When my editor gave me a review of Wixon’s Day, he recommended the post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker, and as soon as I learnt of it I knew that it was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it is a fully realised work of fiction, a completely crafted experience that takes no short-cuts and places you without compromise in an entirely different world. A curse because that is what every work of fiction should aspire to be, and none is ever likely to achieve that as effectively. You step so fully into the shoes of Riddley Walker that you start to think and speak like him, and accept his world fully, even if you do not understand it. It is a post-apocalypse that recognises, and demonstrates, that the world of the future will be completely different.
What’s most striking about this book is that it immerses you in a new language. It takes a long time to get through, spelling out everything phonetically, but by the time you’re done the style becomes second nature. You learn the language without quite knowing how, and when you tell your neighbours that it was the dogs as got frendy with you you won’t even realise you’re doing it. This language (whilst incredibly well designed) is where most readers are likely to get stuck and possibly give up, but it’s merely the hulking monstrous shell of a fantastically developed world.
The post-apocalyptic setting of Riddley Walker is different to any other post-apocalypse, or any other fictional setting, because it finds has no bearing in our own. The legends, the history, the tribal habits, all have some basis in something that happened before the disaster, but if Riddley’s people can’t put the pieces together then you can be damned sure you won’t either. Punch and Judy, Saint Eustace and the atomic bomb are among the remnants of the past that are thoroughly misinterpreted in the reconstruction of a unique and memorable society.
With all that going on, basking in the glory of Hoban’s insanely developed world, the story could almost be irrelevant. But the journey of Riddley Walker is as compelling and exciting as any you’ll find in a less realised post-apocalyptic world. A journey of discovery that never lets you feel at an advantage over the protagonist, an adventure in a threatening world, alive with tribal characters fitting to the world they inhabit.
The only fault is that such an immersive mode of storytelling makes the book hard to classify as entertainment. Sometimes it’s hard work, and by the end of it you’ll feel like you were too much a part of a genuine dystopia for it to have been fun. But it is fun, if you find obtaining that kind of feeling through literature thrilling. I kind of do. And I kind of resent the fact that I’m unlikely to ever try and write something of its magnitude myself.
What you’ll learn from reading Riddley Walker is that it’s possible to create a completely alien society in literature. It comes at a cost, as it will not simply appeal to everyone, but it is a massively impressive achievement. It makes most other post-apocalyptic novel look like pulp-fiction (Wixon’s Day is an enjoyable romp by comparison), but it does so in the same way that a realistic war film isn’t the sort of fun you might be after from the genre.