Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

Written entirely in a post-apocalyptic, reverted vernacular Riddley Walker proves to be a slow read for a book of just over 200 pages, but such close reading of the text, slowed down as you are by the bizaare slang and allusions peppered throughout, only heightens the impact of the novel. A cliche, but true: you get lost in this book.

Here's a taster of Riddley Speak for the uninitated - the first line:

"On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen."

Obvious first impressions will remind you of A Clockwork Orange, but the language of Riddley Walker is not that of a refined and stylised language, but rather a language of loss and forgotten civilisation. A catastrophe in the past, most probably a nuclear war, has left the world thinly populated and in a state of almost stone age ignorance. Superstition is rife and whatever society there is left interprets their surrounding via the creation/destruction myth of 'Eusa'. This quasi religious legend forms the backbone of a kind of local government, who maintain power and influence by travelling between villages and performing 'Eusa shows'. These shows take the form of a call and response puppet show, where various episodes from Eusa's story is performed and interpreted to fit in with local event, thus allowing the 'Prime Minister' (pry mincer) to spin his events to suit his purpose.

This is the background in which Riddley's tale unfolds, and as I already mentioned, you do get lost in the dirty magnificence of the book. Folk tales, religious philosophising, dirty jokes and a bizaare geography all collide to create a very real world and a rather frightening one at that. Its easy to see the laughable, almso qauint side of distopian fiction, at the bad mindedness and pessimism of the endevour to create a world gone bad. But I could see Riddley Walker happening - humanity would likely survive in some form or other after a major calamity and mankind would need rules and stories to make sense of the world, just as it does today.

Looking at it realistically one must come to the conclusion that Riddley is obviously deluded, that his visions and his personification of Punch are just the imagination of a simple, restricted mind. However, Hoban never lets you take such an objective view of his protagonist - as you read the novel you are overwhelmingly part of Riddley. As such his 'connexions' and 'tels', his inspired Punch rants - seemingly unearthed from a cultural unconsciousness - are real, almost magic or spiritual. Hoban is showing us how a religion is formed in an ignorant world where any answer is better than the unknown. An inspired passage in the middle of the book has the Goodparley character explaining how the unknown word "Saviour" actually refers to salt, as salt is "savery". Such strained associations seem perfectly reasonable in Riddley Walker, where great mythic importance is given to innocuous events or items, simply because some kind of connection can be made between them.

Riddley Walker is a wonderful book, still fresh and vivid, exciting and inspired. Hoban's afterwords and explanation of the genesis of the story (The Legend of St Eustace in Canterbury Cathedral) and his formation of Riddley Speak (the book took 5 years to write, and Hoban claims to have forgotten how to spell after finishing it) are fascinating - try and get hold of the anniversary or expanded editions to read these sections. This is my 3rd Russell Hoban book - I highly recommend the equally lonely, searching Fremder for nother excellent read - but Riddley Walker blows most books out of the water for imagination and audacity.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Bonnie & Clyde (1967)

Arthur Penn's Bonnie & Clyde takes off from the first frame, taking the viewer with it, and doesn't come back down until the the last scene when we come crashing back to Earth, just like the rag doll corpses of our heroes.

This film shows us so much. Thinking back on it now I am astounded at how perfect it was in telling its story without actually telling us anything. An example? The opening scene: Bonnie, naked, pouting in front of a mirror, writhing on her bed and banging the head board with her fist. Immediately we know she is yearning for more, a way out of her dead-end life, her dead end town, her sexual frustration. A lesser film would need an explanatory conversation, a voice-over even: "I was sick of this life and boy did I need a good lay".

Then Clyde walks by, sharp in a tailored suit and fedora. Does this film need a 'cute-meet' as Billy Wilder would say? No, a glimpse of Bonnie through a window suffices for the story to begin.

They rob a grocery store and take off into the country. Upon parking (no pun intended) Bonnie pounces on Clyde but is cast aside. You see Clyde can't get it up - its never explained why this is so, and it certainly doesn't look like a conscious effort on his behalf. Its like their exploits in general: the bank jobs keep adding to their excitement, their driving gets faster, more erratic, their murders more frequent, but there is never a big payoff - where is this all leading to? You feel that if they actually got round to finally having sex then the killing spree might end. But there isn't any climax to this film, just a short sharp let down, the deafening roar of machine gun fire ripping us out of our reverie.

Too many articles focus on how Bonnie & Clyde changed American cinema, a history lesson through celluloid. You could sit through this film and really study its impact on the industry and write a thesis about how the 60s and the bloodletting in Vietnam at the time were as much a part of the film as the dustbowl. But that would be to miss out on what is such a vital film, such entertainment.

You can immerse yourself in the beauty of it, at the nostalgia of the back projection in the cars, at the golden hues of Burnett Guffrey's cinematography, at the chemistry between the two leads - Warren Beatty's goofy smiles, Faye Dunaways childish, glowering moods - the attention to detail (see those corn crops they're running through when Bonnie goes missing? They're poor crops - it's the depression after all), at the whip-crack humour and bawdiness of it all.

Of course there is so much artistic licence in the film - this isn't reality. Bonnie & Clyde apparently met at a friend's house, far less romantic than a glimpse on the street; according to most accounts Bonnie never got into the thick of a fire fight during the life-span of the gang; and the character of Hamer was never captured and humiliated by the gang before he finally managed to gun them down. All this is interesting trivia but pointless criticism. Bonnie & Clyde isn't reality, even though its intensity and passion make us feel that it can only be real life we are watching. Bonnie & Clyde isn't reality- it is pure cinema.