THE MEDUSA FREQUENCY By Russell Hoban Atlantic Monthly Press. 143 pp. $16.95
IN CHILDREN'S literature anything is possible. Mickey may fall out of his clothes into the night kitchen, where the bakers all look like Oliver Hardy. James will go adventuring aboard a giant peach. Tom soundly beats Captain Najork at his own games of womble, muck and sneedball. In such worlds no one is in the least surprised by talking animals, smart-aleck computers, friendly monsters.
Such freedom to imagine absolutely anything makes for the charm of Russell Hoban's novels, no matter how serious their purpose. In Kleinzeit, Death hides under a hospital bed, like any hobgoblin of childhood. In The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz a mapmaker conjures up, out of airy nothingness, a lion no one can see -- but which leaves its claw marks on his arms. The distorted children's rhymes of Riddley Walker -- itself a kind of post-Armageddon Huckleberry Finn -- foretell the hero's strange destiny. And in The Medusa Frequency, computers, paintings and severed heads all talk, or talk back, to the novel's hero, the frustrated writer of Classic Comics, one Herman Orff.
In all these books -- about love, sickness and life's various burdens -- such wonders appear with casual nonchalance. Even the most realistic of Hoban's books, Turtle Diary, with its plot to free sea turtles from the London Zoo, possesses a kind of Swallows-and-Amazons flavor of kids on a holiday spree. Of course, Hoban sharpened his narrative skills on children's books (which he continues to produce): Frances the Badger tales for pre-schoolers; that paean to "fooling around," How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen; and The Mouse and His Child, as perfect a children's novel as has ever been written, a classic to rank with Charlotte's Web and Tom's Midnight Garden. Everything Hoban writes possesses this same playful seriousness, the sheer concentration, of a 5-year-old building a plane out of Legos. But Hoban's odd and affecting books actually fly.
In The Medusa Frequency he takes up one of the great classical myths, that of Orpheus and Eurydice, setting the action in contemporary artistic London. Virtually every character or event suggests a classical parallel. Herman Orff (note the last name) has been trying in vain to write a third novel, a successor to Slope of Hell and World of Shadows; but for the past nine years, since the departure of his beloved Luise (after an infidelity on his part), nothing has come of his efforts. So when he receives a flyer about a new computer-enchanced EEG technique that will zap his head into new places, it seems worth a try. On his way to his appointment he descends into the London underground and glimpses a leggy, attractive young woman, dressed in black:
"Her hair was brown and thick -- she was altogether urban but she looked as if she might vanish behind a tree. Her eyes were remarkable: dark eyes darkly outlined, open wide so that when she looked at me there was white all round the pupil. Her eyes were not like the eyes of women on Greek vases but there came the thought of a shady grove. The grove became more shadowy, became wild woodland. Her face had a sudden woodland look; as if she might just that moment have heard the baying of hounds."
Her name, he learns when they fatedly meet again at the head-zapping studio, is Melanie Falsepercy. Melanie, of course, means black; it was the true Persephone who vainly fled from Hades' hounds and who became dark queen of the underworld.
After the shock therapy, Herman experiences a kind of psychic fugue, awakening along the Thames where he discovers the eyeless, rotting head of Orpheus. He is a little taken aback, but not altogether surprised. The two discuss lost love. "In the stories they always say I turned around to look at her too soon, but that isn't how it was: I turned away too soon, turned away before I'd ever looked long enough, before I'd ever fully perceived her." This is Orpheus speaking, but Hoban makes clear he only voices the regret in Herman's own head. Orpheus eventually drifts away but promises to complete his story; for later installments -- always comic occasions -- the head pops up as a football, cabbage, and grapefruit.
Back in his workroom Herman daydreams over his reproductions of Vermeer's Head of a Young Girl (a painting once called the Mona Lisa of the North), whom he identifies with Luise/Eurydice. During the crisis of the novel Orff must make a night journey to the Netherlands -- ie. the nether lands, or underworld -- to find the original of the Vermeer girl. In a Hague museum he finally comes to realize that his Luise is gone forever; but in her stead he is granted a vision of the Medusa. Reversing the usual effects of the Gorgon, he stares at her and is released from his petrified state. "Behind Medusa lies Eurydice unlost."
ALL THIS may sound like old-fashioned expressionist drama, a bit crazed, even a little corny. But it works. After all, Joyce's Ulysses, Eliot's Wasteland, Cocteau's Orphe'e, and Rilke's Orpheus poems -- all patterned after familiar legends -- are exciting without being Elmore Leonard thrillers. As it happens, Hoban pays homage, through pastiche or direct quotation, to all four of these accounts of spiritual desolation and recovery. When, for instance, Herman goes out searching for the Orpheus & Tower Bridge Club, the world picks up a Joycean Irish tinge:
"It was novembering hard outside; the dark air sang with the dwindle of the year, the sharpening of it to the goneness that was drawing nearer, nearer with every moment. Pinky-orange shone the electrical hibiscus street lamps; almost their light had a fragrance; the brown leaves underfoot insisted on the ghosts of dark trees standing in the place of lamps and houses; the pink-orange globes hung mingled with the swaying dark and winter branches; the winter lights and traffic, the winter walkers in the dark street all moved through the ghostly wood and went their way upon the ancient leafy track."
Very poetic, but a little of this goes a long way. So Hoban keeps varying his tone, facetiously naming a publishing company Slithe and Tovey, or enthusiastically outlining The Seeker of Nexo Vollma, a science fiction comic for the back of cereal boxes whose author is selling "first cereal rights." He satirizes movie people in Herman's encounter with Gosta Kraken, the avant-garde film maker who is part Bergman, part Cocteau, all pretention. And when he chooses, Hoban even writes a stripped down prose as efficient as any hard-boiled novelist's: "In the morning I came awake as I always do, like a man trapped in a car going over a cliff."
The obvious structure of The Medusa Frequency, apart from its extended meditations and dialogues on things amorous or eschatological, is the descent of Herman Orff into himself and his coming to terms with the loss of his beloved Luise, freeing himself to get on with his life as a writer. That kind of pattern is one every adult reader knows, and it reminds us that Hoban is, for all his myth, magic and black humor, a very serious novelist indeed. He has called himself a religious writer; and his books are less like well-crafted novels than explorations of the spirit in the face of life's crises. For instance, his early fiction -- clearly autobiographical -- portrays a father's alienation from his family (especially his son), love between an older man and a woman 20 years his junior, hospitalization, the prospect of death. The books, more than most, hint at the secret history of their author's soul.
"Often in my researches," says Herman, "I've come across old books of a specialist nature in which the author, usually a retired wing-commander, expresses in a modest foreword the hope that the little volume may be a vade mecum for the model steam engineer, coarse angler, sado-masochist or whatever. I feel that way about these pages: I hope that this little volume may be a vade mecum not so much for the specialist as for others like me -- the general struggler and straggler, the person for whom the whole sweep of consciousness is often too much."
Who among us is not such a struggler and straggler? The sound of Hoban's works is always wistful, that of a weary pilgrim like his own Pilgermann destined never to reach Jerusalem. People who like this voice -- and who find it among the most distinctive and hypnotic in fiction -- will gladly read anything that bears Hoban's name. In The Medusa Frequency, as in Riddley Walker or The Marzipan Pig, the mundane becomes magical and even ordinary reality looks "strange and flickering and haunting."
Michael Dirda is an assistant editor of Book World.