Russell Hoban: A Ceaseless Becoming

Chris Bell

In Dock 14 (there's no 13); Clever Daughter, a deep-space Corporation tanker, a huge battered thing like a discarded oil refinery all pocked and pitted from the dust and flying debris of seven galaxies, dull metal shining in the rain. Nothing sleek, nothing aerodynamic - it doesn't need to be smooth and sleek like those old ships that went up on a pillar of fire and five million pounds a minute. Clever Daughter's bound for Morrigan in the Fourth Galaxy with 500,000 hectolitres of protomorphic acid for De Groot Draconium.


To suggest that the sci-fi mystery Fremder is a surprising departure for 71-year-old, Pennsylvania-born Londoner Russell Hoban - whose other novels might best be described as 'Magic Surrealism' - would be rather like claiming that Salman Rushdie had experienced a spot of bother over The Satanic Verses.

On the other hand, even the names used in this brief quotation instantly welcome Hoban readers to his unique, universal vision. In Fremder, deep space positively sparkles with unexpectedly jewelled fragments. Snatches of songs by the likes of Jagger/Richards, Hawkwind's Bob Calvert and Dave Brock, Steely Dan's Donald Fagen flicker through the chapters like twinges of memories submersed in our experience, never quite resurfacing fully. There are unexpected - yet curiously familiar - characters (at least for the enthusiast): ludicrous film director G–sta Kraken, the Vermeer Girl and German poet Rainer Maria Rilke from The Medusa Frequency; the pump attendant from Edward Hopper's painting 'Gas', who made a brief appearance in The Moment Under The Moment... yes, it's all reassuringly strange.

Fremder is by turns hilarious, profound, absurd, enigmatic and compelling. It is this extraordinarily well-crafted mirroring of existence that Hoban's fans find so vital; you can tell that this is an author who has agonised over every word, and yet never allowed his well-honed craft to intrude upon the most important aspect of each of his books: atmosphere; shaded, in Hoban-language, with hues of purple-blue.

There is a clarity to Hoban's writing, an acute attention to detail, leaving one with an impression of motion becoming stillness. He suggests that the best use he can make of his ubiquitous yellow A4 paper is by attempting to enlarge 'the limited-reality consensus'. Like the LBT (the Little Black Thought), the LRC is a virtual character lurking in the shadows of Mr Hoban's best work, a reminder that most of the Action in our world is 'ungraspable', thus helping to make that Little Black Thought less soul-destroying.

Russell Hoban's reality is simply less limited than most.

To ask where reality begins and ends, why reality suggests different things to different people at different times, demands the definition of a framework - and the only one we have is constructed from words. Hoban deals with this matter of a language-base in The Moment Under The Moment, proposing that the world ("although my royalty statements indicate that it doesn't as yet recognise the need...") lacks writers prepared to take risks in expanding their imagination, to record images that appear beyond where we ordinarily look, to seek:

...words that twist and moan and dance and sing behind the words that go out through our mouths, and the unknown words that we sometimes almost hear from far away... To me it seems that everything that happens is language, everything that goes on is saying something.

This tenet vibrates like a crystal from pages in which we hear the clanging of the brute bell of the universe, the baying of the end of the world wolf. Hoban is at great pains to summon the crucial Moment; that special, elusive instant which is drenched in the supernatural:

Here and gone, the music; the mind shielding it from the winds of forgetting, holding what is partly now and partly remembered.


It is the Moment that Hoban pursues relentlessly in his work; a point at which the veil between one form of being and another becomes tantalisingly filigree:

Early on in my childhood I sensed the thinness of reality and I became terrified of what might be on the other side of the membrane: I imagined a ceaseless becoming that swallowed up everything...Each of us is the forward point of a procession stretching back into the darkness. And even within oneself, every moment is a self that dies: the road to each day's midnight is littered with corpses and all of them whispering.


Mike Petty of The Literary Review suggested that Hoban be made available on prescription. During the writing of Riddley Walker - five-and-a-half years and fourteen drafts - even the author resorted to treatment: visiting a psychoanalyst every week to read aloud each phase of the novel; justifying this on grounds that his brain, being the tool of his trade, ought to be regularly serviced.

The ideas threading through Hoban's work - from the lowly ambitions of wind-up toys in his children's classic The Mouse & His Child, to the stories of knife-fights and analyses of fairy-tales in The Moment Under The Moment - create so rich a pattern as to recall the abstract lion hidden in the mosaic tiles of an Antioch piazza in his fifth adult novel, Pilgermann, and described as enabling one to see: "Thing-In-Itself". No coincidence, then, that blocked writer Hermann Orff (whose name, the first syllable - the head - of Orpheus, is another Hoban obsession) turned down a TV offer in The Medusa Frequency because he "had too many other things to wind up", or that failed pilgrim Pilgermann was frustrated because "Sophia and my little son...had come thus at the eleventh hour to interfere with the smooth and orderly winding up of my affairs." We are deliberately reminded of those clockwork mice in their quest to be 'self-winding', independent. His books form one shifting, mysterious design which, looked at from the right angle, emphasises aspects previously unnoticed. In turn, the links between the books successively add perspective to the vast picture that emerges when pattern becomes consciousness; the living heart of the mystery.

Critics claim that Hoban's personal language-base is tantamount to trickery, and yet surely idea pheromones extend from every book (not merely his own) to those minds that wish to connect with them. "Numinous images seek us out through aeons of darkness," he says in Moment, "whether they are cave drawings or numbers on a manhole cover." What Hoban does so compellingly is to make us feel good about the notion that we belong to a community of perception and emotion. He quotes Schroedinger's 'The overall number of minds is just one,' and asks us whether it feels like that to us:

To me it does. I feel inhabited by a consciousness that looks out through the eyeholes in my face and this doesn't seem to have originated with me. I feel like a receiver made for a transmission that was going on long before I arrived.

(The Moment Under The Moment)

Language is everything; as soon as we begin to talk or to think, we give our mind-pictures names. Hoban does this by stretching familiar terms over unexpected contours. Being a master of the conflict between physical and metaphysical, he acknowledges that novels are more than the sum of their parts:

...a story is what remains when you leave out most of the action; a story is a coherent sequence of picture cards.

(The Moment Under The Moment)

Here is a writer who recognises that nothing is simply one thing. In the post-Apocalyptic Riddley Walker, his Little Man the Addom is literally torn apart by the paradox:

I wan tu go I wan tu stay...I wan tu dark I wan tu lyt I wan tu day I wan tu nyt...I wan tu woman I wan tu man...I wan tu plus I wan tu minus I wan tu big I wan tu littl I wan tu aul I wan tu nuthing.

It is a language corroded by jargon, obliterated place-names and vulgarities hauled through mutated generations. Yet there is a primordial wisdom in it; a behind-the-eyelids sensation; a memory of a time when words may have signified what we no longer know how to describe - or perhaps even why we would want to describe it.

In that unnerving, somehow wonderful moment while struggling for a word that seems eradicated from our consciousness (like children striving to evoke a sensation for which they have no name); before revelation; before the cogs turn, enabling the teeth to take hold and Word to fall like a jackpot; it is in the instant before mystery expires that we find ourselves in the world of Russell Hoban.

Recognising that everything is extraordinary, his humorous observations of the mundane navigate us to special states of mind:

This will bring us down to fundamentals: I have a Gillette Techmatic razor. The blade is a continuous band of steel, and after every five shaves I wind it to the next number. Number one is the last, which is of course significant, yes? Then I stay on number one for ten, fifteen shaves maybe, before I get a new cartridge. I ask myself why. There you have it, eh?


In the very first paragraph of Pilgermann, that ill-starred search for Thing-In-Itself, he gives us this sentence, inversions as magical as the aura it casts:

Twilight it was, the dying day shivering a little and huddling itself up in its cloak. Suddenly there came flying towards me with a mouse dangling from its beak an owl, what is called a veiled owl, with a limp mouse dangling from its cryptic heart-shaped face.

Even readers who in The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz discovered that biting the wheel is not enough, who connected with that post-nuclear Huck Finn, Riddley Walker; were liberated by Turtle Diary (adapted into a screenplay by Harold Pinter for a fairly accomplished film version starring Glenda Jackson and Ben Kingsley); or who found laughter to be a better medicine than the 2-Nup administered to the hospitalised Kleinzeit; may not yet have braved the journey to Jerusalem in Pilgermann. Pilgermann's is a private conversation with the universe and yet, it is also the heart of the pattern, the cornerstone of Hoban's body-of-work to date and the true magnum opus among his novels. In it, even accounts of inhumanity in wartime are imbued with a need to push through the tissue that separates what 'happens' from the (perhaps even more absurd) universe on the underside. During the lengthy siege of Antioch, starving Crusaders are forced to eat the horses that carried soldiers of their own colours to their death. Slain, these horses become a larder for the survivors:

The shocking thought arises: how much better off everybody would be if the Franks would go away somewhere and butcher their horses and live quietly on the meat.

His books are replete with a sense of subjects being described for the first time, seen by eyes which are in love with seeing. The world's surface is less slippery with his help and its inhabitants need his support. Reality continues to roll like a horde of rogue marbles beneath our feet, but at least between his pages we feel that for a few moments we can grasp onto some stray fronds of life's substance.

We're talking about alchemy in its highest form; words forged, veneer of 'truth' buckling in the heat to illuminate the ungraspable: that meaning is a limit. If ungraspable, why bother even trying to write about it? Will anybody read it? Well, we should at least try; to approach the precipice, look over the edge to seek words that can carry us to the place where "the unwordable happens off the page". Above all, we must be prepared to let them take us there.

The route is being mapped from a desk in a house overlooking Eelbrook Common at the Fulham end of Kings Road in London. Russell Hoban wants you to meet him at least half way there, and his world is waiting for you.

The fires col my storys tol.

Chris Bell 1996
This article first appeared in this form on The Head of Orpheus. It was first published in 1997 in The Third Alternative magazine (now called Black Static). A slightly amended version appeared as ‘Russell Hoban and the Reassuringly Strange’ in issue #13 of The Third Alternative, published by TTA Press, 1997.

Chris Bell was born in North Wales in the autumn of the 20th Century. Shrugging off this early setback, he moved from Holyhead to Hamburg via London in a futile search for the trappings of rock stardom, before arriving in New Zealand where, having gone as far as he could, he now works as a writer and editor. He has also written a novel, Liquidambar, winner of the UKA Press ‘Search For A Great Read’ competition; and a novella, Saccade, which is currently shopping for a publisher. His website has been evolving since the internet was a primordial soup. On Twitter you’ll find him tweeting as @ChrisBellNZ. He describes himself as “a glass-two-thirds-empty sort of a person”.

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