80! - The Booklet of the Russell Hoban Some-Poasyum

Happy Birthday, Mr Hoban!

You take a figger out of the bag nor it aint nothing only some colorut clof with a paintit wood head and hans. Then you put it on. You put your head finger in the head you put your arm finger in the arms then that figger looks roun and takes noatis it has things to say. Which they wont all ways be things youwd think of saying.
- Riddley Walker

I was introduced to Russell Hoban’s book Riddley Walker in London by a friend of mine, Chris Bell, now himself a writer. We sat discussing philosophy for many hours drinking cheap wine and wreathed in clouds of marijuana smoke with a careless disregard for time that now seems to have been lost from the world.

I generally dread being introduced to books by friends who claim to have gained almost religious relevance or divine insight from them. I struggle through the first few chapters and leave the book to gather dust under the bed until I return it with feelings of relief to its owner. Well, I borrowed Chris’s copy of Riddley Walker with the same feeling of polite scepticism born from a long history of literary disappointment. This book was my road to Damascus.

Since then, I have lent various copies to people and, of course, hardly ever get the books back from the bastards, except from those people unable to bring their brains to bear on what is still a strange, confronting and almost alien world.

I re-visit Riddley Walker every couple of years but I have since read with awe and admiration all of Mr Hoban’s novels. I have a copy of Angelica’s Grotto on the go at the moment that is really doing my head in.

I feel some small affinity with Mr Hoban; the tremendous cultural and magical influences of England (where I was born) and the huge weight of history that all the children of Abraham carry with them:

“I don’t know what I am now. A whispering out of the dust. Dried blood on a sword and the sword has crumbled into rust and the wind has blown the rust away but still I am, still I am of the world, still I have something to say, how could it be otherwise, nothing comes to an end, the action never stops, it only changes, the ringing of the steel is sung in the stillness of the stone.”
- Pilgermann

Mark Marcus (“Don’t ask about the name because I have no idea”) was born in London to a male descendant of Russian/Polish Jews and an Irish Catholic from Belfast. He has worked as pool attendant in Glasgow; artificially inseminated turkeys in Israel; and was a rostrum cameraman in London and Sydney. He is now exiled in Australia where, for many years, he was a commercial photographer. His life-long ambition is to photograph a lingerie catalogue. He is presently studying naturopathy in Perth, Western Australia.

The origins and history of the Head of Orpheus website

There was nothing surprising about seeing the name Russell Hoban in my email inbox one Tuesday evening in June of 1998. That morning I’d gone live with a Website called The Head of Orpheus, the web’s first comprehensive reference site devoted to Russell Hoban’s writing.

When I came home that night from rehearsal with the theatre company I belonged to at the time, The Neo-Futurists, and logged on to my email to find out whether anyone had noticed The Head of Orpheus’ arrival on the Web, I fully expected to see the name Russell Hoban in my inbox several times.

Sure enough, Russ’ name was in the subject line of several emails congratulating me on the launch of the site. And then I noticed Russ’ name was also in the ‘From’ field of one of the messages, right next to the subject line “Hi”.

And after a mere 20 or 30 nervous laps around the rickety dining room table that held my Mac Quadra, I was ready to doubleclick on the email.

There was no doubt that the message came from the actual Russell Hoban. It was written with his trademark wit, including several self-effacing one-liners about what it was like to be a writer who wrote for people who write about writing. He told me he’d seen my Website, was “greatly impressed” by it, and offered me his thanks and best wishes — along with a short bulletin of exciting news about his upcoming activities and publications, for use in updating the News area of the site.

There was also a second email in my inbox from Russ, immediately after the first, which said simply: “By the way, who are you and what do you do? Also where are you?”

In The Medusa Frequency, my personal favourite Hoban novel, the book’s protagonist (a freelance comic book writer and struggling novelist named Herman Orff) makes the acquaintance of a mysterious entity called the Kraken, which communicates with him by means of glowing green phosphorous words that appear, letter by letter, on the screen of Orff’s Apple II computer. So it was perhaps fitting that my first direct communication from Russ should come in the form of letters appearing on my own computer screen; and that the Kraken would ultimately lend its name to a group of Hoban enthusiasts who would communicate with each other in the same way for several years before meeting in person. Founded just a little over a year after the launch of the Website (www.hoban2005.co.uk), the worldwide community of Russell Hoban fans known as The Kraken has grown from an online message board with a handful of members into a de facto International Russell Hoban Society, and this convention marks its transition from a group of people swapping emails into a literary organisation with a presence in the physical world as well as the electronic one. But that’s getting ahead of the story, just a little.

My first memory of the name Russell Hoban is its appearance on the spine of a battered paperback copy of a book with the cryptically seductive title The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin Boaz, which I purchased for something like 50 cents from the used book table at Lakeview Museum in Peoria, Illinois, in the late 1970s, where I was busy stumbling toward adolescence at the time. I was about 12 or 13.

It was most likely the blurbs comparing the book to Tolkien and C.S. Lewis that made the sale, since I’d spent a good portion of my grade school years commuting between Rivendell and Narnia. When I finished the book I found it hadn’t been much like Tolkien or Lewis at all, but I didn’t much care, because by then it had its own very distinctive hooks into my mind.

I think The Lion had such an impact on me because I was just a little too young for it; it spoke in a poetic adult language my mind was only beginning to shape itself toward. Even as it baffled me, the book made sense in a way that went beyond sense. It seemed to understand the confusion of being alive in a way that spoke directly to my blossoming alienation from what Russ has called the “limited-reality consensus”. Its sentences (and in some cases entire paragraphs) lodged in my brain, and bits of it would come loose now and again. Its wheel and its darkness and its maps and its beingwith- the-lion drifted into my mind when I was supposed to be contemplating algebra.

When I encountered Turtle Diary, in my high school library, I believe I swallowed it whole, without even spitting out the binding. I was older than when I’d first read Lion and a little less baffled; and as I read it, I had this sneaking feeling that the adults in Turtle Diary might be the sort of people I’d grow up to be: a little obsessive, a little desperate. People who carried secret turtles and sharks and lions inside them.

In what would become a familiar ritual when reading Hoban books, I found myself copying sentences from the book into my spiral-bound notebook: “Everyone is the source of his or her kind of soup.” And: “My despair has long since been ground up fine and is no more than the daily salt and pepper of my life.” And: “A turtle doesn’t have to decide every morning whether to keep on bothering, it just carries on.”

Somehow I missed the publication of Riddley Walker and Pilgermann altogether. They must have been deemed too complex or cryptic for the East Peoria Community High School library. So I didn’t catch up with Russ again until the early 1990s when I was out of college, in my first job as an advertising copywriter at the Sears catalogue in Chicago. On a lunch-time trip to a bookshop, I spotted a stack of copies of a book bearing Russ’ name, with the characteristically oblique title The Medusa Frequency, going for the ludicrous price of $1.99 per copy. I savoured it over the next few days, overjoyed by its unconventional mixture of the everyday and the mythological, its surreal meta-fictional comedy, and its canny, insightful depiction of the writer’s struggle to write.

In 1994, after having re-read The Medusa Frequency for the third or fourth time, I decided to scour Chicago’s used bookstores for several tantalising titles that were mentioned in the ‘By the Same Author’ list at the front of Medusa. I managed to turn up a worn copy of Kleinzeit, and reading it convinced me that Russell Hoban was a writer who deserved to be approached systematically, and that it was worth tracking down pretty much anything he’d written.

The first time I ever heard the words “World Wide Web” was in January of 1995. Some computer-savvy fans of The Neo-Futurists approached me after a performance and announced that they wanted to create something called a “Web page” about The Neo-Futurists. They had to explain the concept to me several times, slowly and distinctly. By 1996, everybody knew what the Web was, and I had begun exploring it for sites devoted to my favourite poets, musicians, novelists, and artists. But there was one name I typed into AltaVista with no satisfying results whatsoever: Russell Hoban.

Gradually it dawned on me that I had discovered what could only be described as a hole in the World Wide Web: a Hoban Gap. There weren’t more than a few scattered references to him, nothing informative or comprehensive, certainly nothing that told you what he’d been up to recently. Who do I report this to, I wondered?

I kept an eye on The Hoban Gap for the next year or so. At the end of 1997, I was laid-off from the steady part-time gig I’d had writing direct mail for a financial industry training firm. I was sick of writing direct mail, catalogues, corporate brochures and other drudgery. I wanted to move into another area of freelancing.

I had severance pay from the direct mail gig and since I now spent every free minute crawling the Web, moderating listservs and living the life internet, it seemed to me that it was time to learn how to build websites myself. I just needed a project to get started with. I’d build a small, basic Website as a lab subject for my HTML studies. And I knew just who the subject of that site should be.

“I’m going to build a Russell Hoban Website!” I remember announcing to Diana Slickman in the green room of The Neo-Futurarium during a rehearsal break one evening. Diana was a fellow member of The Neo-Futurists, and I’d made the exciting discovery that she was a Hoban fan, too, which was encouraging.

The fact that I worshipped Russell Hoban’s work didn’t mean other people around me appreciated him — my life has always been a grab bag of obscure obsessions. But Diana was one of the smartest and most literate people I knew. She not only subscribed to Granta, she had her own copy of the OED in her apartment. So if Diana was in Russ’ corner, that meant I was on to something. (Diana would eventually become famous in the annals of The Kraken as the inventor of the annual SA4QE, or Slickman A4 Quotation Event.)

Diana received my announcement with one of her patented looks that could be read as encouragement, private amusement, or some sly cocktail of the two. “You do that Dave,” she said. Over the next six weeks or so, Diana cheered me on as I kept her posted of my progress and bounced ideas off of her.

As I began the project, I discovered that the online Hoban Gap had improved a little. There was now a small but encouraging scattering of Web pages that referenced Russ. Evelyn C. Leeper, a Hugo-nominated fan book reviewer, had posted reviews of a number of Russ’ books. There was a one-page site with a biography of Russ and some favourite quotations from his books that had been created by a grad student at MIT named Dan Ellis. There were even a couple of articles in online publications.

Still, there was nothing like the comprehensive reference site I envisioned — a central source of information about Russ and his work, with descriptive pages about each of his novels and a selection of general reference materials and news.

Of course, it was a blueprint that kept expanding the further I got into it. Fortunately, in May of 1998 I didn’t have a lot competing for my attention and I was able to give myself over to the project obsessively, writing mini-book reviews and fussing with hyperlinks and italics tags when I wasn’t re-reading Kleinzeit or flipping frantically through a copy of Lion for a dimly-remembered sentence I needed for the Quotable Hoban page.

My friend Kurt Heintz — webmaster for the online poetry hub e-poets.net, and my primary tutor in the ways of HTML — happened to be visiting London during part of the time I was working on the site. His London trip coincided with the night I found my way to a recent online interview with Russ, talking about a just-published novel called Mr Rinyo-Clacton’s Offer, and mentioning another novel I hadn’t heard of, from 1996, called Fremder. I fired off a semi-hysterical email to Kurt commanding him to scour London’s bookshops and locate copies for me, and find room for them in luggage, regardless of what else might need to be jettisoned. Kurt came through with the books, which helped the original launch of the site immensely. (I paid Kurt back in the summer of 1999 by bringing him along when Russ invited me to dinner at the Hobans’ home in London, on my first trip to the UK. Olaf Schneider, one of The Head of Orpheus’s first and most fervent supporters, who has contributed a number of animated graphics to its pages, travelled from Germany to join us for that dinner, as well — so it was a bit of a Some Poasyum in its own right.)

One creative decision that became a hallmark of the site was The Head of Orpheus’s distinctive orange-yellow background. I was aware of Russ’ affection for the word “tawny” (as discussed in The Moment Under The Moment), and I searched the Web-safe colour palette for any shade that might fit that description.

I finally settled on a shade that might reasonably be considered lion-coloured, if the lion had eaten something mildly radioactive for breakfast (#FFCC33, for you hexadecimal colour fans). It was only later that others pointed out to me that the site’s yellowish background also fit in rather well with Russ’ preference for yellow writing paper, as chronicled in Kleinzeit.

As the project progressed, I gathered a small but helpful band of boosters and allies on the internet. I wrote to Dan Ellis and Evelyn Leeper for permission to link to their materials, and they graciously responded with permission and encouragement, sharing information and resources for tracking down books. Evelyn also put me in touch with a friendly fellow in New Zealand named Chris Bell, who seemed to feel the indignity of the Hoban Gap as acutely as I did myself, and promptly mailed me his extra copy of Russ’ hard-to-find story and essay collection, The Moment Under The Moment.

It was also Evelyn who tipped off Russ about the site. Russ had previously been in touch with Evelyn to thank her for her reviews, so when I sent my email announcing that The Head of Orpheus had been officially launched in the early morning of 9 June 1998, Evelyn promptly let Russ know there was a new Website he might want to take a look at.

Adding an online guestbook to the site, where visitors could post messages, turned out to be more than a good idea: it was the fertile patch of soil from which The Kraken sprang (if gardening for sea creatures isn’t an unforgivably mixed metaphor).

Over the first six months of the site’s lifetime, the names that appeared in the Head of Orpheus guestbook with cheery messages of thanks and congratulations read like a roster of future Kraken members: In addition to Diana Slickman, Olaf Schneider, and Chris Bell, there were Tim Haillay, who ran a jazz club in Brighton and had an unrivalled collection of Hoban-related clippings, publications, tapes, and hard-to-find books; the ever-helpful Sandra Smith, aka Asteroid Lil; soft-spoken North Carolina librarian Jane Hyde; “Starling” Janis Van Court; Eli Bishop (who would eventually launch the Riddley Walker Annotations Website); Kerry Power of Melbourne, Australia; and Professor Alida Allison of San Diego State University, who was then in the process of editing a critical anthology called Russell Hoban/Forty Years: Essays on His Writings for Children. (Notably absent from this list is the inexhaustible Richard Cooper, who was a little late in finding his way to The Kraken, but has since become one of its prime movers.)

The site generated a formidable amount of email, and although I did my best to keep up with it, I eventually had to abandon hope of answering each message in a timely fashion. In addition to the people who simply want to know how to contact Russ, or where they could find a stuffed Frances the Badger toy, and questions from students working on papers, there were the genuinely moving messages of thanks and praise from readers who hadn’t known Russ had written so many books, or knew how to track them down in used bookstores and online.

By January of 1999, Russ had formally adopted The Head of Orpheus as his official Website, and was supplying me with news and information that kept the site up to date. I knew his birthday was approaching in early February and I wanted to do something that would let him know how many grateful readers he had around the globe who were wishing him many happy returns. I figured the best birthday present I could give him would be to help him hear the voices I was hearing every day, expressing gratitude for what he’d given them.

So I sent an invitation by email to the various Hoban fans I knew through The Head of Orpheus: Write a short birthday greeting to Russ, and send it to me by the week before Russ’s birthday. I’d compile the messages into a single email with the subject line “Birthday Greetings from Around the World”, and send it to him on the morning of his birthday, 4 February. The plan went off without a hitch, and not only did it give Russ a nice birthday surprise that seemed to leave him nearly speechless, it probably did more than anything else to inspire the formation of the Russell Hoban online community. During the course of planning the birthday card, group emails sprang up, and the birthday card itself served as an accidental contact list for Hoban fans who wanted to network with each other.

I’d been managing email discussion listservs for The Neo-Futurists for several years at that point, and creating one for Russ seemed like the obvious next step. By autumn 1999 the time had clearly arrived to set one up, so the Russell Hoban online community went live on 5 September 1999.

By the end of the first week, we had a dozen members, and were merrily discussing plans for world domination. Since that time The Kraken’s membership has grown to include nearly 200 tentacles.

Launching The Head of Orpheus and founding The Kraken have been their own reward. But perhaps the greatest reward for bringing Hoban fans together online has been watching Russ’ books come back into print and become more widely available. When the site was first launched, I spent a lot of electrons lamenting the fact that all of Russ’ novels were out of print in the United States, and many of them in the UK as well. That situation has changed radically over the years since: these days you can find Hoban novels on the shelves of bookstores around the US; and in the UK the marvellous folks at Bloomsbury Publishing have made Russ’s full catalogue of novels available in beautiful new editions.

I have no way, other than anecdotal evidence, to gauge what role if any The Head of Orpheus and The Kraken may have played in enlarging the number of Hoban titles in print, or helping new readers find their way to him. But the anecdotal evidence is substantial, in the form of a steady deluge of messages from readers saying that the Website has helped them find their way to Hoban books they hadn’t known existed, and sharpened their appreciation of his originality and his genius. And it probably can’t hurt Russ’s level of exposure to have a couple of hundred devoted fans networking with each other and constantly plotting ways to spread the word about his words.

A year or two after its founding, Russ stopped by The Kraken’s message board, and enjoyed the conversation so much he stuck around. He occasionally tosses us a comment or answers a question, and even uses the group as an informational resource when there’s a question he thinks we might be able to help him dig up the answer to. So I’ll let him have the last word about The Kraken, from an email he sent me in December of 2002:

“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.”

Spoken by the man himself.

Dave Awl is the author of What the Sea Means: Poems, Stories and Monologues 1987-2002. He now maintains the official Russell Hoban Facebook page, and is a founder of Awlpoint, offering social media insight, content and training, and writing and editing for both digital and print media.


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