I suspect Russell Hoban is an acquired taste. I acquired it years ago when Riddley Walker appeared, and I keep coming back for more. But I suspect that his readership has diminished somewhat over recent years, mostly because he hasn’t written Riddley Walker or Kleinzeit all over again. Though, curiously, what he has been doing over the last few years is writing Turtle Diary all over again, but with sex instead of turtles. There was Angelica’s Grotto about a professor of art history who becomes addicted to a pornographic web site; then Amarylis Night and Day about the romance between a lecturer at an art college and the woman who keeps invading his dreams (the professor from Angelica’s Grotto has a walk-on part here). Then come the two further books I’ve just been reading: The Bat Tattoo (2002, Bloomsbury 2003) and Her Name Was Lola (Bloomsbury 2003). Of these, Lola is the more inventive, but they are both pretty good. The hero of The Bat Tattoo makes crash-test dummies with working genitals for the delectation of a strange multimillionaire (shades of Mr Rinyo-Clacton’s Offer here, but then there are resonances across all of Hoban’s books. His characters all live in the same house (Hoban’s own) near the Piccadilly Line, visit the same shops and museum, listen to the same eclectic selection of music, love the same authors (M.R. James, Oliver Onions, H.P. Lovecraft), and pin up the same pictures). Our hero decides to have a tattoo in the shape of a bat from a Chinese bowl, and when he goes to the museum to take a photograph of the bowl he meets a woman who has a tattoo of the same bat; inevitably a prickly romance starts. Meanwhile the sinister multimillionaire is pressing our hero to embark on some art of his own, and he ends up creating a life-sized crucified crash-test dummy. He enters it in an art competition; it is rejected, but then becomes the centre of a cult when people swear they saw the dummy crying. It’s a fairly slight story, but full of Hoban’s usual obsessions.
The art lecturer from Amarylis has a walk on part in The Bat Tattoo, and the professor from Angelica’s Grotto has a walk on part in Lola, but that doesn’t really make them part of a sequence. Lola has a wonderful conceit: unsuccessful author Max is walking along the street one day when he picks up a smelly dwarf that no-one else can see. The dwarf is an Indian characterisation of Forgetting, and when he investigates max recovers his memory of Lola. Lola was the perfect girl for Max, but while he was involved with her he strays with a ‘Homecoming Queen’ type. He gets them both pregnant at about the same time, which causes Lola to break up with him and the Homecoming Queen to return home to Texas. Then he forgets. At the same time, he is trying to write a novel in which his central character picks up the Indian dwarf of Forgetting. It’s a novel with far more resonances between fiction and reality, far more twists and turns of controlled fantasy, far more complexity than anything Hoban has written for a long time. it is, of course, wicked and funny at the same time, and it touches upon all the familiar pubs and museums and shops and operas that you expect to visit in a Hoban novel.
First published at Livejournal, 27 January 2004.