Russel Hoban Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2010 Evelyn C. Leeper.


ANGELICA'S GROTTO by Russell Hoban (Bloomsbury, ISBN 0-747-54611-8, 1999, 271pp, trade paperback):

Russell Hoban has written several science fiction and fantasy works (RIDDLEY WALKER and FREMDER among others), but this, like his previous book (MR RINYO-CLACTON'S OFFER) is a return to a non-fantastic setting. In fact, it bears some similarity to Hoban earlier TURTLE DIARY--both involve a man and a woman who need each other in dissimilar ways, and who come together to satisfy these needs without becoming romantically involved. Both also show Hoban's love of London in his detailed descriptions, and both have other, smaller touches that seem to run as threads through Hoban's work: beach stones, statues, and various off-beat allusions to homosexuality.

The protagonist, Harold Klein, has many features in common with Hoban--age, background, profession, etc. Nevertheless, it would probably be a mistake to read this as even semi-autobiographical. At the beginning of the book, Klein has lost his ability to keep his inner voice inside himself. So, for example, when he is talking to a woman and thinks, "What a nice pair of breasts," he actually says it aloud. This, as one might expect, causes him problems. (In some way, this malady is the reverse--or perhaps the extension--of the bicameral mind that Julian Jaynes discussed. Jaynes theorized that the inner voice was at one time an actual voice that the individual heard and received as external. Whether this is an intentional reference or not, I have no idea.)

Because of his problems, Klein goes web surfing and discovers a porn site named "Angelica's Grotto." He is fascinated by it, and its owner is fascinated, or at least interested, by him and contacts him for a study she is doing. Thus begins Klein's odyssey through an alien world.

Hoban's works concentrate on the connections between people, on their need for each other, and on the unusual forms this need can take, and this book is no exception. ANGELICA'S GROTTO is a disturbing book in some ways (and may prove too graphic for some readers), but it is ultimately a very human book.

To order Angelica's Grotto from amazon.com, click here.


THE BAT TATTOO by Russell Hoban:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/04/2006]

The back blurb from the "Guardian" for THE BAT TATTOO by Russell Hoban (ISBN 0-7475-6163-X) says that it "completes a trilogy of masterful late works." I wish there had been some indication of what the other two books are. Internal evidence suggests that one is AMARYLLIS DAY AND NIGHT and the other is probably HER NAME IS LOLA. However, since I read the latter two years ago, and have the former still on my shelf of books to read, the trilogy aspect was lost on me. Luckily, it seems more a triptych than a trilogy, in that the books seem to be able to stand on their own. (I might compare the effect to one I mentioned in my comments on Christopher Priest's books a few weeks ago--that characters and places seem to recur throughout the different books.)

In THE BAT TATTOO, the main characters are Roswell Clark and Sarah Varley. Roswell is an artist/craftsperson who has had one big success with a toy involving crash-test dummies. Sarah is a dealer in "objects d'art" which she sells from a table at various street markets. Both of them are trying to get over the guilt they carry from their earlier relationships. The idea of two people in need, and in need of each other, is a recurring theme in Hoban's work, and he does it very well. Of course, the big problem is that most of his later works are not readily available in the United States. I bought THE BAT TATTOO and AMARYLLIS NIGHT AND DAY in Canada, and several others in Britain. The only book of his (other than children's books) that one sees here with any regularity seems to be RIDDLEY WALKER--a very good book, but very unlike any of his others. I don't think I've ever read a bad Hoban book, so any that you find are recommended.

To order The Bat Tattoo from amazon.com, click here.


FREMDER by Russell Hoban (Jonathan Cape, ISBN 0-224-04370-6, 1996, 184pp, hardback):

In the 21st century (a very different 21st century than that of Greg Egan's Distress, though they take place in only three years apart), Fremder Gorn is found floating in space sans space suit, sans helmet, sans everything--everything but life that is. This is considered strange, even in Gorn's universe of spaceports with robot sweepers under noctolux lamps cleaning up under signs saying "Mikhail's Quiksnak" and "Q-Bo Sleep." Fremder Gorn's quest to find out how he came to be floating in space also involves finding out what happened to his mother, a famous inventor, and the almost predictable interaction with mysterious government agencies et al.

But Hoban is not so much a novelist as a poet. His classic Riddley Walker proves he has an eye for language and sounds rarely found in science fiction, and even his narratives written in more standard language (Kleinzeit, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz, The Medusa Frequency, Pilgermann, and Turtle Diary are the ones I know of) are more novel-length free verse than prose. I'm sure some lit-crit major will explain that there are strict rules for free verse that this doesn't meet. But to my untutored ear, a sentence like "I've always considered sleep after lovemaking more intimate than the lovemaking: getting through the night together, lying embraced until an arm becomes numb, then lying together like two spoons until sleep doesn't come that way, then turning backs and reverting to aloneness together and the snores, farts, and sighs of the passage from darkness to morning. Katya in her sleep seemed to have no rest: she mumbled laughed, cursed, quoted from the Bible, sometimes in a voice that seemed different from her own." This is a book that cries out for a reading by the author.

Anyone who has read any of Russell Hoban's works will immediately want to know how to get a copy of this, his latest and perhaps most traditional science fiction book. (This is not to say that it is traditional by any normal definition of the term, of course.) Unfortunately for us USans, this is available only in a British edition, and it will probably be a while before it crosses the Atlantic--assuming it ever does. (Why do I latch on to authors who are impossible to find here?) Of his other works I mentioned, only Riddley Walker (a post-holocaust novel) and Pilgermann (a first-person story by a Jew during the Crusades, perhaps best described as magical realism) have been published in the United States, where Hoban is known primarily as an author of children's books. His others--Kleinzeit (an eventful and mysterious day in the life of its eponymous hero), The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz (a quest for lions in a country that seems to be modern England), The Medusa Frequency (involving the talking head of Orpheus and a Vermeer portrait), and Turtle Diary are the ones I know of--seem to be available only in British editions from Picador.

(And now that I've pulled his other books off the shelf to refer to them, I want to go back and re-read them all.)

To order Fremder from amazon.com, click here.


HER NAME WAS LOLA by Russell Hoban:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/08/2004]

Russell Hoban is one of my favorite authors, but his novels do not always get published in the United States. HER NAME WAS LOLA (Arcade, 1-55970-726-7) is his first to "cross the pond" (I believe) since ANGELICA'S GROTTO; the intervening AMARYLLIS NIGHT AND DAY and THE BAT TATTOO are available only in British editions. In LOLA, as in many of Hoban's books, the main character seems patterned after Hoban himself.

Max Lesser is a Jewish expatriate American author living in England. Max is the author of many financially successful children's books and several financially unsuccessful novels. However, I do not think the novel itself is auto-biographical, any more than TURTLE DIARY (or RIDDLEY WALKER, his best know adult novel). Max meets first Lola Blessington, and then Lula Mae Flowers, and finds himself enmeshed in a romantic and sexual web. At the same time, he tries to break out of his writer's bloc with a novel about Moe Levy, who meets Lulu and Linda Lou under suspiciously similar circumstances. Apparently Max can talk to Moe; what's worse, Moe can talk back. Oh, and Max also has arguments with his own mind, and three-way conversations with his mind and the dwarf demon Apasmara Purusha, called Forgetfulness.

Hoban's style is (to me) quintessential magic realism, and incredibly poetic, and I wish his adult books were not so hard to find. (His earlier ones, such as PILGERMANN, THE LION OF BOAZ-JACHIN AND JACHIN-BOAZ, and TURTLE DIARY, do show up occasionally. RIDDLEY WALKER is unlike any of his other works-- it's great, but do not assume it is typical.) HER NAME WAS LOLA, like all of Hoban's books, gets a strong recommendation from me.

To order Her Name Was Lola from amazon.com, click here.


LINGER AWHILE by Russell Hoban:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/22/2010]

LINGER AWHILE by Russell Hoban (ISBN-13 978-1-56972-326-1) is Hoban's first return to science fiction since FREMDER (1996). Hoban uses a dozen points of view in this short novel, which makes it a bit hard to follow, but fits in well with the central idea of bringing a movie star to life from the "visual DNA" in the magnetic bits on a videotape of one of her films. (Okay, maybe this is more magical realism than science fiction, though the science fiction is really no less realistic than stuff that was written back in the pulps.) Because everyone has a different perspective on Justine Trimble, having the multiple points of view allows the reader to experience this, but it's hard work. However, Hoban crafts his writing to make it a joy to read:

"My eyesight was failing. Age-related macular degeneration was the diagnosis. The macula is that part of the eye that gives detail and depth perception. I frequently mistook flat surfaces for raised ones and shadows for substance."

To order Linger Awhile from amazon.com, click here.


THE LION OF BOAZ-JACHIN AND JACHIN-BOAZ by Russell Hoban:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/25/2007]

THE LION OF BOAZ-JACHIN AND JACHIN-BOAZ by Russell Hoban (ISBN-10 0-747-54908-7, ISBN-13 978-0-747-54908-6) was Hoban's first "novel for grown-ups" (as Auberon Waugh described it-- unfortunately "adult novel" has aquired a connotation that requires this circumlocution). Hoban starts with a quote from the Book of Job (10:16): "For it increaseth. Thou huntest me as a fierce lion: and again thou shewest thyself marvellous upon me." But the names are from Chronicles II (3:17): "And he reared up the pillars before the temple, one on the right hand, and the other on the left; and called the name of that on the right hand Jachin, and the name of that on the left Boaz."

The story is of Jachin-Boaz, a seller of maps, and his son Boaz- Jachin, a seeker of something. Set in an unspecified country at an unspecified future time when all lions are extinct, the two are somehow connected by a lion from a palace carving, of the distant past, but also of the present.

Hoban's writing is full of poetry and memorable phrases:

"Every person is like thousands of books. New, reprinting, in stock, out of stock, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, rubbish. The lot. Different every day. One's lucky to be able to put his hand on the one that's wanted, let alone know it."

Or,

"How many people speak the same language even when they speak the same language?" (pg. 154)

Or,

"When you get to know a face or a voice or a smell you think the person isn't a stranger, but that's a lie." (pg. 59)

Even the narrative passages are poetic: "In the morning he was awakened by the sun on his face. There was a professional- looking seagull perching on the mast. It looked down at Boaz- Jachin with a contemptuous yellow eye that said, I'm ready for business and you're still asleep." (pg. 97) Note that the gull is "perching", not "perched"--it is not just sitting there, passively but sitting there actively, about to fly off.

Russell Hoban is one of my favorite authors. He is best known in science fiction circles for RIDDLEY WALKER, but has written at least one other science fiction novel (FREMDER), and many fantasy or magical realist novels. I highly recommend THE LION OF BOAZ- JACHIN AND JACHIN-BOAZ, and all of his other novels as well. (My reviews of many of his books may be found at .)

To order The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin Boaz from amazon.com, click here.


THE MEDUSA FREQUENCY by Russell Hoban (Picador, 1987, ISBN 0-330-30194-2, L3.95):

I would like to recommend Russell Hoban's Medusa Frequency, a fable of a second-rate author's meeting with the head of Orpheus (well, "second-rate" may be overstating it--he writes for "Classic Comics," the cultural arm of a pornography house). Unfortunately, this 1987 novel does not seem to have been published in the United States. If you see the British edition, though, buy it. While not Hoban's best--that honor being held by Riddley Walker or Pilgermann--it provides a new insight into art and artists.

To order The Medusa Frequency from amazon.com, click here.


MR RINYO-CLACTON'S OFFER by Russell Hoban (Jonathan Cape, ISBN 0-224-05121-0, 1998, 182pp, L14.99):

There has been much discussion of magical realism in rec.arts.sf.written these days, and I think I would classify this as magical realism. That is, of course, a meaningless statement, since the real question is not what category this fits into, but what this is about, and what it says.

The offer in question is the following: Mr Rinyo-Clacton will give Jonathan Fitch a million pounds in exchange for the right to terminate Fitch's life any time after a year has passed. Fitch, who has just lost his girlfriend and his job, agrees. One thing leads to another, and the next morning he wakes up realizing that he may have contracted the HIV virus as well.

Now, from a strictly logical standpoint, this makes no sense: if he thinks he's going to die in a year, why worry about a virus which doesn't even show up in a test for three months and would almost definitely not progress from an HIV+ condition to AIDS in a year? (I know people who have been HIV+ for many years now, and they have not yet developed AIDS.) But people are not rational, particularly about death.

One of the clichés about AIDS (and by extension, about the HIV virus) is that those who having it are "living with a death sentence." But we all are. Anyone could be hit by a truck, or choke on a piece of food. It's just that they know it, and we don't. So Fitch's reactions are perfectly reasonable, in a bizarre way: he is more concerned about the HIV virus that he may have, than about the agreement he signed selling his death in a year. Something--the media? one hates to blame them for everything, so maybe it's human irrationality as reported and spread by the media--something has convinced Fitch that the possibility of death from AIDS at some unspecified future time is a more serious concern than the virtual certainty of death from Mr Rinyo-Clacton at the end of a year.

I presume that in mainstream contemporary fiction, AIDS has been dealt with fairly extensively. Since my contemporary reading is more in science fiction, the examples I have seen are somewhat non-standard, and usually involve a plague which has some similarity to AIDS. But Hoban has done the reverse. Instead of looking at AIDS through the mirror of another disease, Hoban looks at death through the mirror of AIDS. Fitch feels that as long as he doesn't have HIV he's safe. We all do this. If we don't have AIDS (or don't smoke, or in general don't belong to that other group over there), we're safe. Death happens to other people.

So here we have Jonathan Fitch, dealing with his two deaths, the one theoretical but known, the other definite but unknown. And his reactions help us examine our own attitudes toward death.

And what of the mysterious Mr Rinyo-Clacton and his gentleman's gentleman whom Fitch describes as having "hands that looked capable of crushing a skull like a walnut. He was also in formal attire and almost invisible in his attendance. Except for the hands. I thought his name might be Igor but it was Desmond." What is his purpose in this contract?

Note to fellow Yanks: There is no period in the title and the American title of The Hounds of Zaroff is The Most Dangerous Game. And in passing I'll note that this is at least the second book in which Hoban quotes Rilke's line, "For Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror..." ("Denn das Schoene ist niches als des Schrecklichen Anfang...").

This book is not in print in the United States, but you can order it from amazon.co.uk in Britain.


PILGERMANN by Russell Hoban (Washington Square Press, 1984, US$5.95):

Russell Hoban is best known in science fiction circles for Riddley Walker, his innovative post-holocaust novel (published in 1980), which Anthony Burgess listed as one of the ninety-nine "outstanding achievements of fiction in the English language since World War II." Written in first person dialect, Riddley Walker was widely acclaimed both inside and outside the science fiction field. Now, three years later, Hoban has published his next novel, Pilgermann.

Pilgermann is also told in the first person, but not in dialect, which makes it somewhat easier to read than Riddley Walker. Still, Hoban uses some stream-of-consciousness techniques which require the reader's full attention. Pilgermann is an Eleventh Century Jew who, on the way home from cuckolding the tax-collector, is castrated by a mob of Christians (but his life is saved by the same--unsuspecting?--tax-collector), has a vision of Christ (who tells him that God is no longer involved with mankind and that he--Christ--has replaced him), and goes on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

While on his pilgrimage, Pilgermann considers his past, his present, and his future. What is more important, he considers the past history, present state, and future possibilities of the human race. It's a dark vision--of man forced by his nature to fall:

"God made us such that we would eat of that fruit, God would have been ashamed of us if we hadn't done it. God would never have bothered to make a man and a woman to live out their days dreaming in a garden." (p.31)
then realizing his preference for sin over saintliness:
"Time after time had violent men sharpened the cross into a sword and made their silken vestments into banners; time after time had they spat out the wafer and the wine and shouted for real blood and real bodies." (p. 98).
Pilgermann, from his vantage point outside of time and space, hovers over everyone and everything, seeing all that has happened and all that has not, the accomplished and the unaccomplished thought. Unlike a work fixed in a specific time or place (even an imaginary one), Pilgermann is able to show us the cycles in life--the short and the long. It is to a large extent about cycles and patterns, repeating to infinity:
"We are, for example, clever enough to know that a year is a measure of passage, not permanence; we call the seasons spring, summer, autumn, and winter, knowing that they are continually passing one into the other. We are not surprised at this but when we give to seasons of another sort the names Rome, Byzantium, Islam, or Mongol Empire we are astonished to see that each one refuses to remain what it is." (p. 116)
The pattern of tiles that Pilgermann draws in the square in Antioch is merely the physical representation of the non-physical patterns that surround us. Just as everyone sees their own pattern in the tiles, called by their own name, so does everyone see a different pattern to the universe, to life.

Pilgermann is a serious work, but it is not without humor. On one page, Pilgermann can ponder the plight of the Jews throughout history; on the next, he is boarding a ship and saying:

"I paid him fifty ducats and abandoned all hope. That is, I thought that I had abandoned all hope until I went below decks and smelled the smell there; then I found that there was more yet hope to abandon." (p. 103)
Pilgermann sees life darkly, it is true, but he looks at what he sees and tries to make some sense of it instead of turning his back on it. For this, at least, he should be heard.

To order Pilgermann from amazon.com, click here.


Three Books by Russell Hoban:: THE MOMENT UNDER THE MOMENT (Jonathan Cape, ISBN 0-224-03314-X, 1992, 260pp, L14.99)
THE SECOND MRS. KONG (Universal Edition, ISBN 0-900938-75-7, 1994, 35pp, no price indicated)
THE LAST OF THE WALLENDAS AND OTHER POEMS (Hodder Children's Books, ISBN 0-340-66766-4, 1997, 80pp, L10.99):

By looking at the header you can see my user interface doesn't even provide me with a way to type the British "pound sterling" symbol (or is it sterling still), so why, one might ask, am I reviewing books priced in them?

Welcome to the world of global commerce.

The fact is that books published anywhere are pretty much available anywhere (assuming censors aren't busy opening packages). In the last month, I've ordered books from three continents, including a British book from Australia and a Czech book, written in English, from a bookseller in the Netherlands. So it is actually possible for you to get these books, even if you live in a keyboard-deprived country.

Aside Number 1: Why do I find myself ordering Britisher Stephen Fry's book from Australia, while the only place to get Aussie Greg Egan's new work is Britain?

Aside Number 2: My palmtop, on which I write this, does actually have international currency symbols. Unfortunately, I can't upload it to my mainframe and have it work.

THE MOMENT UNDER THE MOMENT

This collection of eight stories, fourteen essays, and a libretto is a must for any Hoban fan. For one thing, it's the only time I've seen his non-fiction available anywhere. The best piece to start with is probably "The Bear in Max Ernst's Bedroom or The Magic Wallet," the keynote address for the Sixth Annual Literary Conference of the Manitoba Writers' Guild in 1987. In this Hoban talks about fiction and reality, and writing and risk. Other essays relate Hoban's early life--his background, what he read, what he thought about what he read, and how all that shaped him into what he is today. One or two have implied prerequisites; for example, his introduction to Household Stories by the Brothers Grimm would have meant more to me if I had read the stories, but my childhood was squandered on Jules Verne and Franz Werfel (don't ask). But even here, I found something remarkable: Hoban quotes Goya as saying, "The dream of Reason produces monsters" (Los Caprichos, Plate 43 in my edition, though it is noted that it may have been intended as the frontispiece, and may appear as such elsewhere). Hoban then disagrees, saying, "I think it's when reason is not allowed to dream that it acts out its dreams while awake, and then it is that monsters are produced." But what Goya said in Spanish is actually ambiguous: "El sueno de la razon produce monstruos" can also mean "The sleep of reason produces monsters." In fact, Goya elaborates on the caption by saying, "La fantasia abandonada de la razon, produce monstruos impossibles: unida con ella, es madre de las artes y origen de sus marabillas" ("Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of arts and the origin of their marvels"). So Goya actually agrees with Hoban: reason must unite with dream; one cannot eliminate the other.

The libretto, "Some Episodes in the History of Miranda and Callisto" reminded me very much of a performance of Risako Ataka's "Tempest" sponsored by the Performance Exchange at the 1995 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Maybe it was that the latter had a single actor playing many roles, and Hoban's work, while not quite that sparse, does have each actor in his time playing many parts.

The stories have a range of styles, though certain ideas do recur. Sphinxes and lions seem particularly common, as well as general references to mythology and that other realm which can be called mystical or fantastical or spiritual, depending on your conception.

THE SECOND MRS. KONG

This opera has been set to music by Harrison Birtwhistle, but I haven't heard it. (I know it exists, because an AltaVista search turns up four references to the opera in various university music department libraries.)

The cast includes "Kong (the idea of him)" and "Death of Kong" (two separate characters), Vermeer and his Girl with a Pearl Earring, Orpheus and Eurydice, Anubis, and "Madame Lena, the customary sphinx." Hoban certainly has a thing about sphinxes.

THE LAST OF THE WALLENDAS

This is an interesting experiment. Many of the poems are suitable for children, but some are clearly more aimed at adults. Now "by suitable for children" I do not mean that it is in whatever sanitized, dull state the MPAA in the United States seems to mean in its strange, unfathomable rating scheme, but rather that a child can appreciate it. "The Plughole Dragon," for example, has a basic meter and rhyme that a child can follow, and a straightforward method of expression ("Down the plughole winking, blinking,/No one knows what he is thinking./No one knows why he should be/living there so blinking free."). At the other end of the spectrum if "K219," about the death of Sergei Preminin, and if the introduction to it doesn't give you nightmares, nothing will.

I don't know if the name "Crystal Maze" is a reference to the television show of the same name or just coincidence, but I am reasonably sure that there are echoes of "Albert and the Lion" in its content. (I assume the show is British, though we watched it while traveling in India. "Albert and the Lion" is probably best known in its Stanley Holloway rendition.)

To order The Moment Under the Moment from amazon.com, click here.

To order The Last of the Wallendas from amazon.com, click here.

As for The Second Mrs. Kong, you could try contacting the publisher directly or bookpages.co.uk in Britain.


Go to Evelyn Leeper's home page.