A screen star named desire

Once famous as a kids' author, Russell Hoban now tackles the very adult theme of Internet sex
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The Independent Culture

In many ways, Russell Hoban ought to be a national treasure. Eventually, a blue plaque will surely adorn his house in Fulham. This is still rather odd for a 74-year-old American writer whose latest novel is an unflinching exploration of male sexual appetites set loose on the Internet and confronted with their real-life consequences. The narrator of Angelica's Grotto (Bloomsbury, £10), Harold Klein, has an uncannily similar biography to his author and says at one point "I'm the answer to the question, 'Who will play the Old Fool in a geriatric-sex farce?'"

In many ways, Russell Hoban ought to be a national treasure. Eventually, a blue plaque will surely adorn his house in Fulham. This is still rather odd for a 74-year-old American writer whose latest novel is an unflinching exploration of male sexual appetites set loose on the Internet and confronted with their real-life consequences. The narrator of Angelica's Grotto (Bloomsbury, £10), Harold Klein, has an uncannily similar biography to his author and says at one point "I'm the answer to the question, 'Who will play the Old Fool in a geriatric-sex farce?'"

But then Russell Hoban is self-consciously strange, as I knew without having met him. His books reveal a recklessly exploratory writer who, aged 50 and with a reputation in bud, took the suicidal gamble of writing an entire novel in a made-up dialect. That novel, Riddley Walker, about a futuristic post-nuclear Kent returned to the Iron Age, proved to be such a reputation-making success that it still overshadows Hoban's diverse achievements.

Hoban is also unusual for having revealed an extraordinary amount about himself and his home of almost 30 years in Fulham, which he has gutted as well as stuffed in the service of his art. In Angelica's Grotto, he takes London's porn underworld home and ends up killing someone in his study. I can't say I approached Fulham too nervously, though - and not only because of Klein's life-threatening ailments and cranky fixation with the signature details of Underground trains.

Klein's creator is an overtly contemporary writer, and funny in peculiarly British ways. Most of all, he's a man who lives to write. Hoban's books explore realms and experiences beyond the bounds of would-be national treasures. He's curious enough about things to go out on a limb to discover them for himself.

In Angelica's Grotto, this involved confronting graphic pornographic images and what he really felt about them. He describes it as "a dirty job - someone had to do it", adding that when he saw where the novel was going, "it scared me and so I thought it must matter."

In person, Hoban strikes me as small, relaxed and gentle; but also methodical, driven and sure of his territory. He knows that he takes risks as a writer, but couldn't help himself and wouldn't try. He describes what most writers say about their work as "bollocks" and litters his speech with sing-song homilies like "life is just a bowl of cherries, don't make it serious, it's too mysterious." He says of his own work, "I use myself... I'm a body of perception and that's where I write from. He avoids contemporary writing "as much as possible", not wanting to be "interfered with".

We talk in between continental biscuits in his study, which is exactly as described in the books - hugely messy and overstuffed, books and videos cascading from the ceiling and growing from the floor. It's encrusted with a working life and embodies his imagination: masses of figurines and animals surround a Meissen statuette, a lion mask and various incarnations of Punch. The walls have posters of King Kong on them, but most telling is the huge map of Kent that has covered the wall behind his desk for over 20 years.

We sit, nibbling in his head as it were, and Hoban describes himself as a "painstaking writer" who constantly redrafts a novel from scratch until it works. I remark that his books are strange solutions of fabular, mystic, literary, lewd, and comic elements, mixed with lament, exuberance and the everyday. He says, slowly, "well, I work at it".

In conversation, he can be quick, concise and breezy on familiar ground. But then he trawls deeply for less accessible thoughts, pausing for as long as necessary to give a truthful answer. I asked him whether he would prefer to die hungry or sated and he laughed, floundered a little and said he'd come back to it. After a while he said "I could peg out at any time. Death doesn't worry me because I've given it my best shot. I'm doing whatever is in me to do and I've done as much of it as I could up to now. And whenever I go I'll be up to date with doing what I could do. Is that hungry or sated?" There was a pause. "It's not sated!"

Angelica's Grotto is a satisfyingly unsated novel. It follows Klein's sudden loss of his inner voice, his subsequent vocalising of every thought in his head and the violence that results. He resorts to the Internet, where he types the word "sex" into a search engine and soon becomes entranced with a website called Angelica's Grotto. Soon his fantasising is made actual, but in highly unexpected ways that involve him in new sexual experiences, forcing him to confront what he wants and what that means.

Angelica's Grotto is typically funny-melancholic, but looser and more rounded than earlier novels. It displays Hoban's ability to write about the here and now at its best. Together with his searing honesty about the sexual imaginings of an old man, this is an intelligent book about contemporary life, its technologies, sexual politics and urban culture. It re-enacts the foreshortening of experience that the Internet effects but also achieves a rare degree of perspective. Hoban argues that "there is no unnatural act" for human beings and remains fascinated by the "self-revelation of humanity on the Internet".

Hoban grew up on a smallholding listening to Yiddish, Russian and English and was "a proto drop-out" before eventually becoming a successful illustrator. He came to London in 1969 as a children's writer and the city made him into an adult novelist. "London," he says, "is very juicy for me... it's my place now, the place where it happens for me."

Hoban feels closest to his second novel, Kleinzeit , "which was the first novel of mine in which I found what I'd call a Jewish, wry-humour voice. It was a lot of fun." This is the chattering internal dialogue that also appears in Pilgermann and The Medusa Frequency, the inner voice that Klein loses - and vocalises - in Angelica's Grotto.

London also ended his first marriage, but it's where he met and married Gundel. Both, he says, felt like strangers at home and so felt at home in London, where they actually were strangers. This "strangeness", he has written, "is the essential human condition". He told me that he'd always felt "affinities" with European and particularly German culture. "There's this openness to the darkness imminent in everything," he said, which is "not a bad chaos, but a warm or fruitful chaos." This, together with his remarks about satedness and his argument that "a lot of lamentation doesn't preclude having a lot of bounce also," conveys the character of his books.

So, there you have Russell Hoban: a collection of unlikely elements ranging from Rilke to Garbage's Shirley Manson. He would say that life is like that, but he is no less unusual for affirming it. It all comes together in Angelica's Grotto to produce an impressively vigorous and enjoyable novel, a bit like Kleinzeit and The Medusa Frequency folded into one. It's a challenging late novel from an unpredictable writer whose books are worth treasuring.

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