I suppose the thing to remember is that, as far as Russell Hoban’s work is concerned, Riddley Walker was the exception not the rule. And I’m not talking about the language (that had to be a one-off) but about the structure. Apart from that novel and, to a lesser extent, Pilgermann, his novels from The Lion of Boaz Jachin and Jachin Boaz all the way up to Linger Awhile (Bloomsbury 2006) have been structurally similar. They are short books composed of short chapters that alternate viewpoints and that emphasise the skew of their perceptions rather than the clarity of their vision. To this extent, therefore, the new novel fits precisely into the pattern of all the rest. But more than that, since Angelica’s Grotto Hoban’s work has taken on an even more consistent tone of voice and preoccupation. Age and sexuality, and particularly the embarrassment of sexuality in old age, have become repeated motifs; and characters from different novels keep glancing off each other in the familiar and precisely described hunting grounds of contemporary London. In Linger Awhile the character revisited from a earlier book goes back rather further in the canon than we have become used to, to The Medusa Frequency which is specifically name-checked in the novel; while the territory is less Fulham and more Charing Cross Road (Gaby’s, one of our favourite eateries, is visited several times in the book); but the familiar pattern is there.
In this instance an old man becomes obsessed with making accessible the young and supposedly inaccessible object of his sexual fantasy (there is a strong sense that this is a re-working of Angelica’s Grotto). The fantasy object this time around is a now long-dead actress as she appeared in a B-movie western from the 1950s. The solution is to bring her back to life, and for this he needs a technical-whizz friend who isolates an image from the film and immerses her in a vat containing a suspension of disbelief. As in Hoban’s previous science fiction, Fremder, this word-play is just one of several hints throughout the book that we are not to take any of this too seriously. Although this is very much a book about the sadness and loneliness of old age, a novel that leads inevitably to the deaths of its main protagonists, it is still a novel crowded with silliness. For Hoban, himself a man approaching the end of life, it seems that the only valid response to the sorrow and indignity of old age is to giggle.
And so we have a raunchy young starlet loose in modern London. The only problem is, she has been resurrected in black and white. She needs blood to restore her colour. Unfortunately, the stew of noisome objects in which she was reborn included frogs (the ingredients read like some Shakespearean witches’ brew), and these lend her a distinctive and unpleasant aroma which eventually puts off the lecherous old men who brought her back to life in the first place. When she is allowed out on the streets of Soho she therefore feeds on a passing stranger, and doesn’t know when to stop, draining her completely of blood. So the novel acquires another narrative strand, the stolid police investigation of curiously vampiric killings in modern London. Meanwhile the coven of old men who raised her fall out over the sexually rapacious and nauseatingly aromatic young starlet. The old man who initiated proceedings in the first place gets together with the on-again-off-again girlfriend (who is, it must be noted, almost the same age as the old men and the voice of reason and humanity in this curious farrago of a novel) and they raise another version of the starlet. So now we have two black and white vampires haunting London.
As you might have guessed, there is an awful lot of plot crammed in to a book that is only about novella length. But we’re not really meant to suspend our own disbelief, it is a romp about sex and death and the only possible response is to regard it as inconsequential. Which is, I think, the point. For anyone like me who is addicted to Hoban’s slight, sly novels, it is a delight, of course, though it is not one of his better books and it is certainly not one of his serious ones.
First published at Livejournal, 20 April 2006.