Jun 28 2013

Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban

Brian Gittis

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In his introduction to the New York Review's reissue of Russell Hoban's oddball 1975 novel Turtle Diary, Ed Park characterizes the book as a sort of literary cousin to the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby." It's a humble tale of urban loneliness, quotidian in flavor—which makes it an anomaly in Hoban's large, very strange, increasingly out-of-print body of work. To extend the music analogy, the Hoban boxed set is a hard-to-label compilation—"Eleanor Rigby," yes, but also works of elaborate, Wagnerian fantasy, Zappa-level weirdness, and kid-friendly tunes. Through a career that spanned more than seventy books, Hoban tackled post-nuclear apocalypse dystopia (Riddley Walker), the disembodied spirit of a Crusades-era Jew (Pilgermann), and internet pornography obsession (Angelica's Grotto)—and also subjects such as bedtime (Bedtime for Frances) and birthdays (A Birthday for Frances) in his popular series of illustrated books for children about a family of badgers. (Hoban's 1968 book The Mouse and His Child, about a mechanical mouse navigating a world of junkyards and authoritarian rodents, fuses his interests in children's and dystopic literature.)

"I think death will be a good career move for me," Hoban (1925-2011), told the Guardian in 2002, understanding that his novels were a little too strange for a life of mainstream literary fame. "People will say, 'yes, Hoban, he seems an interesting writer, let's look at him again.'" Reading Turtle Diary this way—in an NYRB Classics edition, with a view to Hoban's whole career—adds a new dimension of poignancy to an already very moving book. An emotionally naked, self-referential novel about a children's author in transition, Turtle Diary is deeply satisfying in its own right, while also offering a glimpse of the author behind his extravagant creative output.

The novel is narrated by two depressed, middle-aged Londoners. Neaera H. is the author of a popular series of children's books about the character Gillian Vole, but she hasn't written much of anything lately and is having a crisis of confidence over her first adult-book proposal. In the hopes of inspiring a new children's book, she's purchased a pet water beetle and looks to it for ideas (Victoria Beetle's Summer Holiday? Victoria Beetle, Secret Agent?) William G., our other narrator, used to have a family and a career in advertising (like Hoban), but now he's divorced, working in a bookstore, and living in a boarding house.

William and Neaera are strangers at the beginning of the book, and we watch as their stories move closer and closer to each other. They have many things in common—dry, observant senses of humor, unrealized ambitions, atrophying intellectual interests, anxiety, depression—but what ultimately brings them together is the London Zoo. They both wander in to look at the animals (William seeking an octopus, Neaera an oyster-catcher). And both discover the turtles.

"There they were in the golden-green murk of their little box of sea, their little bedsitter of ocean," writes William. "One almost expected a meter in the corner of it where they had to put in 5 p to keep the water circulating. Thousands of miles in their speechless eyes." The sea turtles deeply move William and Neaera in a way the other animals don't. William daydreams vividly about their journeys across thousands of miles of ocean. Shy, reserved Neaera pictures herself smashing them free of their tank with a sledgehammer. Separately, each decides that the turtles should be kidnapped and released into the ocean.

Once William and Neaera finally meet, it doesn't take long—or even much communication between them—before they realize their shared "turtle thoughts" and to begin plotting together. They rent a van. They pick a date. They come to realize, as the reader comes to realize, that they are very serious about their apparently quixotic plan. The plan itself begins as something of a lark—two adults' attempt to jump out of their respective ruts with some impulsive, youthful mischief. But it's also more than that. William and Neaera are enchanted by sea turtles' mysterious ability to locate their breeding grounds across thousands of miles of ocean, no matter where they begin their journey. As free adults who have lost all direction, there is something tragic to them about an animal in captivity that knows exactly where to go. Helping the turtles is a symbolic gesture toward reestablishing an ability to navigate their own lives.

Like Patricia Highsmith and Patrick Hamilton, Hoban is a master of shading deceptively simple prose with complex psychological nuance. William and Neaera's diary entries casually reflect a world full of poverty, mental illness, loneliness, and cruelty. But in their writing, each keeps an even keel—their calm, quotidian diary entries are the work of people who have attained an equilibrium in this world. There is horror everywhere, but like everything else in their lives the horror has become almost normal to them. It is processed in understated sentences and folded inside topically bland paragraphs. As Neaera writes, "my despair has long since ground up fine and is no more than the daily salt and pepper of my life."

Despair, terror, suicide, it's all here—but buried in the novel there is a children's story, too. A boy and a girl hatch a hare-brained scheme to save the turtles—and in the process, they will fall in love, or at least develop a lasting friendship.

One way to look at Turtle Diary—to borrow one of Neaera's ruminations, is as a children's story viewed "from the back." Shortly after William and Neaera decide to carry out their plan, an insomniac Neaera spends an entire night outside in a square worrying about William's mental state. Out there alone on a bench in the middle of the night, a fragment of a thought appears in her head: "The backs of things are always connected to the fronts of them. This is the back of the turtle thing."

It's such a cryptic thought that Neaera doesn't seem to fully understand it herself, but this note—the backs of things—seems to resonate throughout all of Turtle Diary, a novel so concerned with the messy truths lying just behind the ordinary things our lives are made of: familiar people, simple stories. Even though on the surface ("from the front") Turtle Diary is a simple story, the novel's sharper focus is on the unsightly back that the fašade of the story leans on—the desperation that inspires this bizarre plan, the mad world and the neuroses that birth the desperation. We don't see Victoria Beetle's Summer Holiday, the children's book Neaera is trying to inspire herself to write, we see the "back" of it: a London flat where a real life water beetle is kept in a filthy tank by a depressed woman with writer's block.

Yet it's the simple story that helps us to navigate the ocean of misery in which William and Neaera are adrift. We keep turning the pages because we think we recognize what is happening. We can see that William and Neaera are soul mates even though they can't see it yet themselves. We're rooting for them as they inch closer and closer together like a shy couple on a park bench. We see what's coming.

And then we don't. Turtle Diary the novel continues well after the turtle-napping comes to an end. And the simple, if eccentric, story we thought we recognized begins to lose its shape. William and Neaera never quite arrive where we think they will, challenging not just our expectations of where the story was headed, but the idealized notions we have about love that helped to shape those expectations. We like to think that two people having a lot in common means they are suited romantically—but William shrinks from what is like him in Neaera: "I don't really want to talk to a woman who's accumulated the sorts of things in her head that I have in mine…. My mind isn't much of a comfort to me, but at least I thought it was private."

It's this dissonance between the simple turtle story and the irresolvable adult story that makes Turtle Diary a quiet masterpiece. And if all these years later, there is some insight to be gleaned into Russell Hoban himself from this personal novel, it may be what this teller of extravagant stories thought the purpose of stories to be. Narratives, whether they are about talking animals or miserable adults, help us to put fronts on the backs of things—points of reference by which we navigate. As Neaera pus it, "People write books for children and other people write about the books written for children but I don't think it's for the children at all. I think that all the people who worry so much about the children are really worrying themselves, about keeping their world together and getting the children to help them do it, getting the children to agree that it is indeed a world. Each new generation of children has to be told: 'This is a world, this is what one does, one lives like this.'" Without stories we have something close to the nightmare that Neaera has one night, "I dreamt that nothing had a front anymore. The whole world was nothing but the back of the world."

Brian Gittis's writing has also appeared in The Paris Review Daily.

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