Friday, December 23, 2011

Fremder - Russell Hoban 

I’ve read most of Russell Hoban’s adult books and so far none of his children’s books. I have secretly been keeping the novel Pilgerman on my shelf unread for sometime - I suspect with his recent death soon might be the time to finally read it. But in the days following his death, a fellow member of the Kraken posted a piece inspired by his novel Fremder, and it struck me that was the novel I needed to re-read right away.

[X-Ref: The Man Who Believed In Flicker Drive]

Hoban’s work is the kind that should be read and re-read, something which I haven’t entirely found the time to do adequately. Though, reasonably recently I did re-read Amaryllis Night & Day, which with its paper lantern dream buses was the 1st of his novels that I read. Yes, unlike many Hoban readers, I did not come to him through Riddley Walker. Rather I came to him through his more recent magic realist London novels, which really appeal to my tastes. And given the reputation of Riddley Walker I admit I put off that particularly reading for some time, given just how different it actually is from the bulk of his work. Though, in saying that, the themes in Riddley are, I believe, present through out much of his work - particularly when one starts to think of the idea of something “other” looking out through our eyes.

The idea of something “other” was present in Amaryllis, and re-reading Fremder I was struck by just how many parallels there are thematically between the two. The ideas of loneliness, of suicide and despair, of something other, in strange dreams and encompassing paintings. When I first read Fremder I was aware that some suggested particular thematic links with his novel The Medusa Frequency - and they are there, the ideas of the tentacular and the girl with the pearl earring, just as the Hopper painting is present in both Amaryllis and Fremder, just as the sense of something looking out is a particular theme of Riddley and Fremder.

Fremder is itself an oddity in Hoban’s body of work, for all the post-apocalyptic sense of Riddley Walker, in someway Fremder feels like his real one off science fiction novel (which is to imply that I think Riddley Walker falls into some other category, but I‘ll not go into that here and now). Fremder starts with a man floating in space - no space suit, no oxygen, not dead. This man is Fremder Gorn, fremder we are told being the German word for stranger - the story of Fremder starts with this stranger floating through space on his own. By all accounts, as a shuttle from the nearby space station rescues him, he should be dead. Not least because the ship he was on and the crew he was with have all vanished, never to be seen again.

As the story unfolds we learn about the world where humanity is travelling through space, travelling to 7 new galaxies. All of which is thanks to the flicker drive, which we learn Fremder’s mother was instrumental in creating. The flicker drive is derived from a theory of reality - something about the inconstancy of the moment, and if the moment is uncertain, then one can flicker from one moment to another and end up somewhere else. Or science to that effect, more or less. Reading Fremder I am struck by its commonality with Alfred Bester’s classic novel Tiger! Tiger! also known as The Stars My Destination - where the stranger Gulliver Foyle finds himself at odds with society, with the mega corporations, while jumping from point to point. And indeed Fremder’s nemesis is the Corporation - he company which controls the space routes and damn well wants to know why he isn’t dead.

The cover of this edition of the novel compares Fremder to 1984, and that strikes me as one of those lazy comparisons from someone with limited frame of reference, even if there are perhaps passing similarities. For me there is much more of Philip K Dick in here, the wasted Earth, the exodus to space, the idea that those left behind are thuggish criminals or protected executives. Fremder’s London is heavy with the neon of Blade Runner, even the owl makes its appearance in these pages - though to a more haunting and lingering effect. Some of the aspects of the gangs, of the almost idea of the siege of London reminds me of the work of Jack Womack which I’ve read recently, like the encroaching darkness of Random Acts of Senseless Violence, and his turn of phrase to evoke the sense of that. By contrast there is also perhaps one of Hoban’s most clear tributes to Lovecraft -the idea of the other is easy to draw out into something monstrous, something in the darkness. And that is a theme of his work, something lurking, but here one of the characters quotes the Call of Cthulhu in conversation.

Though comparisons are easy, for an element here, an element there, Hoban was his own writer. Deceptively difficult for slim volumes of work, for works full of clever and amusing phrases the books are often full of cultural reference, full of ideas. And as with Fremder there is often a surprising darkness that creeps in - suicide, darkness, loneliness, despair. Fremder dresses up in the trappings of a big science fiction adventure - galaxy hopping, space stations, an abandoned earth - but through that it’s the characters struggle with life, the mother’s suicide he was born from.

Anyway, Fremder is a strange kind of novel, atypical work from a writer of atypical works. Full of wonderful language and wonderful ideas, and I couldn’t help but read it and think how much of it expressed exactly the ideas I’ve been struggling so hard to get my head around for my own writing.

A last addendum, Fremder is haunted by Bach's Art of Fugue, so here, a cross reference:

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