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Finding Escape In The Familiar With 'Riddley Walker'

John Wray, chosen in 2007 as one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists, is the author of three books. His most recent novel is Lowboy.

One of the most enduring mysteries I've encountered, both as a writer and as a reader, is the question of why certain novels speak to me on the most intimate level, while other equally good books fail to cast a spell.

Whatever the explanation, the experience I'm trying to describe — the shock of recognition, of magical identification, — is the single greatest joy that reading gives me.

I've never felt it more strongly than when I read the first few sentences of Riddley Walker.

Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban, is set in a post-apocalyptic England in which all but the most basic civilization has decayed. The novel tells the story of the uneasy friendship between two adolescent boys — one a normal teenager, one a clairvoyant mutant — who happen, more or less by accident, on the secret of the atomic bomb.

It begins with a bow-and-arrow hunt for wild boar, and ends with a routine by Punch and Judy, as puppet shows have taken the place of mass in the churchless — but not godless — England of the distant future. What happens in between is a heroic quest, like The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, although Hoban's book leads his hero into distinctly darker territory. There are no rings or magic wands in Riddley Walker. Just knowledge and brute strength.

This may sound like grim stuff, but the book's a delight. One of the defining features of the post-nuclear world Hoban has imagined is the fascinating, broken-mirror way in which the reader can recognize fragments of contemporary culture in the new Dark Ages of the twenty-third century. Place names are particularly fun: Sandwich has become "Sam's Itch," Dover is now called "Do It Over," and the Archbishop of Canterbury, a poor, sightless mutant used by the government as a kind of living crystal ball, has been aptly re-named "His 'Ardship."

John Wray, chosen in 2007 as one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists, is the author of three books. His most recent novel is <em>Lowboy</em>.
John Wray, chosen in 2007 as one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists, is the author of three books. His most recent novel is Lowboy.

I came across the novel in the ninety-nine-cent bin of a used bookstore in Texas when I was fresh out of school, and the world it created, futuristic and medieval at once, was the perfect escape from the drudgery of my first post-college job. Riddley Walker, like Joyce's Ulysses or Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, takes a hammer to the staid, proper language most books are written in, and builds something new and astonishing out of the pieces. These days, I keep a copy within arm's reach of my desk, and open it at random whenever I get that slightly queasy feeling that my own writing has become a bit too safe.

But voice of the novel, remarkable as it is, is only the most obvious of the narrative's many charms. The civilization described in Riddley Walker is a civilization in its fetal stages, and there are any number of moments when the reader has a front-row seat to the invention of that society's entire belief system, from its code of right and wrong to its sexuality to its creation myth. The world that Riddley and His 'Ardship travel through has made all the mistakes that our own world is making, and has paid a terrible price for its pride — but in spite of those mistakes, it has survived. Hoban's book, for me, is that rarest of creatures: a work of uninhibited fantasy that we can recognize ourselves in clearly, and possibly even learn from. What could be more exciting than that?

You Must Read This is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.

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John Wray