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This is a brief discussion of Russell Hoban and, of course, of some speculative-fiction books by Hoban.
This discussion and list does not necessarily include every book by Hoban: it includes only those books that I both know and like. Just as with the author list itself, omission of a particular item may mean I didn’t think highly enough of the omitted item, or it may simply mean that I have not yet sufficient familiarity with it. (In a very few cases, I have listed some books merely on the strength of my opinion of the author: all such books are clearly marked below, as throughout these lists, with a hash mark (#) before the title so you know what’s what.)
I don’t pretend that this discussion is a deep analysis. My intent is no more than to give you a rough idea of what kinds of tales Hoban tells, how those tales are usually told, and what makes them and Hoban worthy; in sum, to help you rank Russell Hoban (and the works by Hoban listed here) on your personal literary “to do” list.
Having so far read only four of Hoban’s many novels, I have decidely mixed feelings about his work. Of the four, two were very good, one excellent, and one—though well-written in a sheer writerly sort of way—was pretentiously obvious (or obviously pretentious).
Hoban seems to me a man possessed of keen enough writerly skills, by which I mean he can put words and thoughts on paper in language that is well crafted and pleasing to read. He also seems to have, at times anyway, meaningful things to say about the human condition. So far, so good, but Hoban is in some ways his own worst enemy as a writer; indeed, we can make “some” read “two”, and enumerate them.
First, he characteristically lacks a sense of restraint, riding too often well over the top. Zaniness can be a masterly virtue so long as its user has a sound idea where the border lies beyond which wit fades into mere cleverness or something feebler yet, but Hoban does not seem to see that line with much clarity. We would, I daresay, like to think of ourselves as at least a shade more sophisticated than the common reader of John Bunyan’s time, but Hoban feels we need a parade in which march characters with names like Pilgermann, Kleinzeit, Orff; but bad as “Orff” may be (are you shocked to discover that he is a writer?), surely the prize goes to Helen Gorn. Hoban spent years writing children’s books before he essayed adult novels; I guess you can take the book out of the boy, but not the boy out of the book.
Hoban’s second regrettable tendency is, to be blunt, occasional banality of ideas. The urge to wield The Great Hammer of Obviousness is one to which all too many writers, often of substantial writerly talent, succumb on occasion, or even more often (consider the famous epithet “Good Ursula, Bad Ursula” for Ursula K. Le Guin). The Hammer can be wielded in either or both of two ways: a basically sound point can be ludicrously over-elaborated, or a relatively trite thought can be made the focus of the auctorial celebrations. Hoban can slip either way, but the second is more common with him. A book devoted entire to the idea of the creative process need not be banal per se, but Hoban’s Medusa Frequency (though scarcely alone in this) was.
But when Hoban can stay in the saddle, he is an excellent writer, by turns charming, profound, savage, and deep. Since I can heartily recommend at least two of his books, I suppose I owe it to myself to try some more, to see which is the “real” Russell Hoban—so this discussion will be revised, possibly much revised, at some time in the middle future.
Meanwhile, here is at least a taste of Hoban’s actual writing:
Jachin-Boaz had a wife and a son, and he lived in a town far from the sea. Pigeons flew up from the square, circled above it, and came down to perch on clay walls, red roof tiles. The fountain sent up a slim silver jet among old women in black. The dogs knew where everything was, and went through the alleyways behind the shops like businessmen. The cats looked down from high places, disappeared around corners. Many of the women did their washing in stone sinks near the town pump. Tourists going through the town in buses looked out through windows at the merchants who sold brass and ivory and rugs drinking coffee in the shade of awnings. The vendors of fruit and vegetables smoked in the street.
A man who can write that paragraph is clearly a man whose work is well worth exploring further. Nor is that a specially plucked flower: here is another random selection from the same book:
Boats sink under me, thought Boaz-Jachin. Cars get smashed. At a farm he leaned against a fence and looked into the eyes of a goat. “What?” he asked the goat. “Give Urim or give Thummim.” The goat turned away. Goats turn away, thought Boaz-Jachin.
The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz was Hoban’s first novel for adults, and in a sense its writing is some of his “purest”—that is, almost wholly lacking in contrivance. Ten years and four novels later, in Pilgermann, we find this:
I, Pilgermann, poor bare tuned fork, humming with the foreverness of the Word that is always Now. Unbearing the Unbearable, intolerating the Intolerable, being not enough for the Too-Muchness. I, poor harp of a Jew twanging incessantly in the mouth of Jesus, in the lion-mouth of Christ Pandamator, Christ All-Subduer. There is a point where pattern becomes motion; the pattern has found me and I must move, must be aware of moving, must be a motion, an action of the Word. Poor bare tuned fork.
That is still good writing, but it is a different kind of good writing; it is perhaps a particularly florid extract torn from context, but it shows, I think, how close Hoban sails to pretentiousness even when he manages to skirt its reefs. In Pilgermann, for one at any rate, he avoids shipwreck and brings home to port a whacking great cargo of a novel; but he is not always quite so adept at sailing the storm-tost Sea of Metaphor.
In Pilgermann one can forgive Hoban some occasional excess (since it is never wretched excess) because he is dealing with large, complex issues in—for him, anyway—a relatively subtle manner. And the book is not entirely constituted of such prose as I have just quoted. For example:
“I’m so sorry you’re dead,” I said. “It’s a great loss to me that you could only die once; it would be such a pleasure to kill you.” Thinking as I said it that these dead ones were already like a family to me.
“It means nothing at all,” said the bear, “whatever you see in the sky.” The arrows that had killed him were still in him, they nodded as he walked upright with the others. “There’s been a Great Bear in the sky all these years and even a Lesser Bear as well and nothing’s come of it, nothing at all.”
“Did you think anything would come of it?” I said.
“Of course not,” he said. “Why should I. You can see anything you like in the sky, anything at all. And what it means is anything at all.”
“That man who killed you,” I said. “What do you think he’s doing now?”
“He’s looking for another bear,” said the bear. “He’s hopeless, he’s incapable of learning.”
With Hoban, clearly one needs to pick and choose. But when one chooses fortunately, one gets wonderful work.
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There is an “official” Hoban web site; there is also another dedicated Hoban web site, The Head of Orpheus (presumably “non-official”), which says “Last Updated: June 18, 2014”. Nonetheless, it includes useful pages with links to Hoban analyses and discussions, many internal to the site. As usual, a utile page can be found at The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
When Hoban died, obituaries appeared in a number of publications; while they were interesting, they were also much alike. Let The Guardian’s Hoban Obituary (by John Clute) stand for all.
Beyond that, there’s curiously little considering his stature: a few scattered brief interviews and one-off reviews of particular books, plus The Usual Suspects.
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There are at least two books wholly about Hoban:
Russell Hoban/Forty Years: Essays on His Writings for Children, Alida Allison, editor
Through the Narrow Gate: the Mythological Consciousness of Russell Hoban by Christine Wilkie
There are also numerous other books that discuss (or at least mention) Hoban.
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