Russell Hoban on The Kraken (Part 1)
Between September 2002 and March 2005, Russell Hoban contributed to his own discussion forum, The Kraken. In the first of a 2-part feature, Richard Cooper looks back over a selection of his posts.
"The Kraken" Yahoo Group was established as a Russell Hoban discussion forum by Dave Awl in the autumn of 1999. There are currently just over 400 members, which I think is the highest it's ever been, though that figure is only a partial indicator of Hoban interest these days, as the official Facebook page has over 1,000 fans and the Twitter account 260 followers. The group, named after the mythological character who had a cameo role in Hoban's 1987 novel The Medusa Frequency, isn't as busy now as it once was (more on that later), but in its heyday it buzzed with discussions and was the only place on earth to be if you were a fan of Russell Hoban.
I first came across The Kraken myself in April 2000, having been a Hoban fan since about 1987 and a relative latecomer to most things Internet. My first post was a Hoban-influenced poem I'd written about an Edward Burne-Jones painting called The Baleful Head (heads, classical and otherwise, being a key motif in his books), but this slightly self-promotional intervention turned out to be a rarity, with most discussions, naturally, centering around the actual books and details thereof. Before joining the group I'd never met any fans of Russell Hoban, except one who'd read The Medusa Frequency who didn't count because he was my dad and I'd bought him the book, and another who'd read Riddley Walker who also didn't count because he was my best friend and was always reading some book or other. I quite quickly made a number of friends on the group, and I'm proud to say many are still good friends to this day (Hoban fans are keepers).
It was understood that the group was for fans, and the members were more than happy with this, since it really wasn't very common that you'd come across anyone who had even heard of Russell Hoban, let alone knew who Herman Orff or Kleinzeit or Harold Klein were. However, on 26th September 2002, quite out of the blue, came the following curious post, signed simply "Russ Hoban":
Hi. Probably all of you have read about the lone 62-year old sailor who lived on his 26 foot sailboat at Long Beach, California. The boat was his only home. He set out for a day cruise to Catalina Island, 25 miles away. Ran into heavy weather. Boat was dismasted, outboard motor kaput, radio out. Drifted for more than 3 months, surviving on fish, seagulls, and turtles. Lost 40 pounds. Rescued by the US Navy frigate McClusky 275 miles off coast of Costa Rica. Boat too damaged to repair so they sank it. Now he's got no home, no nothing. CNN says he's in the care of a Los Angeles charitable institution. Does anybody know which one?
There was no context and no formal introduction, and it read like a Hemingway anecdote of questionable veracity. Like the Spanish Inquisition, nobody expected the man himself to appear on his own forum. There was something suitably meta about it, like a plot in a Hoban novel in which a Hoban cypher narrates a tale about turning up in one of his own stories. The truth however is slightly more prosaic, as Dave Awl comments in 2015: "Russ's participation wasn't as out-of-the-blue as it looked because I'd kept him fully briefed on the Kraken project almost from the moment I had the idea all the way through to its launch. We'd had a number of discussions about whether he should participate directly there or not, and I always said he'd be welcome but that ultimately it was his decision. I think he was on the fence about it for a long time, but I knew he looked in on the group fairly regularly. So I think he finally gave in to temptation on the day he had a burning question he needed an answer to, and realised that crowdsourcing it could help. And I think part of that was that he'd gotten familiar enough with the voices of the regular posters to feel like it was a group he could trust."
Back to the post, and I don't recall having heard of van Pham, but the story and its character were in accord with the Hoban motif of the lone sailor, as the author fancied himself to be at times: when I visited his house once, his computer wallpaper was a classical painting of a boat tossed on the waves (possibly this), and in his 1999 novel Angelica's Grotto he'd written lyrically of being "of a people who have always been fearless navigators of the mind... The dead sail with us as we make our way from idea to idea, steering by the stars." Within minutes of that first post, a forum member I'd never seen before posted a reply copying the text of an LA Times story summarising van Pham's adventure. Looking him up on Wikipedia now, it seems there are some questions about the authenticity of his ordeal, and now that I look back the fact that the reply was posted by the improbably named John Smith does make me wonder if the whole thing wasn't all an elaborate Hoban fiction. Nonetheless, here began a wonderful period of just over two years in which Russell Hoban walked among us.
These charming weirdos
A few months after that first post, as Dave Awl noted proudly in his article about the origins of The Kraken, Russ - as he came to be known to us - emailed Dave:
It took me a while to join up with The Kraken but now I don’t know how I got along so long without that bunch of charming weirdos. When I was a child I used to have long-distance-communication fantasies. I made cardboard radios with unlimited range and imagined conversations with far distant respondents. Now it seems I have that with The Kraken and it’s not only a lot of fun but also informative and supportive.
Russ went on to contribute some 150 posts to the group, sometimes asking us for help with some research, at other times responding to direct or indirect questions about his books, usually Riddley Walker, such as details about Faversham, the "bad luck go away sign" and Good Shoar (in the latter thanking Eli Bishop for his dedication to his Riddley Walker Annotations website). He rarely (ever) talked about contemporary writers: on one occasion he commented that he looked up Neil Gaiman on Amazon and, finding they were both working the same territory, decided to avoid him "for fear of seepage", while on another he said he'd received a copy of David Mitchell's Riddley-influenced Cloud Atlas inscribed by the author "from one of your students", which as a non-teacher he seemed confused by. Although Hoban had been a teacher of illustration at one time, Mitchell likely meant student in a general sense, as his later tribute to Riddley Walker demonstrated. Nothing if not mischievous, Hoban posted an original haiku riffing on the surname of a Kraken group member who was fond of signing off with Basho (there are more Hoban haikus later), and elsewhere wondered about the conjugal practicalities of Sir Walter Scott's Lochinvar. Known to be fond of a tipple, here he quotes Omar Khayyam, while here he refers with characteristic word-play to one of the group's alcoholic birthday gifts. He commented approvingly on a Robert A. Heinlein poem posted by a group member in tribute to the astronauts killed in the 2003 Columbia disaster. When in April 2003 the BBC broadcast a radio adaptation of Hoban's 1974 novel Turtle Diary by Alison Joseph, Russ commented "Bill Nighy [as William G.] is just right". In a rare negative comment, Russ asked us not to lobby for him to be shortlisted for children's literary awards: "I'll never win one and the whole thing's an embarrassment to me," he posted. A daily watcher of movies, he recommended us films including Trees Lounge, The Bitter Tea of General Yen and The Princess and the Warrior (of which more later).
On 16th October 2002 he posted this, with the subject line in his distinctive all-caps style:
37 BASIC PLOTS?
I used to own a book with the above title or something like it. I think the writer's first name was George. The name sounded foreign to me back then but probably wouldn't now. Does that ring any bells with anyone?
At least one of us posted querying whether this was, again, some sort of Hobanesque joke: surely there were more than 37 basic plots? Or was there, even, more than one? Such an arbitrary number sounded Douglas Adamsesque, as though human patterns of intrigue fell ironically short of 42. Two forum members clarified however that what Hoban was looking for was Georges Polti's Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, definitely a real book identifying the main plots common to western literature, such as "murderous adultery", "crime pursued by vengeance" and "obstacles to love". Russ thanked the posters and the episode passed into obscurity. Nothing more was heard about it until nearly two years later in 2004 when he posted,
"Situation 37" will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 15:30 on 22nd November.
We tuned in and were delighted to find that the original post had been the genesis of a short story in which two characters on a London tube both reading Polti's book find themselves in an extra-Polti, or meta-Polti, scenario. The BBC's Genome Project website (fwiw, given that anyone can edit it) records that the story was part of a series of "psychological thrillers and disturbing tales", so may have been a direct commission by them.
On the same day in 2002 that Russ thanked the group for help in locating the Polti book, an occasional contributor posted that she felt "mild disappointment" at his latest novel The Bat Tattoo, specifically that it felt unresolved, but wasn't sure how to address such feelings honestly on a forum on which the author was present. Hoban then posted the following:
Please, everybody, try not to be too aware of my presence. Whatever thoughts and opinions you have about my writing, feel free to say what you like. No problem. Your presence is very supportive, makes me feel less alone at my desk. And the Kraken is very useful to me, as witness the speed with which my inquiry about the 36 Dramatic Situations was answered. So thanks to all of you, and please carry on as you're doing.
This was a generous statement, and I think there was a collective sigh of relief that he had made it: there hadn't exactly been a huge debate on the group prior to his joining over the quality of his books - we were there because we loved them, after all - but suddenly, we had to admit, it wasn't easy to know how to articulate criticism if we wished. Incidentally, I don't think "mild disappointment" with the inconclusiveness of a Hoban novel is an uncommon or even undesirable reaction, and a few days later Yvonne Studer, who we later found out had written no less than a PhD thesis on Hoban's novels, made her first post and seconded this emotion, citing a 1983 interview in which Hoban had said,
it conceivably could happen that there will come a time when certain ideas won't want to go the full distance of a novel and won't want to be resolved even as little as my novels get resolved, but will just want to leave themselves hanging...
Illustration and influence
Towards the end of 2002 Russ posted a number of false alarms of a "major" profile on him that was due to appear in The Guardian. The journalist responsible, Nicholas Wroe, had been in touch with him here and there to say the piece was due out on this or that date, only for it to be postponed at the last minute. Eventually the profile, Secrets of the yellow pages, came out at the end of November 2002 and was surely the most comprehensive piece Hoban fans could have wished to see in a national newspaper. Apart from anything else, it included a reproduction of a painting Russ had done of athlete Rafer Johnson back in 1960 when Hoban was earning his living as an illustrator - the first glimpse many of us had at that time of this aspect of what seemed an impossibly long career. Chris Bell later gathered together several examples of Hoban's graphical work in his fine article, Russell Hoban the illustrator, which quotes from this 2004 post on Russ's recollections of meeting Joan Baez, whom he painted for the cover of Time.
In November 2002 Alida Allison made available a video recording of an amazing lecture given by Hoban in 1990 at San Diego State University, where she was for many years Professor of Children's Literature. In the video Russ talked at length about his working methods, ideas and obsessions, and read from several books. One point that I found interesting at the time was the story of how the film director George Miller had been influenced by Riddley Walker in his 1985 film Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome. Miller is of course now basking in adulation for his latest addition to the Mad Max franchise, Fury Road, but back in the eighties his role here had seemed more suspect. Prior to seeing Alida's video I had thought Miller had been paying homage to Riddley in the film, with the post-apocalyptic setting and details such as naming Tina Turner's character Aunty Entity ("Aunty" being a death figure in the novel). I had also assumed that Russ had felt this to be an honour. However, as I posted to the group, I was amazed to find from the video that Hoban had "wined and dined the director beforehand (and given him a copy of Riddley) with a view to trying to get him to make Riddley into a film - and then the director went off by himself and made Mad Max 3 with all the parallels with Riddley without even crediting the influence". Russ replied:
George Miller wined and dined *me*. not the other way round. Othewise the story is correct as you quote it.
You can see Hoban tell the story at greater length in this clip. (This should skip directly to the right point close to the end of the video, but click here if not or fast-forward to 1h 14m 8s).
Crowdsourcing in the night
In late 2002 Hoban was clearly beavering away. On 5th December he posted this just after one o'clock in the morning UK time (he was known to be a night owl):
HONOLULU INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
Hi. Is anyone planning a trip, preferably from London or other English cities, to Honolulu? From the U.S. is also useful. I need to check some airport detaills. I was last there in 1993, can't make the trip now, and would like to get the current rates for a mini-hotel in the airport that advertised SLEEP/SHOWER. There was also a neon-lit cafeteria near it. Both on the main level. Are they still there? Looking forward to responses from far-flung Krakenistas.
Then, after an hour and a half and no responses, perhaps realising not many of us would be up at that time, he added:
ALOHA, MINI HOTEL!
Hi. Me again. Shit keeps happening. I got the phone number, rang up Mini Hotel, and was told that the phone had been disconnected. Phoned the airport switchboard and was told that after 9/11 planes were grounded for a long enough period for the place to be shut down. The Fresh Express cafeteria is still there. Maybe my character will go to Honolulu, find Mini Hotel closed, and persuade the Airport Manager to let her into the place just to savour the remembered atmosphere of it. It was a truly existential overnight spot, my inspiration for Q-BO SLEEP in Fremder. Still, if anyone's going through Honolulu International Airport I'd lilke to know. Come to think of it, I'll use the frustration--I've done that before when Herman Orff couldn't get to see the Vermeer girl. The notel Christabel would have to stay at closest to the airport would be the Honolulu Airport Hotel. It's a former Holiday Inn, quite near, and they send a bus to pick up travellers from the airport.
A few group members then posted some information and links, and later that morning ("when the day was open for business" as Herman Orff might have said) Hoban posted:
NO PROBLEM, EVERYTHING COOL
Judy, John, and Tim--Thanks for your messages. I've got it sorted now. A woman who works at the airport switchboard gave me info that will enable my character to make do with other places in the airport for meditation. She may just stay awake or sleep sitting up on a bench. My switchboard friend is going to take photos of what I need and make the necessary notes and send them to me. 03:00 London time is 17:00 Honolulu time so I had that old shortwave, voices-in-the-ocean- night thrill. She agreed that the Mini Hotel had had a special atmosphere. Thanks again and aloha for now.
The topic came and went for a few months, with Russ later asking if anyone could get hold of photos of certain parts of Honolulu and LAX airports, which he then advised against when it was pointed out that since 9/11 people were likely to get arrested for such behaviour. Hoban at one point remarked that one airport manager promised to send him some information on the proviso that his publisher Bloomsbury faxed confirmation that he wasn't a terrorist. Group member Graeme Wend-Walker offered help and Hoban's reply sheds some light on his methods:
I don't need a whole lot [of detail]. My traveller is a woman, UK passport. She's in a troubled state of mind and will be very sensitive to the atmosphere, colours, smells, sounds, etc. She has a coffee, something to eat, does or doesn't buy a book (she's got one she may already have finished in the 10-hour flight from London), might do a little window-shopping and so on. An hour and a half is more than enough--your general impressions and a couple of shop names should do it...
Another group member, Tim Haillay, offered a list of retail outlets from the LAX website, to which Russ replied:
I'm always surprised at my own stupidity in not looking in the obvious places for what I want. Having gone to various of the Honolulu websites, you'd think I'd be capable of the imaginative leap required to do the same for LAX. But I tend to get caught up in what's happening in the person I'm writing about and forget exteriors.
Eventually, sufficient detail was amassed to get Christabel Alderton in the desired spot in chapters 15 and 22 of the 2005 novel Come Dance With Me. In the acknowledgements, Hoban thanks Graeme and also Emmae Gibson, a Kraken lurker, who had passed through Honolulu Airport some time before and got in touch direct with Russ to share her experiences.
The man with the wind-up brain
At the end of January 2003 I was preparing for the upcoming SA4QE, an event the group had started the year before and is still going today, in which Hoban fans celebrate his birthday every 4th February by leaving their favourite quotations in public places. As most of Hoban's books are set in London, and I lived there at the time, I had the idea of visiting as many locations as possible in one day and leaving behind corresponding quotations - one about Klein bottles from Amaryllis Night and Day in the Science Museum, another about the South Bank from Turtle Diary in the Royal Festival Hall, and so on. I announced my intention to do this and Hoban commented, "If you can do it in one day you should get a Jules Verne Trophy!" I started at Putney Bridge, where Herman Orff first encounters the Head of Orpheus in The Medusa Frequency, and ended up at Tower Hill some twelve hours later via nearly 30 Hoban hotspots including galleries, museums, an art shop, a timber yard and a tattoo parlour (I didn't get a tattoo, for shame). It was quite a day - I later worked out that I'd walked a half-marathon - and sheer joy to undertake such an intense adventure in my home city. A few days later after I posted an update to the group, Russ commented,
Richard--I am overwhelmed by your heroic pedestrianism and I've made no comment so far because I haven't yet been able to think of the appropriate name for a commendation or citation. As I write this there comes to mind a 3-day hike I took when young. With the Back to Nature Club of Philadelphia. It was called "The Indian Walking Purchase" because it covered the ground over which a man walked in three days as part of a deal to buy land from the local Indians. The man who did the walk cheated (I don't remember how) but you didn't. Maybe "The Richard Walking Challenge" cup is the massive and intricately carved trophy which I now award you virtually. For walking virtuosity and non-pedestrian imagination.
I was as thrilled as I was blistered, and over the coming weeks I typed up my entire trip in an insanely over-worded contribution to the SA4QE website. It's worth reading for the photos and Hoban quotes, but probably not for anything else. I was brought back down to earth by remembering the original point of SA4QE, namely to celebrate Russ's birthday. We had a tradition of clubbing together to buy him a bottle of scotch and sometimes other presents (later we'd also have flowers delivered to his wife Gundela to remember her very supportive role in his life and work). On 4th February 2003 Hoban replied to the group,
...The last night of my 77th year was a good one and it went on until 03:00 this morning. The thing I'm working on now, I'm trying to make it less linear than what I've done so far. See the film Der Krieger und die Kaiserin (English title, The Princess and the Warrior) if you can, and look at Roger Ebert's Chicago Sun-Times review on the Internet Movie Database for a very perceptive description of what Tom Tykwer has achieved in it. So I keep reworking pp 1-34, filling in and intercon- necting and so on. Which means that as soon as I've got a run of pp I see more things to do and go back to fill in. Last night I had such a confusion of alternate versions and inserts that I didn't dare to go to bed until I'd got them sorted. I don't want to get maudlin, but what you are is a support group of people whom it's a pleasure to know and a privilege to be supported by. Thank you for the Islay malt, the Cuvee Mythique (the owl on the label is exactly the same as a replica sculpture I have from Athens) and the beautifuld Durer owl on the card, the Shiraz and the Zinfandel. I look forward to alcoholic delights as the sun dips below the yardarm each day...
More soberly, early 2003 saw the build-up of rhetoric that would result in the international disaster of the Iraq war. On 6th March Russ posted a link to a MoveOn petition calling for the US to continue weapons inspections instead of launching a war. On 19th March he posted,
If only George Dubya would challenge Saddam to single combat, think of the economy! With the billions saved, we could buy a whole new world. As it is, he has hudreds of thousands of expendable stuntmen and women to do his thing. How about it, George? Throw down a challenge, be a champion!
Groupers joined in with pessimistic thoughts about Bush, including my own observation that the prosperity of such a stupid man surely disproved Darwin's theory of evolution, meaning Bush's survival might ironically prove the existence of God. To which Russ replied,
The Sultan of Morocco once said that Virginia Mayo was "tangible proof of the existence of God". Whether he ever got within touching distance Cinemania doesn't say.
It was a moment of levity in dire circumstances, and the mood of the group was low at that time, as it was everywhere else I knew. On 2nd April group member Linda Whitebread linked to this magnificent, blistering piece by Arundhati Roy pointing out the appalling behaviour and hypocrises of the US. The next day Russ posted this:
I've read the Arundhati Roy piece and I'm posting this one [a copy of an article headlined "America brings Darth Vader to the desert", included in this link] as a pendant to it although it appeared earlier, on April 2 in The Times. It saddened me and made me ashamed.
I was in the 339th Infantry, 85th Division, when we marched through Rome in World War 2. The people cheered and threw flowers. Truckloads of partisans rolled by, the men waving and singing "Bandiera Rosa". Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci were caught, not in Rome but elsewhere, and hung up by the heels. All of us marching through that beautiful open city felt ourselves to be in a just war. I fear that it will be a long time before flowers are thrown at American troops again.
Every country has its louts and its yobboes. All of History's copybooks are badly blotted in one way and another. Wars are seldom fought by troops with copies of The Critique of Pure Reason in their backpacks. What socio-economic class mostly enlists? Down where the rubber meets the road it's the blue-collar boys who do the grunt work.The quality of their perceptions is to a great extent determined by the officers who lead them and have also a teaching function. The British armed forces have a pool of remarkable officers. Col. Tim Collins made a speech ("Be ferocious in battle, magnanimous in victory,,,") that brought tears to the eyes of his troops and will be memorised by school- children in years to come. He is not alone in his humanity and intelligence; Sandhurst keeps sturning out mental aristocrats who inspire their men not only with fighting courage but with a fullness of perception as to who they are and what they are doing to whom. America has not got officers like this. I watched Jeremy Paxman last night talking to a U.S. captain who almost dislocated his own jaw while trying to articulate the unclarity of the word "vicinity" as used with reference to the drive towards Baghdad. Our guys can fight but they can't talk and some of them can't think and they have for a Commander in Chief a man with a windup brain and the clear untroubled conscience of a psychopath.
Yet there is hope. Matthew Parris, I think it was--I haven't the paper in front of me--who went to America and rode a Greyhound bus from New York to Pittsburgh. Greyhound is mostly poor people's travel--the fare for the 401-mile trip which took 12 hours was $53.50. He spoke to the people on the bus, most of them from the same socio- economic group that leads army enlistments, and all of them were against the war with the exception of one redneck who upheld traditional redneck values. So there is hope that not next week and maybe not next month or next year, there will rise a groundswell of emotional intelligence that will bring down windup presidents. Carl Sandburg, in The People, Yes, has a little girl saying, "Sometime they'll give a war and nobody will come."
My recollection from the time is that I spoke to Russ on the phone one evening wherein he said he was "trying to get something together for The Times", and repeated some of the above verbatim. It seems he was either writing a letter to the newspaper or had considered submitting the above as an article, but for some reason changed his mind. I'd like to think this wasn't because he didn't want to stick his neck out but because he thought few people would know who he was, and he felt more comfortable telling us. Either way, I for one was (and am) grateful that he posted such a statement. His reference to Bush having a "windup brain" recollects the toy mice in The Mouse and His Child. Albeit those characters are infinitely more intelligent and humane than the ex-US president would ever be.