and respectable hymn that starts "Far beyond the sovereign galaxies and flaming nebuli" About god in all things.

Zanting took me a while, but I think its dancing. I spent a long time wondering if Eusa somehow referred to USA, but decided against. Its apparently just St Eustace. Its one of my alltime favorite books, and I love giving it to people.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-12-26 17:07 (UTC)
Subject: Re: sarvering gallack seas
Its a very old and respectable hymn that starts "Far beyond the sovereign galaxies and flaming nebuli" About god in all things.

And that is one of only dozens or hundreds of references that went right by me, I am certain of it. Sigh.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-12-26 18:12 (UTC)
Subject: Re: sarvering gallack seas
Oh, and "sovereign" *still* doesn't make much sense there...
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barry_king: 8.5
User: barry_king
Date: 2010-12-28 16:37 (UTC)
Subject: Re: sarvering gallack seas
Keyword:8.5
My reading of the book leaves me with the feeling of having a peek into the mediaeval mind made anew with the same amalgams of myth, mysticism, and history all compounded together.

So the bit about "Who run the Power Ring who ben too close to Power who gone Badstock crookit and seed of the crookit? Us the same the Eusa folk." does say "USA" to me, and the blending of St. Eustace and "USA" makes sense on some sort of garbled half-remembering through the centuries, like the blending of "atom" and Adam.
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russ: esperanto-flago
User: goulo
Date: 2010-12-26 17:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:esperanto-flago
Man, it was almost 3 decades ago that I read this. Weird to think of it! How time flies.

I occasionally toy with the idea of reading it again; the current me would certainly experience it quite differently from the then me.

It is also a book that would be extremely interestingly difficult to translate. :)
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-12-26 17:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm not sure there's much that is absolutely and literally untranslatable, but this would come pretty close. Kind of like poetry.
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oaksylph
User: oaksylph
Date: 2010-12-26 18:22 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Kind of like "Jabberwocky," to be specific.

Your observations are marvelous, Jay. To both of you: reread! I've made the trip around Canterbury three times now, and every time, I catch something different. (I also get to talk to other readers a lot, as part of my job, and the most recent made a funny when describing the book to another mythology dork: "White harts, red noses, black dogs, and green men! It's Britishally delicious!")
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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-12-26 18:11 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Oh, believe me, this book is so totally not for everybody.
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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
The Green Knight: Ninja
User: green_knight
Date: 2010-12-26 19:12 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Ninja
I wonder whether native speakers of other alphabets experience the latin alphabet in the same way?

(Your experience matches mine. I've recently started to learn Japanese, and I'm still at the stage where I can painfully decipher Hiragana, but give me a page of them and my brain completely blanks out. )
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catsparx
User: catsparx
Date: 2010-12-26 21:44 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
one of my favourites
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User: elizaeffect
Date: 2010-12-27 03:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I loved the crap out of the book, of course, but I especially loved Hoban's comment in my edition on how in the writing of it, he'd semipermanently destroyed his own ability to spell.
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