Mind the Gap

Country matters: Hoban's book of laughter and forgetting

 1. BECAUSE This book exists to be forgotten.

2. A SUPERFICIAL REASON The cover—dominated by a short-skirted woman's comely, stocking-clad legs, with that lowercase Bridget Jones–y font—means it risks being seen as a piece of chick lit. The title evokes an emetic Manilovian response.

3. POSSIBLE REFLECTION ON HOBAN'S ART But it's a nimble, entertaining novel of ideas, 75 short chapters long. The brain has room to breathe. The prose is spare, but no less lovely for that: "They kiss among the Dover paperbacks." The dialogue is at once stylized and believable. A toast: "Here's to form and emptiness." As Max Lesser, the novel's author-hero, says of Lorenzetti's frescoes: "Very formal, somewhat stilted but in a lively way. Real but not too real." Hoban's art takes its cues from other art, and in Lola, traditional Indian music becomes metaphor and plot twist.

Russell Hoban: Real but not too real
photo: Tara Hoban
Russell Hoban: Real but not too real

Details

Her Name Was Lola
By Russell Hoban
Arcade, 207 pp., $24
Buy this book

4. DIVISIONS In Angelica's Grotto (1999), art historian Harold Klein loses his inner voice—anything he thinks comes out his mouth. Max Lesser also talks to himself, but his interlocutors carry valid ID. There's his superego ("Max's mind"); a repulsive dwarf that only he sees (Apasmara, a Hindu demon of forgetfulness, if not quite an id); and Moe Levy, the stand-in character Max creates for the book that he's writing, a book much like Her Name Was Lola—ergo, ego.

"Max writes novels that don't sell, children's books that do." Hoban, author of the nothing-like-it Riddley Walker and the lovely, double-narrated Turtle Diary, writes smart, funny, chilling novels that nowadays no longer see reliable publication in his native U.S., children's books that do (Bread and Jam for Frances is his). Max's most famous kiddie-lit character is a hedgehog named Charlotte Prickles.

5. MAX'S WOMEN Max, 39, meets Lola Bessington, 25, silver-spooned shopgirl, in December 1996; he blurts out that she's his "destiny woman," and soon she's thrown over the much more suitable Basil Meissen-Potts, ace cricketer and yachtsman. She knows the names of the seven stars in the Big Dipper; later, she will learn the seven notes of the Indian musical scale, as she masters the sarod.

Then Max meets Lula Mae Flowers, over from America, who has a Girl-From-Ipanemic effect on the men she passes (viz., they say "Ah"). Max's mind scolds happy-with-Lola Max, but Max goes Lula-ward anyway. He impregnates both women in the same week. (cf. Jim Crace's Genesis: "Every woman he dares to sleep with bears his child.") They leave him—one bitter, one appreciative—taking his unborn sons with them.

6. NOVEMBER 2001 Born in Philadelphia, Hoban served in the infantry in WW II and has lived in London since 1969. Lola's frame is fixed in November 2001. The gaps between the 75 chapters conceal the biggest lacuna of all. Perhaps it's too much to say that any author, dating a chapter "November 2001," would have 9-11 in mind, but surely any American author would. For all their allusive density, Hoban's books generally keep tabs on the aesthetic rather than the political arena. (Riddley Walker minted an Iron Age tongue for a post-nuked England.) But Lola has a late-breaking mention of the fictional Philip Nolan, who, when court-martialed in 1807 for allying with Aaron Burr, cried, "D---n the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!" Wish granted, he was forced to spend the rest of his life on the sea, despite a distinguished naval career fighting the British.

His epitaph: "HE LOVED HIS COUNTRY AS NO OTHER MAN HAS LOVED HER; BUT NO MAN DESERVED LESS AT HER HANDS." Weeping, Max appropriates: "Lola was my country and I am a man without a country." A phantom patriotism lurks here. But Apasmara dances again, and current events remain out of sight. Perhaps the title transcends "Copacabana," contradicts the rosy ending: Lola was my country; her name was Lola. The Lord knows what it is now.

 
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