|Aug/Sep 1998 Book Reviews|
Random House, 1998 182pp
Jonathan Fitch is the sort of amiable young idiot who cheats on his "destiny-woman", gets sacked from his jobs for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, and sells his life to a casual acquaintance for one million pounds. He has an (almost) terminal lack of won't-power. But, sucker that I am for impulsive characters whose thoughts are pervaded by art, music, good food and an amiable wit, I liked him. So, I forgave his all-too-human frailties and followed his story to the end.
Mr Rinyo-Clacton's Offer, as the cover blurb tells us, "reaches parts not reached by other Hoban novels". Well, yes and no. Yes, Russell Hoban has a fertile and inventive imagination, so, in spite of the seeming re-working of the Faust story and suggestions of hidden depths in Jonathan's interest in perspective and tunnels, the story has a whimsical novelty of its own. But Hoban fans will recognise his humour, his love of playing with "worods...woordos...words" (I wish there were more of it in this novel), and the quirky way his characters see life.
Jonathan, when we first meet him, is viewing life from the floor of a passage in a London Underground station - an appropriate place for him to meet his Dr. Faustus, alias Rinyo-Clacton. Jonathan's life is governed by chance and by his senses. When he thinks of his woman, Seraphima, who has just ditched him, he remembers her body, her voice, the smell of her and that "her brown loaves were like bread from a fairy tale; her potato pancakes sizzled with lust and fidelity".
Fidelity is not Jonathan's strong point. Nor are logic and reason. Katerina, a "No crystal ball, no bullshit" psychic, and Hendryk, the painted dog in a van Hoogstraten perspective box in the National Gallery, provide him with guidance and solace. And in the face of disaster optimism prevails.
"Things don't end; they just accumulate" is Jonathan's motto. And he and Hoban adopt it as the epigram for this book. It expresses a sentiment which fits well with the suggestions of Buddhist philosophy and deeper symbolic meaning which keep popping up in Jonathan Fitch's novel, for it is he, not Hoban, who tells this story.
So, hang on a minute, this is an autobiography!
Jonathan Fitch (just an ordinary sort of bloke) shows us that he is need of enlightenment. The devil tempts him, he goes through hell, and is reborn - "things don't end; they just accumulate".
Unfortunately, the darkness, the agonies, the journeys and the hell, which are the consequences of Jonathan's bargain with Mr Rinyo-Clacton, all turn out to be remarkably predictable, rather ordinary events in the life of a young man who has fallen out with his woman and has been indulging in some compensatory, unsafe sex with strangers. And Mr Rinyo-Clacton and his crazy bargain are so far from being believable that I think Jonathan just made them up to dramatise and excuse his actions. Perhaps, if I read Jonathan's story again slowly and carefully, I will find that it is a sort of extended Buddhist Koan: but I suspect that Jonathan's philosophical beliefs are as flexible as his morals.
Russell Hoban's philosophical and authorial intentions, however, could be quite another story!