With gaps in mind

Roland Clare

I first heard Russell Hoban talk in 1995, at a Fantasy Literature conference. It was refreshing for an audience of truanting school-teachers, accustomed to helping pupils slog through ‘creative writing’ assignments, to contemplate his idea that stories surround us as a kind of charge, looking to ground itself through the medium of the expectant author.

Russ read from The Moment Under The Moment, a self-deprecating humour enhancing his gnomic spell. He deflected questions about what he really meant, intimating that the work could speak for itself more authoritatively than its author would; but he offered a real revelation about drafting: over five years’ work on Riddley Walker he’d written, but not used, something like 500 pages.

I was truly struck by this intimation of ruthless craft. Over 12 compulsive months I’d been rapt in a novel of my own: with barely a quarter of the planned story fleshed into coherence, its dénouement still lay at least 500,000 words in the future. Oppressed by its ghastly accretion of detail – it was provisionally entitled The Minutiad – I’d taken to condensing each section that took shape, tightening sentences the way a curtain-maker tugs on rufflette tape. Now my text hung in densely unappealing swags, nothing like that afternoon’s readings, which had floated like lace curtains, translucent, holey… Hobanesque.

During the book-signing I sought Russ’s benediction, and he laid a kindly hand on my arm, saying “Bless you, my son,” in quiet unsurprise. Could this shaman’s touch help me take my putative readers on leaps of fictive faith, side-stepping the morass of circumstantial trivia that purported to make The Minutiad convincing? Many of the Moment stories we’d just heard dispensed with ‘convincing’ altogether, voicing readers’ qualms pre-emptively: “The whisky didn’t run out of the back of [the skeleton’s] jaw, it just disappeared”. Russ let things be what they wanted to be, and skipped to places he wanted us to be: “You can walk into any of these pictures…”

But such gaps need daring; addicted to joining up tiny dots of inspiration via acres of perspiration, I needed to complete a long draft before I could sling out my 500 pages. So I slogged on, recalling how Hoban himself – despite the unbeatable lightness of his short stories – indulged in weighty specifics when necessary. His novels were an index of poets, philosophers and painters, with streetscapes so real you could read the manhole covers; if London Transport ever lost their underground map, they could reconstruct it from his writings…

Journeying, route-finding, they’re all-important in Hoban: the gaps between places generate longing, humour, blackness. Those tube-journeys take us from bright place to place via flickering darkness, an underground cinema whose interstitial black outweighs the story-images. Even an overground train becomes a movie in Turtle Diary, where Neaera’s sky is “successively framed by each window as the carriages passed […] The windows passing, the blue remained”.

And his train-rides commonly end at galleries or museums: not just time-freezers, but also places to continue that journey between illuminated scenes, finding ourselves in the narrative that’s implicit in the gaps. Amid this Babel of “continuous conversation […] between everything around us and us”, Russ attunes us to off-net broadcasts, inscrutable Krakenspeak, the wordlessness of Redon or Chopin. His work reaches for “a place where the unwordable happens off the page”, whereas my Minutiad strove to cram everything on the page. Constructing its world atom-by-atom, I’d disregarded The Raven’s “tiny dancing giants” who slowly become a world, through their own, unmanipulated nature.

So I eventually listened to the dots I’d been joining, and they were whispering “Maybe No World is Best”. If you can’t do gaps, leave it to the lacemakers. Oh huge relief, to realise that I could honourably quit quicksandpapering! My process needed no product other than this trip behind the curtain, illuminating what was admirable in a true writer. A decade on, even the key to my locked Word files is forgotten.

In the beginning was the word: before that, wordlessness. And we who can’t gain access to the wordlessness should be seeking to bless the man who can, not vice versa. I am humbly proud to take this 80th-birthday opportunity of thanking Russell Hoban for continuing to keep us so richly sustained by the unwordability that his many writings have taught us to value. Long may he reign!

Roland Clare is a retired English teacher from Bristol. Once a travelling musician, he still gigs and writes (his through-composed musical The Mystery of Mary Celeste features the Kraken). He records with The Palers’ Project, edits Beyond the Pale, and contributes to The Spoonbill Generator.

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