"O what we ben! And what we come to!" (100), whispers Riddley Walker, the narrator of Russell Hoban's 1980 novel of the same name, as he looks at the ruins of an ancient nuclear power plant whose aura of force he can feel, but whose secrets are lost to him. This vision of a present wasteland and a past that seems more powerful and more authentic is one that haunts Hoban's fiction, and nowhere more pervasively than in the post-apocalyptic Riddley Walker. In this, his finest novel to date, Hoban creates a remarkably vivid image of a world plunged back into the dark ages by nuclear destruction and uses this world as a setting to explore man's hunger for knowledge and the power knowledge brings. Caught up in a struggle among political, religious, and technological seekers for knowledge, Riddley comes to understand that "what we ben" means much more than the technological achievements of the twentieth century and that "what we come to" implies the need for him to search for his own personal reintegration.
Like so many alienated characters in twentieth-century fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy, most of Hoban's characters find themselves cut off from a meaningful past. Whether placed like the protagonist of his Pilgerman (1983) in the twelfth century, or Kleinzeit (1974) in the twentieth, or Riddley Walker two thousand years hence, they are displaced persons. Their experiences in the novels serve to reconnect them, though usually not in ways that they might expect. Time exists for them in three modes: a present marked by sad decay; a past which the characters feel to be more authentic and heroic; and a recurring mythic or ritualistic time the significance of which only gradually is revealed to them. They may, like Riddley, learn something of the historical past, but the changes in their lives take place because of their absorption into a larger pattern. Riddley, in particular, is a riddler and a traveler who finds truth to be paradoxical and experiential: "Walker is my name and I am the same. Riddley Walker. Walking my riddels where ever theyve took me and walking them now on this paper the same" (8); he learns by going where he has to go.
The true subject of Riddley Walker is, as one reviewer has observed, "the human mind" (Lively 58). Nevertheless, Hoban does a remarkable job of creating a powerfully oppressive physical and cultural setting, England as future wasteland. Riddley, the twelve-year-old narrator, is a member of
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Publication information: Book title: The Nightmare Considered:Critical Essays on Nuclear War Literature. Contributors: Nancy Anisfield - Editor. Publisher: Bowling Green State University Popular Press. Place of publication: Bowling Green, OH. Publication year: 1991. Page number: 106.
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