House of Leaves

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House of Leaves

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Ene 4, 2008, 4:23pm

I noticed Carlos was reading this one for the 888 challenge and it reminded me...

I've tried, unsuccessfully, to read House of Leaves twice. (Aside: yay! touchstones are working again). I love his sister's music, one of my closest friends says it's her favorite book, etc. But every time I start, it just seems too out there. I've heard it called postmodern novel-to be honest, I have no idea what that's suppose to entail. When I started reading it, it seemed like he was messing with plot flow and fonts to cover up for a lack of talent. Too harsh? So-can anyone explain to me why I should try again?

Ene 4, 2008, 5:02pm

It's actually a post-post-modern novel.
(If post modern novels mess with well established traditions reguarding characterizations and plot, this new style takes it one step further and changes physicality of the text as well.)
He's not screwing with the plot flow and fonts to hide talent, it’s actually the opposite. The fonts in the book change every time a different voice is talking and as a way to tell various notes apart. (Ooo wait ‘til you get to the part laid out like duct work where you have to keep turning and turning to read!)
The reason the footnotes, for example, are in different font is that there are 2-3 different people writing them and he doesn't always tell you who is who each time. You are supposed to figured that out on your own. It is after all, a text about a horror movie which may or may not exist edited by people who aren't psychologically stable.
As for the plot, the easiest famous literary comparison I can give is Slaughter-house Five. It also skips around with its narrative only revealing things at crucial moments. The plot for HoL is a horror/thriller plot. There are crazy twists and turns and things that you never see coming. And you really have to debrief at the end and put it back together which, I always feel is a mark of well written literature and leads to endless re-readability.

It is not a book to be taken lightly. It actuals makes you (gasp!) work at it. Most people I know who've read it have had nightmares about it. One photographer friend had to stop reading it for awhile cos spending time in her darkroom was starting to freak her out. (I was looking forward to the experience of having a book invade your psyche and sadly it didn’t happen.) It needs a close intense read and isn't a good commuter book. I think there may also be a companion book to it out now, like The Bloomsday book is to Ulysses.

Oh, and 100 years from now, when people study literature of the 21st century, they will probably start with this book.

-mistress 'rissa

PS His writing is not similar to Poe's music so if you like one you might not like the other.

Ene 4, 2008, 5:02pm

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Ene 4, 2008, 5:04pm

Postmodern with regard to novels often means not very good. Did you know the first novel to explore possibilities of postmodern writing was Cervantes's Don Quixote? Many pomo novels strive to capture the magic of the Quixote. In fact there is one pomo theory that it is possible to recreate the Quixote without actually copying it, but by picking it out of the air. Pomo can be strange stuff. Read it carefully and be prepared to suffer through some pretty insufferable dreck to find those rare flowers of post-modernism.

Ene 4, 2008, 5:44pm

>#4, "In fact there is one pomo theory that it is possible to recreate the Quixote without actually copying it, but by picking it out of the air."

Is this a "theory" or just a synopsis of the Borges story 'Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote' (which I read as a joke, but now I'm not so sure)?

You're right about the profusion of pomo dreck though. House of Leaves is on my tbr list, but when writers start messing around with fonts it doesn't bode well in my opinion.

Ene 4, 2008, 6:40pm

I tried it. Too gimmicky for me.

Ene 4, 2008, 6:51pm

Quoting Prophetandmistress: Oh, and 100 years from now, when people study literature of the 21st century, they will probably start with this book.

That's a pretty hasty statement, considering we're only 8% through the century, no?

I found HoL to have an interesting plot when you dig the plot out, and an interesting concept, but the fact still remains that half the time you are reading (at least ostensibly) an academic text. It's clever and occasionally thought-provoking, but still not the most enjoyable of reads.

I'd also like to balance out the Pomo-novel-bashers here by pointing to some of the novels I find to be masterworks of postmodernism:
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
Lolita by Vladmir Nabakov (arguably)
If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino
White Noise by Don Delillo
and, again arguably, the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges.

Ene 4, 2008, 7:00pm

#7 - I agree with your examples, except maybe Calvino. Pynchon is the handsome face of postmodernism.

Ene 4, 2008, 7:13pm

Hi, Kaeli, I'm game for defending it, even though I'm not finished with it. Honestly, I've been wanting to read this book since the first time I heard about it, but had waited so long to actually obtain it (for various reasons) that a few months ago I was convinced I was in for a complete disappointment. Luckily, my turn eventually came up on the library's hold queue.

House of Leaves is definitely postmodern, which I imagine can be a huge minus or at least a stumbling block. (I went to a small liberal arts college and became used to hearing the most asininely ill-conceived forms or art/protest/argument defended as being "post-modern.") It certainly has its antecedents, from Borges to Pynchon, and some similarities to Thomas Ligotti's short tales of horror. (Though I don't know if Ligotti is an influence or merely a case of parallel evolution.)

So far, it does have its flaws. It takes too long to get going, though it eventually becomes pretty compelling. It also has the feeling of being a little overthought or perhaps just self-satisfied with its conceits. I actually found Johnny Truant's asides annoying at first, since he seemed to be some refugee from a Palahniuk novel, but after a while I thought they fit in well. (Perhaps the idea of a Palahniuk character caught in a Ligotti universe appeals to me in some demented, metafictional way.)

I think one of its strongest points may be what some readers find most frustrating: there's a lot of distancing going on. You're reading a distorted pseudo-scholarly text about a movie about a house which has some ill-defined terror lurking within it. So, it takes some level of struggle or commitment to get through the text, which I think mirrors nicely the mutable labrynthine nature of the house itself. I certainly wouldn't recommend it as a first romp into postmodern literature.

Ene 8, 2008, 12:02pm

beschrich -- The reason I feel like it HoL has staying power, is it is one of a handful of books that have come out over the last 10-15 years that moves one step beyond post modernism. The fact that we are only 8 years into the new century is important since, when studying a period of literature, you generally start with the best example at the earliest year.
Anyway, this new genre takes the meticulous sentence construction of post modernism and distorts it as much as the plot. For instance, the pages laid out with one word apiece, giving the reader a sense of isolation in the dark, the text laid out like the duct work the characters are traveling through, the copies in the back of the letters and memorabilia from the story, and who can forget the constant interruption by the raving lunatics who are supposed to be your guiding editors through the text of our movie which may or may not actually exist.

The other reason I think it will be the first example, is it will probably be one of the last books that can physically engage its reader. It won’t translate well to an electronic reader. Can you imagine flipping back and forth with one of those reading the letters in the back? Rotating it to read the text on the page? Only Revolutions, his other book, would work even less as it needs to be read from both ends simultaneously. And let’s face it; print is becoming more and more obsolete. But, the layout of this book was only possible through advances in publishing programs, so what could lie ahead in a new electronic genre? When we give up the paper page, how will we now interact with the computer when it becomes much easier to click and link parts of the text together?

Being the first to do something has it’s own merits.

You could also just take the easy way out and say that Danielewski and his style is just another Pynchon and is going to be the exception to the rule and not the rule itself. But Pynchon is taught is college and considered Literature.

And Infinite Jest should be on your greatest of the po-mo books list.

Ene 9, 2008, 2:39pm

One word per page? Oh, my heart goes out to the wasted trees! Duct work text? raving lunatics as editors, a movie which may or may not exist? A book one can actually touch! Be still my beating heart! Flipping back and forth throughout the book just to read a letter? Rotating the book to read the text? That must be while they are sliding down the duct work. Read from both ends simultaneously? Wow, sounds like a book version of Chutes and Ladders. This PO-MO, or PO-PO-MO, or whatever it is sounds way too cerebral for me. What am I supposed to be doing while searching for the ends of sentences that are a hundred pages away from the beginning, re-orienting the book to read the page, reading front to back and back to front at the same time besides getting pissed off and throwing the book across the room? Admire the creativity? I hardly think so. Say, reading front to back and back to front at the same time, it's not an ACE double is it?

PO-PO-MO sounds like the elites playing tricks on all us old, dumb, white guys. The elites look as foolish doing this kind of stuff as they do for everything else that makes their club smarter, trendier, and private. Gosh, now if they could only write something that made me want to read it. Pynchon may be taught in colleges, but he needs to be read in colleges where all the little tricks, teasers, and so forth that pass in lieu of plot and good writing can be explained.

Educated prose for the educated is one thing, playing games with the reader in which only a few of the readers know the rules, and even fewer of them know how to play the game is an exercise in what I call mental masturbation and by it's very nature not worth my time.

Sorry. Just one dumb old white guy's opinion.

If you're looking for the FIRST of these trick books, read Sterne's Tristram Shandy. Or, with fewer tricks, but the first self referential work, read the Quixote.

Ene 9, 2008, 3:27pm

Ooooo I love Tristram Shandy!!!! Actually, there are two other, very early self referential works besides Don Quixote. Gargantua and Pantagruel and the one Sterne stole most of Shandy from, Tale of the Tub by Swift.
Plus, if you look forward to what Tristrim Shandy highly influenced, you find James Joyce's Ulysses written by one of the more famous authors for screwing with the reader.
But I digress....

The one word pages only occur at the height of tension and last for about 20 pages. Not any more loss of trees then those useless "book club guides" which are now popping up in everything.

And I'll pose you this question “old white guy”, How is physically interacting with a plot/story by having to manipulate it's physical form via the book, different from using controls to access the plot/story of a video game? Aren't both gateways to the more important story? (Keep in mind that most of us young people will prefer to do the later over the former.)

-mistress 'rissa

Editado: Ene 11, 2008, 9:29am

#10 - You bring up some pretty good points. (I actually think of it more as high-postmodernism rather than post-post-modernism, but picking a fight over semantics is not my intent here.) I heard an interview with Danielewski about the book where he stated that he was attempting to write a book that could not be adapted to other media.

Which I think makes it ironic how cinematic the book feels. (For example, the big climax where Tom falls feels less like The Haunting of Hill House and more like "The Haunting," the adaptation with Catherina Zeta Jones & Owen Wilson.) I guess, if I were to get pseudo-academic, you could argue that HoL reflects a lot of the early 21st-century anxiety over the place of the novel in contemporary culture, which certainly makes it worthy of study.

Ene 10, 2008, 11:01am

>11 geneg:-Thank you for putting into words the frustration I feel with this book that I still can't get over. I'm educated-practically a career student (I'm an academic librarian). I don't have a problem keeping several plot lines clear in my head, mainly because I regularly keep at least 3 or 4 books going at a time (makes for interesting dreams, though).
I didn't feel that the book was taxing me mentally (I'll got to Umberto Eco for that, thank you very much). It felt like I was reading an exboyfriend's journal-he was a hack poet who thought he was a genius, lived for poetry slams, and thought Fight Club was as good as movies could ever be (but refused to read the book). It feels like the author is snickering at the reader-what else can I make them do? It felt like looking at a Jackson Pollock picture. This is suppose to be genius? This is suppose to be cutting edge? No thanks. I'm afraid this one will have to be placed firmly in my "That's why libraries are so big-because people like reading different things" section.

Ene 11, 2008, 9:35am

Well, I think the thread is a good case of how subjective the reading experience can be. I definitely think some of the textual manipulations are inspired by a sense of play on the part of the author, but I never really felt as if the author was snickering at the reader. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Kaeli, I know this is off-topic, but why did you ex refuse to read Fight Club? I know the argument over Fight Club vs. its film adaptation is pretty much a thread on its own, but was he just anti-book? Or did he think the book wouldn't live up to the movie?

Ene 11, 2008, 9:58am

Carlos-he didn't read it because he was an idiot and hated the written word (one of the reasons he was a hack poet-and one of the reasons he's an ex). OK, that's probably harsh. He didn't read it because there are two big parts of the movie for him-the visuals (fights, dream sequence, etc) and the plot twist at the end. I tried to explain that the book went more into Project Mayhem, more into Cornileus's mind, and more into the philosophy of Tyler. That didn't help.

As for the sense of play-one of my favorite authors, Nick Bantock does alot of play with the reader in his books. For some reason, I think those are creative and inspired. Maybe its the inclusion of art with it? Maybe its because I already had a good feeling about Bantock before reading a bunch of his works (he did a version of The Jabberwocky, which I loved when I was younger) so I was able to appreciate him more when I started reading The Museum at Purgatory and the Gryphon and Sabine books. Maybe a better step into Danielewski's work would have made me like HoL more. Who knows.

Ene 11, 2008, 7:51pm

A poet who hated the written word? Yeah, he sounds like an idiot. I have to admit that when I finally got around to Fight Club, I was a little underwhelmed. I was a big fan of the movie and intended to read the book for ages, so when I finally did it was a bit anticlimactic. Of course, I had read Haunted in the meantime, which is probably something of a Palahniuk vaccine. So, I'd agree on the importance of how a book is approached.

As for HoL, it reminds me a lot of City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff Vandermeer. There's similar play with footnotes, Borges references, self-referentiallity, etc. Possibly because Vandermeer is writing fantasy (albeit of the non-Tolkienesque variety) he seems to take himself a lot less seriously, so CSM is a less ambitious but much more entertaining work. It also helps that it starts off with a fairly straightforward story, third-person style. It's not until the final novella in the book that things start to get really weird. I'd recommend it, though I don't know if it's possible to work backwards. Perhaps CSM will remind you too much of HoL.

If I may digress back to Palahniuk, weren't you struck by how much Johnny Truant reminded you of Victor Mancini? Absent father, insane mother, somewhat dim best friend, bounced around foster homes, irresponsible sex, too educated for his situation? (Johnny even visits Colonial Williamsburg!) Maybe I should post about it over on Books Compared.

Mar 13, 2008, 4:06pm

Admittedly, this book is not for everyone. I'm one of the people who almost never put it down until I was done. Five years after reading it, I still think about it (and long to reread it, but I just don't have the time).

The confusion that comes from reading the book has a large part to play in the story itself. The book tells the story of Johnny Truant, who is asked to clean out the apartment of a recently deceased neighbor, Zampano. He finds an academic paper by Zampano about a movie that may or may not actually exist. Johnny is clearly confused by what he is reading, and the reader becomes confused by Johnny's story. Sanity (of all the characters) is often questioned, and the fine line between sanity and insanity is explored.

Personally, I love to work to understand a book. Danielewski doesn't spell out how this game is played -- the reader has to experiment (with the text, the plot, the physical book) to find what works for them. I read a great article with him once where he said that his books are musical instruments, not records - they are meant to be played, not passively enjoyed.

The Fifty Year Sword is hard to come by, but it may be a better introduction to Danielewski's work if House of Leaves is daunting to you. Prophetandmistress, didn't you mention to me once that this was going to have a wider distribution soon?