Skip to main content

The Bat Tattoo

By Russell Hoban

Bloomsbury, 238 pages, $39.95

Like Don DeLillo, Russell Hoban terrifies anyone who dares to write fiction. One-quarter, one-third of the way through yet another pitch-perfect novel taut in its own fresh idiom, we glance at the author photo. How do they do it? Please, we hope, have no partner, no children. Live in a cave and whittle your days.

I first read Russell Hoban's post-apocalyptic and highly vernacularized Riddley Walker 10 years ago and I'm still recovering from the unique voice and scavenger's ontology of this bent world of puppet shows and feral dogs (picture the love child of Flann O'Brien and William Faulkner). Now, seven novels and a book of stories later, illustrator-turned-novelist Hoban offers up The Bat Tattoo,an incisive inquiry into the constituents of love and the functions of art.

Like Hoban's 1975 Turtle Diary, The Bat Tattoo allows each of its principal characters time at the narrator's microphone, alternating chiefly between Roswell Clark, an inventor with time on his hands and skeletons in his otherwise orderly closet, and Sarah Varley, an itinerant antique dealer with an eye for well-made things and "men in need of improvement." The success of a crash-test-dummy toy allows Clark an independent life in contemporary London and eventually earns him lucrative and lewd private commissions from Adelbert Delarue, a French industrialist. Clark surpasses Delarue's hopes for a series of motorized "bonking" miniature crash test dummies and ultimately graduates from commissioned work to a private grant, money which the French patron hopes will help Clark become a recognized artist. This blind patronage, attractive to so many struggling artists, dams Clark. He may have talent, but does he have anything to say?

Admirably, The Bat Tattoo routinely locates its themes and inquiries in the quotidian. Stim- ulating ideas on free will, the limits of love and the relevance of memory come alongside toast crumbs and the literal, not figurative, detritus of infidelity. Regretting not just her now-absent husband's philandering, but him in general, Sarah Varley concludes, "But I guess life is what you wish you'd done better with." When deciding which objets to take to market, Varley concedes "it's the sort of thing that tends to fill the time available for it."

United by coincidences and common interests, Clark and Varley quickly begin to look like they might share a bed as they share the novel's narration. Here, too, The Bat Tattoo pits free will against various deterministic factors to ask whether one has unique relationships or whether one bends an initially unique person into one's expectations of a relationship? Can Varley love Clark as Clark, or only ever as the Clark in love with Varley?

Its shifting narration demands that The Bat Tattoo be a novel of sharp voices, and Hoban does not disappoint. If "pure" realism pretends to offer a transparent window on the world, The Bat Tattoo's window is made of flagrantly stained glass; we meet a world through a voice and mind. A museum statue is a "little bronze tomb guardian, something between a dog and a nightmare, who looked as if he could lick his weight in demons." In this simultaneous dose of plot and character, Hoban can give us first whole cloth and then metaphors cut from it. Description of a dream in which garish menus with unreadable print are handed to Clark and his wife quickly moves to contemplative confession and a reiterative metaphor: "I've had to move out of what was before and I don't know how to make the connection to whatever's coming next; I've no idea what's on the menu although I'd like something better than what I've had on my plate since [undisclosable plot event]"

While these shifting first-person narrations are pitch perfect, the dialogue isn't always so. Roddy Doyle, who probably writes the best dialogue you can find, is always quick to point out that fictional dialogue is never quite completely realistic. When transcribed, actual human dialogue alternates between the achingly repetitive and the opaquely elliptical (doubters should take a tape recorder to the supermarket). Fictional dialogue travels very close to reality, but always veers off at the last minute. Hoban occasionally turns away too soon. Varley overhears a couple terminating their pre-opera coffee: "Let's go so there's time for the loo before we take out seats." Stop, please, at "the loo" (what else are they going to take, trapeze bars?). This same cheat on the ear, though, allows Hoban his periodic aphorisms: "Life is a process of one goneness after another."

The multiple, first-person narrators throw not only voice but character itself into sharp relief, and here The Bat Tattoo is slightly imbalanced. Clark and Varley both endure a romantic loss that concludes in the same (undisclosable) result, yet the cause of each loss is different. Clark's causes are clearly the more haunting, and that affords his back story more development. His character is palpably sharper than Varley's, and she passes from the admirably honest to the repetitive in her confessed love for men who "emit failure pheromones" and who need her improving.

Russell Hoban's is a unique talent that fuses thought and voice. His worlds are varied, fully formed, engaging and always a little creepy. Go get a bat tattoo. Stories from Darryl Whetter's soon-to-be-released A Sharp Tooth in the Fur have been nominated for a National Magazine Award and are in international anthologies. He teaches creative writing at the University of Windsor.

Interact with The Globe