Saturday, October 31, 2009

House of Leaves

by Mark Z. Danielewski

I first read this when it first came out in 2000, or maybe shortly before. At the time I was working at Barnes & Noble and the buzz on this was intense. My reaction then was that it was a great scary story imbedded in too much gimmick, the author needed to get over himself and the editors needed to focus on the story of the house. But over the years this story has stuck with me long after I have forgotten most of the other books that I read. And the house in this story is the scary house by which I measure all scary houses and so far they all come up short. So for Carl V’s RIP IV I wanted to reread this book and see what my reaction would be, especially since in the past nine years my appreciation for books with labels like postmodern, meta fiction and experimental has grown. So my question to myself was this: Is this still the scariest house I have ever encountered and if so does it work in spite of the unique format used or because of it?

At the heart of this story is a house. It is your ordinary suburban house but then a hallway appears where none was the day before. The house is measured and the interior dimensions are greater than the exterior. Then another hallway appears that leads to a labyrinth of hallways and rooms and a spiral stairway that leads down for miles. The walls of the labyrinth are featureless, the temperature is steady and there is no movement of air. Any article left in the labyrinth will gradually just disintegrate and disappear - including dead bodies. And it is not just the immensity of the labyrinth which is somehow inside a suburban house that is terrifying but its lay out changes continually. One minute you can see the bottom of the spiral staircase the next it takes seven days to walk down it. You walk into a room and a moment later the door you just entered is gone. Yes - this is still by far the scariest house ever. But if you just put the parts of this book about what happened in the house together you would only have a short story and House of Leaves is 709 pages which includes extensive footnotes, exhibits and appendices.

The introduction to the book is written by a character named Johnny Truant who claims that he rescued what will be presented from the trunk of a deceased recluse named Zampano. Zampano’s work, which Johnny reconstructs, is an academic scholarly examination of the allegedly famous documentary film, the Navidson Record. The documentary was allegedly made by a famous award winning photo journalist, Will Navidson, about his house on Ash Tree Lane into which he recently moved with his wife Karen, a former high fashion model, and their two children to reconnect as a family. As the house starts changing Will Navidson, his brother, a friend and a professional explorer and his team try to explore the labyrinth with disastrous results. It is only through this scholarly examination of the documentary film that the story of the house is revealed. Zampano’s work is not only written in a dry academic style with exhaustive footnotes and citations to authorities but does not focus on the plot of the Navidson Record or what is happening with the house but assumes that you are familiar with the plot. I often found myself wanting to skip ahead to find out what was happening with the explorers instead of wading through lengthy dissertations on architecture, the meaning of home or the nature of labyrinths. Not only is it written in an academic style but as the explorers are in the labyrinth the very text changes so that parts of the text are written upside down, sideways, backwards. The footnotes become even more difficult to follow as the footnotes have footnotes with footnotes and I know that some I simply could not find. This style really makes the reader feel the frustration of being inside of a labyrinth. And then the text shifts from being very dense and chaotic to only having a few words on an otherwise blank page. This is not your typical straightforward narrative.

Included in the footnotes are notes from Johnny Truant. Some of the foot notes comment on Zampano’s text, for example explaining that he has been unable to confirm the existence of the Navidson Record documentary, the existence of any of the people from the documentary such as Will Navidson, or the existence of the house. The bulk of the footnotes by Johnny however deal with Johnny’s life. As Johnny’s story is laid out in the footnotes we see him slowly descend into madness as he becomes obsessed with the text found in Zampano’s trunk and loses contact with the outside world. The appendices to the book include numerous letters from Johnny’s mother from a psychiatric ward further rounding out his story.

Reading House of Leaves reminded me of the August article in the Wall Street Journal by Lev Grossman entitled “Good Books Don’t Have to be Hard” which caused such a stir. See Mumpsimus or Conversational Reading. Mr. Grossman explains:
The Modernists introduced us to the idea that reading could be work, and not common labor but the work of an intellectual elite, a highly trained coterie of professional aesthetic interpreters. The motto of Ezra Pound's "Little Review," which published the first chapters of Joyce's "Ulysses," was "Making no compromise with the public taste." Imagine what it felt like the first time somebody opened up "The Waste Land" and saw that it came with footnotes. Amateur hour was over.
And House of Leaves takes the difficulty of the Waste Land to the next level. Does the difficulty of reading this text simply feed our ego so we can read a straight-out horror story of a creepy house while feeling superior to the “amateur[s]” or does the difficult text add to the experience? I think when I first read this book I wanted to just read it for the plot (which is a great one) but this time around I enjoyed the journey as much as the plot. And for the record I don’t usually like poetry but I love the Waste Land and have not yet been able to get through Ulysses.

House of Leaves is not the type of book you can read quickly but if you take the time I found it very rewarding. One of the things I loved about this book is its homage to Jorge Luis Borges, one of my favorite authors. Of course the labyrinth of the house as well as the lengthy discussion of labyrinths, and fiction portrayed as criticism made me think of Borges but the author even includes one of Borges characters. In the chapter about the significance of echos the footnote discusses the echo of Don Quixote by Pierre Menard, a character from Borges wonderful story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”. In that piece Borges reviews the work of fictional Pierre Menard who through total identification with Cervantes wrote Don Quixote (which is word for word identical to the original) in a manner that was more subtle and infinitely richer than the original. Zampono comments that Menard’s “nuances are so fine as to be nearly undetectable, though ... haunted ... by sorrow, accusation and sarcasm.” p. 42. Johnny Truant in a footnote to that foot note comments “Exactly. How the fuck do you write about exquisite variation when both passages are exactly the same?” I really enjoyed the interplay of Zampano’s serious scholarly work with Johnny’s honest gut reaction. I thought this was a very interesting way for the author (Danielewski) to make his commentary on literary criticism in a fun way.

I also thought that the format of House of Leaves (a story about a guy who finds a manuscript about a documentary about the exploration of scary house) works really well in exploring the distances between the characters. The most terrifying aspect of the house was the fact that the labyrinth was of infinite and changing distance. In one particularly horrifying scene Navidson is at the bottom of the spiral stair case when it moves so that he no longer is within sight of his friends at the top but is trapped at the bottom of the stairway many many miles away from anyone and his situation goes from being almost home to being without hope in a second. Most of the characters are struggling with distances in their relationships and interactions with others as well. The Navidson family specifically move to the house to try and reconnect and eliminate the distances that have been growing between them. Johnny Truant, struggles through out his life trying to make some type of connection with anyone, first his mother, then through numerous one night stands and ultimately ends up totally isolated, alone with Zampano’s manuscript. And the format of the book also places a great distance between the reader and the characters and main plot making you feel the frustration of that distance which I thought worked well.

Just like the Waste Land you could spend years examining the text and indeed, many articles, blogs and websites have done just that. The answer to my question is that I enjoyed the format and difficult text of the book and while it is still the scariest house I have ever encountered it is also a rewarding reading experience. Read it for the plot itself or read it more closely but in any case I highly recommend it.

The Thirteenth Tale

by Diane Setterfield

Vida Winter, a dying famous reclusive writer hires Margaret Lee, a young girl who works in her father’s bookshop, to write her biography. Margaret goes to stay with the ill Vida Winter at her estate and gradually Vida Winter tells her tale. I was excited to read it especially since it got such rave reviews during RIP III, in blog land and in traditional reviews. As is typical in sprawling family sagas the tale is about family, love, lies, deceits and betrayals. Although this is not the type of story that I usually read, I was caught up in the tale that Vida slowly reveals and the characters were interesting. This is a very atmospheric tale in the style of Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre and I especially liked Angelfield, Vida’s childhood home.

***Spoiler Alert*** The only negative I have to say about this book is that Amazon and other sources refer to it as a ghost story so I kept looking for an actual ghost. Yes, Vida and others were haunted by their pasts, obsessed with departed loved ones and Margaret talks to and sees her deceased twin in mirrors but I didn’t take any of those instances to be more than usual human grief and longing and did not involve an actual supernatural ghost. I also saw the “twist” coming early on but I still enjoyed the story.

Over all it didn’t live up to the hype and I am not going to rush out and buy her next book but I have recommended this book to a couple of people who I think will enjoy it. For me I am much more excited about House of Leaves that I just finished and tackling Bolano’s 2666 which just arrived from Barnes & Nobles.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

For this Short Story Sunday I read Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M.R. James which I absolutely loved.

Montague Rhodes James (1862- 1936) was a medieval scholar at Cambridge and Eaton who also delighted in writing ghost stories which he then liked to read out loud to his friends during the holidays. This is his first collection of ghost stories originally published in 1904. He is one of my favorite ghost story authors and his stories tell tales of scholars or gentlemen, often upon discovering an ancient manuscript or relic, who let their curiosity get them into much more than they bargain for. While dripping in gothic atmosphere M.R. James does not shy away from horror. “Malevolence and terror, the glare of evil faces, 'the stony grin of unearthly malice', pursuing forms in darkness, and 'long-drawn, distant screams', are all in place, and so is a modicum of blood, shed with deliberation and carefully husbanded.” M. R. James. "Some Remarks on Ghost Stories". The Bookman, December 1929. These are perfect stories to curl up with on a dark and stormy night. This book contains eight stories.

Cannon Alberic’s Scrap-book tells the story of scholar who buys an ancient manuscript and wishes he hadn’t. Lost Hearts is about an orphan who goes to live with a distant cousin and finds that he is not the first child to be taken in and then mysteriously disappear. The Mezzotint is one of his classic tales of a gentlemen scholar who excitedly purchases a Mezzotint that strangely changes before his eyes. The Ash Tree is one of my favorites about the revenge of a witch burned at the stake and scarey spiders. Many of his tales can provide you with invaluable lessons to follow in your life. Number 13 teaches you when staying in a hotel to not even take a room that could have been near unlucky room number 13, even if it does not exist. Count Magus is also one of my favorites about the dangers of hanging out in mausoleums and talking to the inhabitants. Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad convinced me that if I ever dig up a whistle from an ancient archaeological site I will just put it back. And finally, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas is very clear that if you ever come upon a well with stairs leading down into it, no matter what wonderful things you think you might find down there, don’t go.

I cannot wait to read his next collection, More Ghost Stories. I down loaded Ghost Stories of an Antiquarian for free from but you can also read it online or down load it from Project Gutenberg. Moreover I think many of the individual stories are also on line. I am also curious to read some of Sheridan Le Fanu ghost stories as I understand that M.R. James admired them. If you like ghost stories at all M.R. James is not to be missed.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

In case there is anyone out there who has not heard of this book, Seth Grahame-Smith has taken the original text of the classic Pride and Prejudice, which is in the public domain, and added his own sections into the story involving England’s plague of zombies, martial arts training in the orient for all well breed English ladies and armies of ninjas. Is this a gimmick? Absolutely, but I still greatly enjoyed this fun zombie romp. I certainly have read Pride and Prejudice and encountered some of the movies but I am not a rabid Austin fan. There will certainly be those that find taking such liberties with a classic to be appalling. I for one think imitation or parody is the highest form of flattery. To have both Darcy and Elizabeth skilled killers added an extra depth to their relationship that was missing from the original. This is not a work of great literature and while Pride and Prejudice will likely still be read a 100 years from now, this most likely will not. Nevertheless, literature does not need to be taken so seriously all the time and I enjoy a purely entertaining read now and then. I read this in one day while sitting on airplanes and in airports and it was the perfect read to keep me entertained and chuckling the whole day. I think that you will likely find it more amusing if you are a little familiar with Pride and Prejudice, but it would be interesting to hear someone’s take on it who had not read the original before hand. Those readers that are intimately familiar with the original text seem to be the ones most likely to dislike the book.

I read this for the RIP IV challenge and it has been quite popular with other participants as well. Here are some of their reviews:

Fuzzy Cricket
Book Rat
Biblio Addict
The Little Bookworm

Egalia's Daughters

by Gerd Brantenberg

This was a book that I read for my book club. This feminist novel was originally published in 1977 in Norway and I must say that I found it a little dated and disappointing. I had high hopes for this novel in which the tables are turned and it is a woman’s world. Women hold the power, have careers and provide for their families while the men (or housebounds) stay at home and take care of the children. I thought it would be interesting to explore a society where the women were in control and was disappointed that the author simply flipped the roles of the sexes instead of really thinking about how a society run by women might be different. Of course by the time I got further into the book I understood that the author’s goal was to throw the spot light on our society, not theorize about a true women’s society. The men wear dresses, bows in their beards and fancy decorated “pehos” on their penises which stick through the skirts and hold the penis out straight. Every word with “man” in it has been changed to ‘wim” or “wom” for example seaman is seawim etc. The plot line is pretty thin and none of the characters are particularly engaging but then again, entertainment is not the point of this book. All in all I got the point early on and felt like I was being hit over the head with the authors point. Moreover, 32 years later, our society has changed immensely. Virtually all of the women in my book group are career women and while we can try and imagine what it was like for women in 1977, the issues presented didn’t really resonate with us. Interesting from a historical perspective but not great literature although it did engender a lively and interesting discussion.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Turn of the Screw

by Henry James

I like Henry James and since this is a classic ghost story, I am surprised to say that I had never read it so I thought it would be a perfect selection for RIP IV. It is the story of a governess hired to care for a young boy and girl at their uncle’s country estate. At first everything is going well and she finds the children charming but then she starts seeing a man and a women about the estate that cannot be accounted for. I don’t want to give the plot away but I was surprised by the ending and found myself wondering if this account, allegedly written by the governess, was “true”, whether she was leading us on with her version of the events, or whether she believed the events to be true but they were really all in her head. After I read the novella I read a little bit about this story on the internet and apparently there is quite a bit of scholarly debate “over the reality of the ghosts and the sanity of the governess.” In any case it was a fun novella which has been turned into both a ballet and opera as well as tv and big screen adaptions. You can read it for yourself on line or download it from Project Gutenberg or Feedbooks.