The waiting is over

Chris Bell

I feel bound to preface the following with a qualification. Setting aside that aspect of me for which there were no multiple choice boxes to tick, Russell Hoban has been the single most important influence on my life.

The way I look at the world, render my work and express my belief that we’re all facets of one Universal Mind, owe a great deal to — and, in some cases, have been formed entirely from — Russell Hoban’s writing.

Another central influence on my life was Frank Zappa and, as I’ve said elsewhere, there are more similarities between the two than you might at first think; the most important of which, it seems to me, is a cohesive, self-referencing body of work. I cannot entirely explain why I consider a creative body of work to be so crucial to existence as an artist, but I will endeavour at least to outline why this particular body of work is central to the idea of me.

The story of my discovery of Russell Hoban is one of travelling; a journey that began, appropriately enough, in London. By the mid 1980s, I’d been living in a succession of bedsits and flatshares around London for almost a decade. It was in one such bedsit, in Finchley Central (ominously, Maggot Scratcher’s parliamentary constituency) sharing twilit rooms with my best friend from a Welsh ‘comprehensive’ school, that I first heard about and read Russell Hoban’s novel Riddley Walker. To say that it changed my life would not be hyperbolic but, rather, badly understated.

My friend, Adam, had been introduced to the book by a band called Freur, which he was co-managing — and that band, too, was about to change the direction of my life, but that’s another story. To digress a moment longer, Freur had a song called Matters of the Heart, which was released as a single. Various demo recordings and a 12-inch vinyl mix of that song were subtitled Hart uv the wud in tribute to Riddley and his haunting, postapocalyptic quest.

My friend and Freur had warned me that Riddley Walker was challenging. What stunned me about its deconstructed language was not the challenge in itself but that, within a few pages, I felt as though I was Riddley. This transplanted inner voice never left me. He had become as embedded as an imaginary friend, except it felt as though Riddley had accompanied me from the beginning of Time.

In the 1980s, with poisoned sheep and blighted mushrooms in the aftermath of Chernobyl; garbage piled up to entertain Manny Rat and his friends in Leicester Square; yuppies rampaging American Psycho style through the City of London; Greenham Common women steadfast in their non-violent intervention; Maggot Scratcher purveying her brand of greengrocer fascism (the model, perhaps, for iron-titted Aunty?); and Crazy Ronnie taunting a perishing USSR, the prospect of a reality in which Riddley might soon exist off the page as well as on it, one in which we would all be doing the Fools Circel 9wys, did not seem far-fetched. To a 24-year-old self-inflicted ‘victim’ of this mad world, 1 Big 1 seemed inevitable.

Today, I am more confident that Riddley’s reality is one we and our children will only have to experience in our imagination. Not that that makes it any less real; and the world in 2005 is no safer than it was in 1985, thanks to a generation that consists largely of the offspring of those 1980s failed children.

When I moved south-west to Turnham Green (a place with a reassuringly Riddleyesque name), I wiled away many a doletime afternoon hunting for other Hoban worlds among the Gom Yawncher men and Redbeards in Chiswick Library. There, I found Kleinzeit in Picador paperback, which I subsequently bought, and then Turtle Diary and The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz, but my most profound discovery was a hardback Jonathan Cape first edition of Pilgermann, which I began reading after Riddley, but stupidly abandoned after a false start. I know that a lot of readers have found the early chapters of Pilgermann difficult, but the rewards, once one sets one’s mind to it, are profound. The moment I decided to return to it and give it a second chance was another vital turning point.

Pilgermann’s voice struck a chord in my mind as Riddley’s had done; perhaps because it seems, to me, to be an extension of that same voice, although positioned on different points of the Timeline. Years after I first read it (and after several re-readings), while living in Hamburg, Germany, I had a dream in which I manifested in the body of an owl that soared over the ruins of Antioch — one of those dreams from which you never entirely wake up; at least, the warmth around my heart remained long after the image had faded.

I recently bought a signed, hardback copy of Pilgermann; that same Jonathan Cape first edition I discovered in Chiswick Library.

Hoban novels have accompanied me around the world. I’ve given away many copies only to replace them with new ones, and have seen various Picador covers supplant previous versions. Now I’m gradually augmenting the well-thumbed originals with the smart-looking Bloomsbury reprints.

It borders on an obsession, but I know I’m among friends here.

What is perhaps extraordinary about my experience of Russ’s novels is not that I’ve read each of them avidly, but that I’ve re-read each of them many times; the way you listen to favourite albums over and over again. I’ve re-read other authors’ books, of course, but I’ve never gone through and rediscovered their entire body of work so rigorously.

My hardback copy of The Moment Under The Moment accompanied me to Paris in the 1990s, when I was asked for help in opening an office there by my then employers, Gibson Guitars, and inside that copy I still have a yellow paper flyer from Saint Germain l’Auxerrois in place du Louvre and a colour brochure with photographs from the hotel Le Relais du Louvre, which made a cameo appearance in the short story My Night With Léonie.

I first read The Medusa Frequency on holiday on the Caribbean island of Tobago. The pages of that copy are indelibly marked with flecks of sunscreen and traces of brinjal pickle, which transferred itself from my sandwiches as I greedily tried to continue reading while eating lunch.

I was re-reading Medusa when I spent a week on the shores of Lake Geneva, at the Montreux Jazz Festival in the mid-1990s, sunbathing in the alpine afternoons and breathing in clean mountain air as Quincy Jones’ Big Band soundchecked in the new auditorium.

It was in 1990 that, in a moment of vanity, I sent Russ some of my own writing, via his agent. Russ replied personally and promptly. It wasn’t the encouraging reply I’d been hoping for, but it succeeded in making me smile — indeed, better than that, it caused me to laugh out loud. And it made me feel good to read that yellow paper letter again today, in Auckland, New Zealand, 15 years later.

When I emigrated to New Zealand in 1997, I heard about Dave Awl’s plans for a Hoban Website. Evelyn C. Leeper, a book reviewer and Hoban fan, contacted me and passed my email address along to Russ.

I had written an essay called A Ceaseless Becoming (which is still on The Head of Orpheus Website, although I wish the yellow had now faded a little) for the magazine The Third Alternative and, through Evelyn, Russ got to hear about it. Fortunately, he didn’t at first connect me with the idiot who’d sent him some stories a few years before. We began to correspond and he was kind enough to send me signed copies of his books and some yellow A4 manuscripts of short stories and radio treatments.

I hope he won’t mind me quoting a short excerpt from an email he sent me here; I do so not to mitigate the indiscretion of sending him my work, but because of a correlation for which I also have Russ to thank:

“…when I was about 30 or a little younger — was still painting then, hadn’t yet become a writer — I sent an 8x10 colour transparency of my best painting to Edward Hopper whom I admired greatly. I don’t remember (just as well) the letter I sent with it. He returned the transparency without a word. I can’t remember what I expected of him. Did I want his blessing or an introduction to a gallery or just encouragement? Can’t remember.”

It’s convenient for me to say so now, but Edward Hopper’s paintings must themselves have been connected in a dotted line extending out beyond the frames, first to Russ and then back to me. I say so because I felt a strong sense of subconscious recognition when I first read Russ mention the Hopper painting Gas in The Moment Under The Moment. I was already working on it when I received Russ’s email, but it was only then that the seed of an idea germinated and grew. I set my first novel Liquidambar in the world of Hopper’s paintings, with a nod of the head and an unsubtle doffing of the cap to Hopper and Hoban both.

And so, if you’ve made it this far through my rant, perhaps you’ll understand why it is with some trepidation that I view the prospect of meeting Russ for the first time after all these years, at the Convention in February 2005. If “Jerusalem is wherever we are when we come to the end”, you could say that London, February 2005, is a Jerusalem of sorts for me. And to stretch this point for the sake of a fragile metaphor, Russ is my church of the holy wisdom.

A lot of time has flowed by while I’ve been waiting for things to happen. But no longer do I think of this as wasted time, and I am not waiting any longer. I’m using Russ’s books to help me live in the Now because I acknowledge, like Jachin- Boaz, that “There is only one place, and that place is time”. I now have the added pleasure of a woman in my life after a few years in the wilderness and, as well as the thrill of showing her off proudly to my friends and meeting hers, I am agog about introducing her to Turtle Diary, Angelica’s Grotto and Fremder and seeing what Russ might call “workable fragments of recognition” on the face of the woman I love.

Through this writing I have discovered works of art, theoretical science, places, people and other books and writers. And, once discovered, I feel compelled to go out and explore them for myself. This is how I come to number among my travel companions Hieronymus Bosch, Alberto Giacometti, Edward Hopper, H.P. Lovecraft, Thelonious Monk, Stan Getz and Caspar David Friedrich. I’m not going to pretend they get anything out of knowing me, or that I’m somehow smarter since I started hanging out with them, but they’ve broadened my world and changed the way I think about it. And although it’s worked wonders for my powers of imagination, I simply cannot imagine a world without these books.

In his novel The Information, Martin Amis wrote, “There is a beautiful literary law, slightly scuffed and foxed, yet still beautiful, which decrees that the easier a thing is to write then the more the writer gets paid for writing it.”

My own experience as a writer certainly bears this out. Russell Hoban’s work, however, has a market worth that cannot be calculated in dollars and cents alone, and we must all be most grateful for that.

It may be some small consolation to Russ that, on the dawn of the day that the call goes out for Crusaders of the Order of Hoban to ride out on their quest for the Jerusalem of the imagination, you will find me in a sleeping bag at the front of the queue outside the purple-blue recruitment office, under a poster of a pointing Russ, bearing the slogan “The Universal Mind Needs You!”

I will be there in a heartbeat, because his body of work has unquestionably enlarged my limited reality. And I’m as grateful as the words in any known language can express.

Chris Bell was born in Wales and lives in New Zealand with Elisa Bowman, designer of the 80! booklet and their son Frank, who was born on New Year’s Day 2008. Chris’s fiction has appeared in ‘The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror’; ‘The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror’; and ‘This Is The Summer of Love’. His short stories have been published in ‘Not One of Us’ (US); ‘The Third Alternative’ (UK); and ‘The Heidelberg Review’ (Germany). His first novel, Liquidambar, was a surreal, Chandleresque story inspired by 12 of Edward Hopper’s paintings. He says his latest novel, Songshifting, is the kind of thing George Orwell might have written if he’d grown up with rock and roll music and was at least in part inspired by Russ’s sci-fi novel Fremder.

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