The NYT recently read Linger Awhile, and here's what they had to say (and draw):
By TERRENCE RAFFERTY
Published: September 2, 2007
It might seem a strange thing to say about a writer who has spent so much of his working life producing children’s books — more than 60, at last count — but simplicity doesn’t come naturally to Russell Hoban. In his adult novels, of which the 1980 “Riddley Walker” is the best known, Hoban’s default setting is head-splitting complexity: the plotting tends to be fiendishly elaborate, the language dense and punny, the relationship between fiction and reality intricately vexed.
On the face of it, the ingenious “Linger Awhile,” his latest book for grown-ups, is fairly typical of the odd concoctions Hoban likes to cook up in his laboratory: a brief, fanciful narrative about reanimating a dead B-movie Western starlet from the “visual DNA” of a black-and-white videotape, by means of a chemical process the novel’s very mad scientist refers to as a “suspension of disbelief.” This sounds like the sort of thing the French call a jeu d’esprit, and the English call too clever by half — a charge that would certainly stick to a good deal of Hoban’s fiction. Not this one, though. “Linger Awhile” is a friendly, shaggy little thing, eager to please and only a tad smarter than it has to be. It’s too clever by 10, 15 percent, tops.
Hoban is 82, and this is distinctly an old man’s book: cranky, wistful, riddled with mortality. What sets in motion all the monkey business about reanimation is the erotic obsession of an 83-year-old London widower named Irving Goodman with one Justine Trimble, the female lead in an undistinguished ’50s oater called “Last Stage to El Paso.” Irving, in the throes of an “end of life” crisis, brings his well-worn videocassette to Istvan Fallok, proprietor and presiding genius of a somewhat dubious Soho tech outfit known as Hermes Soundways. Fallok, a sexagenarian, falls hard for the svelte cowgirl too, and after restoring her to the land of the (barely) living decides to keep her for himself.
Once Justine has been resurrected — it happens gratifyingly quickly — the novel settles into a relaxed, old-pro routine of genre parody, light irony and gentle philosophizing: nothing too taxing for an aging fabulist and his aging characters. The story starts out as “Frankenstein,” then turns unexpectedly into something more like “Dracula,” thanks to Hoban’s best joke: for Justine to live in full color, rather than in the unnerving black-and-white in which she has emerged from Fallok’s “primordial soup,” she needs blood and plenty of it. And lots of sex, which delights her admirers (until it exhausts them). Jealousy poisons the atmosphere, and things get uncomfortable when Justine’s nocturnal blood-hunts attract the attention of the police, but for the most part the eccentric senior citizens of “Linger Awhile” seem energized by their sci-fi experiment in nostalgia, happy to trade in their tattered-coat-upon-a-stickness for a lustier, more colorful, wider-screened sort of existence. Whatever is clapping its hands and singing here, it’s probably not the soul.
The creature’s charms aren’t lost on the middle-aged either: she has a third passionate fan in Chauncey Lim, a 40-ish purveyor of “optical novelties.” Age notwithstanding, none of these men seem interested in sailing to Byzantium anyway: Justine’s got them all on the last stage to someplace wilder and scarier, where Yeats’s “monuments of unaging intellect” are thoroughly beside the point. This is, in a peculiar way, a fortunate development in Hoban’s fiction, which has in the past sometimes lusted too strenuously for intellectual significance of the monumental, unaging sort. “Linger Awhile” is, for example, enormously more readable — and more affecting — than the novel in which, 20 years ago, Hoban introduced Istvan Fallok, the gnomic, grimly frolicsome “Medusa Frequency.” That book labors mightily to retell the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and the strain shows: the wit is arch, donnish, and the deep thoughts about art and life are pretty consistently gaseous. (The fact that most of these fetid pensées spring from a disembodied head of Orpheus, conjured by Fallok and often taking the form of a cabbage or a soccer ball, doesn’t even begin to excuse them.) The pop-culture mythology of “Linger Awhile” has the welcome effect of tamping down Hoban’s instinct for profundity. But it gives him room to show off his true gift for dark farce, with just a spritz of music-hall metaphysics. The pleasantly cheesy Borges-on-Viagra tone suits Hoban’s peculiar talent well.
Artists, like the rest of us, think of old age as an inconvenience, an infirmity, a curse. With novelists, the books tend to get shorter, terser, bolder (or should it be balder?); the writer’s energy isn’t what it used to be, so he cuts to the chase. That last stage runs a fast, direct route through some perilous territory. But age clearly has its benefits for a writer like Hoban, who, in times of greater stamina, displayed a penchant for wandering off course and leaving himself (and his readers) stranded in a lush, obscure semantic wilderness. In one of this book’s most apparently inexplicable turns, Irving Goodman, after losing interest in Justine, begins to have dreams about William Bligh, the infamous captain of the Bounty. The old man finds himself admiring the determination — “plus his practical knowledge and his seamanship” — that enabled Bligh to guide his men to land in a small boat through treacherous waters.
Goodman’s ardor for Bligh seems unaccountable, but in the context of this funny, lucid novel and in the larger context of this writer’s complicated career, it makes a lovely kind of sense. Russell Hoban never longed for simplicity, but now that old age has thrust it upon him he has discovered that he kind of likes it. Or to put it another way, he has finally — in the nick of time — learned to appreciate the value of navigation, of knowing how to arrive safely at the place you set out for: El Paso, Pitcairn Island, Byzantium, wherever.
Terrence Rafferty is a frequent contributor to the Book Review.