A Year in Reading: John Wray

December 10, 2008 | 5 books mentioned 3

John Wray is the author of the novels The Right Hand of Sleep and Canaan’s Tongue. The recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Whiting Award in fiction, he was recently named one of Granta magazine’s twenty best American novelists under thirty-five. His new novel, Lowboy, will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux this coming March.

coverMost of the time, when a novel is forgotten, literary justice has been served: it’s atrociously written, or its attitudes have aged badly, or it’s simply a lesser imitation of a book that made the cut. Sometimes, though, a work of originality and genius slips inexplicably through the cracks, and it’s in search of these lost treasures – ‘black pearls’, as my friend Bill, an antiquarian book dealer, calls them – that poor sods like me spend their days in second-hand bookshops, blowing dust off of sun-bleached spines and flipping doggedly through voided library paperbacks we’ve never even heard of. Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban, is a black pearl if there ever was one. Set in a post-apocalyptic England in which all but the most basic civilization has decayed, and written in a kind of radioactive pidgin that heightens both the absurdity and horror of the world it describes, the novel tells the story of the uneasy friendship between two adolescent boys – one a normal teenager, one a clairvoyant mutant – who happen, more or less by accident, on the secret of the atomic bomb. I won’t say more than that, but trust me, it’s a humdinger. In the words of Anthony Burgess, whose A Clockwork Orange is one of the only novels Riddley Walker owes a debt to: “This is what literature was meant to be – exploration without fear.”

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's three published novels, The Right Hand of Sleep, Canaan's Tongue, and Lowboy, have earned him numerous distinctions, including a Whiting Award, a KEN fiction award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the 2010 Mary Ellen Van der Heyden Prize from the American Academy in Berlin. In 2007, Granta included him on its list of best American novelists under the age of 35. In addition to writing fiction, Wray is a regular contributor to Esquire, Spin, and The New York Times Magazine.


  1. Love that quote. "Exploration without fear" is probably one of the main motivations for writing, as well.

  2. I would hardly classify Riddley Walker as a "black pearl." The book is well known. And it's a great book. But pretending as if it's been buried and forgotten since it was first published is a bit disingenous and kind of self-serving, as if you've just opened the door to an abandoned apartment and discovered Darger and his Vivian Girls. Don't assume that because you haven't heard of something that other people haven't. Sorry to sound so caustic and bitter but I recently read that little piece on you in Esquire and then I went to the library and checked out both the Right Hand of Sleep and Canaan's Tongue and I just don't get what all the hullabaloo is about. Are you friends with one of the editors at Esquire or something? Did they pick your name out of a hat? I mean, why not David Grand for example? Louse and The Disappearing Body are really good novels, just as innovative as yours. Personally, I would have chosen John D'Agata as the representative writer for the issue, but I guess not that many people have read Halls of Fame, right? Or maybe they have. Maybe I shouldn't assume that no one has read Halls of Fame. That would make me a hypocrite, right? Or maybe just weak willed. But let's say for the sake of argument that I am a hypocrite. Does that mean you shouldn't take what I'm saying seriously? Does being a hypocrite automatically disqualify my ideas from being correct? I've been thinking a lot about this lately. And by the way: your next book, Lowboy, sounds very similar to P by Andrew Conn, another faux-Joycean novel that takes place in New York City over the course of one day.

  3. This is a favorite of mine. A bold exploration of a bleak future Earth with Hoban using completely new language to tell the tale. Really one of a kind.

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