Book Review: House of Leaves

Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves is a work that defies explanation. It’s honestly difficult to even call this thing a “novel” in any literal sense. It elicits feeling and emotion so well, and its author’s word choice and usage are so perfect, that it often feels more like poetry. There is even a section in one of the appendices dedicated to poems written by one of the characters. And Danielewski plays around with color and text layout enough to qualify as artwork – not to mention the fact that the appendices also have things like collages and comic strips to supplement the main text. There is so much going on in MZD’s work that I tend to qualify the term “novel” with “experimental” whenever I recommend it to one of my friends, and then kind of grimace when they look at me like I’m some beret-wearing hipster. And if it’s this difficult to even pin down what the thing is, it’s going to be infinitely more difficult to review it.

the narrative lines

Let’s start with the narrative. While the book was written by Danielewski, it is meant to be read in a meta-fiction-ish sort of way. The final product, the reader is to believe, is a compilation by “the Editors” of various fragments written by one “Johnny Truant” – a wayward tattoo artist struggling with his life. However, many of these fragments were themselves compiled by Johnny after their original author (an old man named Zampanó) died. I will call these latter fragments Z-fragments, and the others J-fragments to designate the respective “authors.”

The Z-fragments tell the fictional (within the world of the novel) story of a photographer who moves into a new house only to discover that the house is slightly bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. The rest of the narrative in these fragments consists of this man becoming obsessed with the mathematical impossibility of his new home. To explore this impossibility he sets up cameras around his house and makes a documentary called “The Navidson Record,” and the narrative is told as a kind of academic examination of this documentary. Thus, the Z-fragments compose a long essay written by Zampanó about a documentary that doesn’t even really exist in the world of the novel. Sound confusing? It’s really not that difficult to grasp when you read it, but Danielewski’s intertwining of narratives is not yet finished.

The second set of fragments – the J-fragments – is written by Johnny Truant and tells the story of his coming across the Z-fragments and trying to compile them. Haunting and sort of surreal, these notes of Truant’s show his descent into madness as he tries to understand why an old blind man would spend his life as a recluse just to write an academic paper on a video which doesn’t exist. I don’t want to give too much away here, but basically the bulk of the text is comprised of the Z-fragments, with Truant adding his footnotes here and there.

On top of all this, there are appendices that have been added by  “the Editors” that are supposed to tell you more about the characters in the novel. So there are about three narrative lines going on at any one time.

the themes and the style

I’m trying to keep this review as short as possible, so bear with me as I talk about a scant few of the major themes of this novel. I’ll just hit the ones that seem to me to be the big ones. Perhaps the two major themes are mental illness and fear of the unknown. And to get these two across to the reader, Danielewski structures the novel in such a way that the actual layout of the text makes you feel isolated and confused. But this is not to say that the layout is bad. I was never really confused about the story itself while I was reading it. Rather, you can basically see the narrative dissolving and becoming difficult to navigate as Johnny Truant himself falls apart.

Other themes that Danielewski plays with include academia, fiction itself, movies and entertainment, addiction, depression, sexuality, and family life. I think the best way to sum up this work and its themes is to say that it is one of the few books I’ve read that made me feel it was about the proverbial “human condition.” It’s complicated and it’s convoluted, but so is reality. Part of the art of this thing – and why I hold this novel in such high regard – is that it is crafted so that the weirdness of it works. When the narrative is supposed to be about a labyrinth, the text itself is designed to make you flip back and forth between pages and even turn the book around on its side. Thus, the author meshes content and form into one thing, and achieves art.

the author

I am by no means an expert on all things Danielewski, but I have done some research on the man. And by research I mean I looked at his Wikipedia page. His sister is a musician, and she has written a song or two about the narrative of House of Leaves. Let me just say that this kind of interdisciplinary, cross-genre collaboration is, to me, beautiful and cool. One of the proponents of experimental fiction, Danielewski’s oeuvre is the very definition of avant-garde.

I’ve tried to read Danielewski’s other book (Only Revolutions), and I can’t say that my love of House of Leaves  was transmitted. I think one of the main things I like about House of Leaves is that it is artsy and experimental and weird and confusing – but there is still a story there. Danielewski’s other novel seems to go too far into the fragmented reality of postmodernism to really be able to tell you a story, and therefore seems like an art exercise more than a novel. So I’m not sure if I would recommend him as an author so much as I would simply recommend House of Leaves.

the verdict

Ultimately, I think House of Leaves achieves something that few other works have done before: it captures the philosophy of an era, it blends content with form, and it accurately depicts some of our worst fears as humans. While some have derided it for being too overdone, it still manages to tell an invigorating story and keep the reader’s attention. It did for me, and I hope it does for you in the event that you decide to read it. It isn’t an easy read, but it is incredibly rewarding.

OVERALL SCORE: 8/10

Nonfiction Project Snippet

So, I’ve been sort of halfheartedly starting a nonfiction project about the evolution of my religious beliefs – how I became a Christian, how my theology changed, struggles I’ve had along the way, etc. This will probably not be finished or published in a long time, since I’m working on a deadline for my first novella right now (as well as trying to start an online arts magazine). However, I thought I’d post the first section of it here for you all to check out. Bear in mind that this section is not a happy one, and in fact is very tragic and saddening. So read at your own risk!
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When my wife was getting her master’s degree in Speech Language Pathology, part of her work was to observe clients in a clinic. People would come into the clinic from all ages and races; people who stuttered and lisped, children who were late developing critical speech skills, or children with debilitating physical or social disorders who needed extra help in communicating. But the most harrowing and terrifying and anger-inducing story that I ever heard was about the parents of one of my wife’s clients, one of whom was a nurse at a local care center.

These people had a baby, and for a while everything seemed great. The boy was developing wonderfully, and he was understandably the light of his parent’s eyes. Then, out of nowhere, the baby started having what are called Infant Seizures. He was four months old. Imagine the horror of this for a moment. I think the phrase “a parent’s worst nightmare” is thrown around way too much in our society. It’s used for things like your daughter showing up with a boy whose moral code is slightly less than that of Jesus. But imagine for a moment that you wake up one night to find your baby having a seizure. Imagine realizing, after all these months of everything seemingly going according to plan, that your child is having seizures. That something is going terribly and utterly wrong in his brain. That there is literally nothing in your power that can be done to correct this. And that perhaps this has been going on unnoticed for quite some time. This is your child, your life. A being for whom you are completely responsible. And yet there is nothing you can do. Now imagine that you have the sufficient medical knowledge to know all the possibilities of what could be causing the problem – and all the possibilities of skills and developments and important personality characteristics that could be lost, that could be getting destroyed from these seizures. How would you feel? What would you do?

The parents took the child to doctors and tried all sorts of cures and therapies until they were left with only one. The seizures had been isolated in one half of their son’s brain, and so the only option left to these people was something almost so unspeakable that it is physically difficult to type it out here: the doctors suggested the highly dangerous treatment of removing that half of their son’s brain where the seizure were occurring. Would this cause damage? Yes. But it would likely cure the seizures and prevent the other half of their son’s brain from being damaged.  When I say this must have been a difficult decision, the words seem paltry and ridiculous, since for most of us a “difficult decision” is which college to attend, or which movie to watch on the weekend. This is a decision about removing another human being’s brain, and is thus tied up with all kinds of other decisions like “what do we do if this puts him in a vegetative state?” or “how do we manage to live with ourselves if the procedure kills him?” But the parents decided in favor of the medical advice and the probabilities – like I think any parent would after exhausting literally everything else.  And the boy survived the surgery and came out just fine, minus half a brain.

The real tragedy here is not the difficulty of the decision, or even the removal of half of the kid’s brain. The real tragedy is that afterwards, the seizures came back. Only now the parents had no options left, their son had been hemispherectomized with their consent, and he was still experiencing seizures. Try to imagine your life like this. I do not want to do any disservice to the parents – who I am sure do not want our pity. They are, I am sure, wonderful people. They sure as hell proved that they are sacrificial and tough-decision-makers. And, for me at least, they sure as hell proved that they are good parents. They had to sleep with their child every night and hold him when he had his nightly seizures so that he wouldn’t hurt himself or swallow his tongue, or any other number of terrible things that he could do to himself while seizing. Imagine this. Not getting to sleep in the same bed as your spouse. Imagine trying to speak soothing words to your child as he goes through a seizure, all the while feeling so angry and depressed and guilty inside. Yes, guilty. Imagine the guilt. I’m not vilifying the parents in any way. Nor am I suggesting that their decision was the wrong one. What I am saying is that the situation itself provides no way to not feel guilty: I would have felt guilty having my son’s brain removed, and I would have felt guilty not having my son’s brain removed and letting the seizures go on unchecked. But now, through no fault of their own, the parents have to live with ordering a hemispherectomy on their child to no avail. It is literally the worst of both sides. And so yes, I think there would be guilt there, regardless of whether or not it was deserved.

My wife told me this story shortly before my own son was born. I think it was the first time I ever seriously doubted the existence of God.

Book Review- Hunger Games Trilogy

THE ODDS WERE EVER IN ITS FAVOR

I’ll start this review by listing the things that irked me about the Hunger Games trilogy. As a first-person narrative with a strong female protagonist, complete with the obligatory love triangle, the books were always going to appeal to that certain group of pubescent girls known as the “teeny-boppers.” One could say that it rode on the coattails of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga, but that’s not quite accurate. As someone who has actually read the Twilight books (though I have not seen the movies), I can say with confidence that the writing is much the same in the Hunger Games. The only real difference, and the big redeeming quality of this trilogy, is that the story itself is much more interesting and Suzanne Collins at least attempts to give us some of the underpinnings of her world. But let’s be honest: comparing these books to Twilight is the obvious thing to do, given that anything nowadays that is a hit with the youth is going to be measured against Twilight. So I’ll move on to specific grievances.

Perhaps the worst part of the Hunger Games is the love triangle. It’s a tired old cliché; it’s an example of an author “copping out” when she can’t think of any other way to introduce some more drama into the story; it’s a ploy to get young teenage girls hooked onto the plot and sell merchandise (Team Jacob/ Team Edward shirts, e.g.); and it’s unnecessary. Without wanting to risk spoilers, I’ll just say that Katniss’ being torn between Peeta and Gale never, ever, seems more than a contrived gimmick on the author’s part (side note: what kind of name is “Peeta,” anyway? I kept thinking about bread… which, given that his father is a baker, all of a sudden makes more sense). I never once felt the “love,” if we want to call it that, between Katniss and either of her suitors – regardless of her frequent inner monologues about the differences in the way their kisses felt. Which leads me to the next, bigger problem with Collins’ writing:

The author tells instead of showing. This is rule number one of writing. You have to pull the reader along, show them the details, and let them work out the story for themselves. Instead of really putting us in the moment with Katniss in such a way as to convey the mood Collins wants her to have, the author simply has Katniss say something along the lines of “man, I sure do miss my family. Like, a lot.” I’m not saying she does this all the time, but she does tend to just state things that would have a much better effect is she simply showed them. Relatedly, the world itself is not too deeply described. If you read the last review on Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, you know that giving details can go too far. It’s a fine line between giving too few details and not letting the reader develop his or her own picture of the world. But for me Collins fails to set up her world in such a way that displays its grandeur (or poverty, in the case of the districts).  She is more interested in describing fashion and Katniss’ feelings than she is in building the world. Which, let’s be fair, is okay. Not every novel has to be about world-building, and the way that Collins used fashion to signify rebellion was rather unique. I just thought the story could have used more details about the cities and districts and arenas. Especially when you’re coming off reading George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series (which review is coming in the next month or so, when I can finish reading books 4 and 5).

Okay: last negative thing. Or, I guess, semi-negative thing. One of the recurring phrases that I have heard used by numerous people to describe the Hunger Games is: “1984 for kids.” I don’t know that that’s a totally accurate representation of what the Hunger Games is trying to do, but I will admit that the comparison has merit. Essentially, these people are complaining that the story is like the totalitarian world of Orwell’s masterpiece – except oversimplified and dumbed down. And that’s sort of true. You know what, heck with that. It is true. It is difficult to really understand the full chronology and political motivations that led to such a ruthless practice as the Hunger Games themselves. And it seems odd that some kids and poor, malnourished district-dwellers can contend with a government that is supposed to have total control. I mean, the government struggles with maintaining its power over the airwaves at a certain point in the trilogy. It doesn’t seem like the type of government that could get away with putting the Hunger Games on for such a long time without rebellions sprouting up every few years. And besides that, the way that the children are humanized and treated well before they have to go into the games decreases the story’s believability. In real-life dystopian nightmares, the bad guys dehumanize the victims in order to escape their own consciences. So there are lots of things about the novels that seem too simple and that lack the convolution of reality. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter that the book is a “kid’s version” of anything. It’s a Young Adult book, after all. We shouldn’t be surprised that it doesn’t have the complexity of a novel intended for a more mature audience.

THE BOOKS THAT WERE ON FIRE

Despite all the negativity of the above paragraphs, there are some positive notes to take away from this trilogy. Most notably, Collins is very adept at writing a page turner. Her style makes the reader say “You know what, just one more page.” And so while Collins is not a stellar writer, she is an exciting one – which is an important quality to have when you write books like these. If you doubt her ability to excite people and keep them coming back for more, just look at all the hype the books and corresponding movies have generated. People are eating up her story, and it’s spreading like wildfire.

Another really important point to consider about these books is that the concept behind them is genuinely interesting. I remember speaking with my friend Hugh Howey one time about the ways in which the literary community frowns upon genre fiction, and his response was that the writing in a lot of genre books may not be up to the same standard as more critically acclaimed novels – but they sell more. His point: people like these stories. They are interested in them. Speaking of another writer we both know, Hugh made the comment that “his writing is brilliant, but I don’t care about his stories.” And this is where Collins succeeds. The premise is captivating, and it has a lot of promise. I don’t think she ever fully delivers on that promise, but nevertheless I was intrigued. And that’s worth something.

A third positive is that Collins uses the book to discuss things like a)violence and its effect on the innocence of children, b) government and human depravity, c) class warfare, etc. Apparently these are themes about which she has written in other novels of hers, so there is a sort of intimacy with these issues that is present in the book. You get the sense that, while she may not get into too much detail and she may not discuss all the philosophy behind wars and morality, Collins has thought about these things a lot. Which makes for a deeper story than just an adventure-ish romance like the Twilight books.

Finally, and perhaps most applicably, the Hunger Games books are an easy, enjoyable read. I tend to read long thousand-page works, and getting away from those to something I could read in a day or so was pretty relaxing. The writing is at a level where you definitely won’t have to break out a thesaurus every other page. If I had to give it a name (and I hope this can be said with as little pretentiousness and malice as possible) I’d say this series is “popcorn entertainment.” It’s fun if you just want to have a quick read.

In the final analysis, though, I have to say that Collins’ writing left much to be desired. I’m sure I won’t be able to hear the end of this from all of you THG fans out there, but in all honesty I thought the hype was much bigger than the books were worth.

OVERALL SCORE: 6/10

Progress

My first novella is roughly 10,000 words in! I’ve sent what I have so far to my primary proofreader, and will be getting feedback in a little while. Until then, my goal is to write another 10,000 words and then begin cutting it down to size. I’d prefer a novella between 15,000 and 18,000 words – at least for this first one in the series. I am setting the pretty do-able release date of December 31st of this year. If it is finished before then, I’ll let you know.

In other news, the Sead Magazine project is still being sorted out. Hopefully these next few months will see us file the official paperwork, buy domain names, set up the website, and begin accepting submissions!

Also, next Wednesday’s book review will be on the Hunger Games trilogy (an all-in-one book review? Yes, indeed).

And finally, another one of my projects is going to be writing poetry on a more consistent basis. Tell your friends and fellow poetry lovers!

Getting Old / Projects in the Works

Man, today is unbelievable. In one week and two days, Asher will be one year old! I now understand what my own parents used to say about time going by so quickly. On one hand, it does feel like a year has gone by – since there has been so much change and we’ve been so busy. But on the other, it seems like he was just born. Also, I will be 23 in a few months. I’m getting old. Not sure how to feel about it.

In other news, I currently have a few projects that I’m working on. An online arts magazine, the first in a series of fantasy/YA novellas, and that tricky novel I posted about a while back. Also, I will be posting a book review up here on this blog at least once a week! Hopefully these projects will be able to progress a lot in the next few months. I’ll keep you posted.

Book Review: Reamde by Neal Stephenson

This review was a tough one to write, and not just because it is my first. Let me start by saying that I have read other works by Neal Stephenson and experienced a whole range of feelings about him as a writer. My first experience with a Stephenson novel was his Cryptonomicon, which is a sprawling thousand-page opus that nevertheless succeeds at being a page-turner. I loved it – so much so that I eagerly sought to get my hands on other books of his. The next one I read turned out to be his latest at the time: a modern masterpiece of speculative fiction entitled Anathem. Now, I freely admit that I have yet to read Stephenson’s highly acclaimed Snow Crash, but to me Anathem was a virtuoso display of an artist at the peak of his world-building skills. True, some people disliked the multipage explanations of strange architecture, or the complexly described religious traditions and cultures. And I admit that sometimes Stephenson does take a long time to “get to the point.” But as I read Anathem I felt like I was coming to know a master. I decided then and there that Neal Stephenson had to be near the top of my list of favorite authors. He would never topple David Foster Wallace from the latter’s perch at the apex, but he would enjoy a comfortable spot in the top five.

Then I made a mistake: I read his novel Quicksilver, which probably could be better described as the first third of his Baroque Cycle. The book started off well enough. I enjoyed the characters, the plot seemed interesting, and the topics seemed substantially Stephensonian and were discussed intellectually and exhaustively. But somewhere along the way I became more apathetic, and then downright upset. It was here that I understood what people meant by calling Stephenson “long-winded.”  He took pages and pages to talk about theories of money before getting to any plot devices whatsoever, and the characters that I had first enjoyed seemed to develop at a snail’s pace. I began to see the problem other people had with Neal Stephenson’s brand of fiction: his novels could be more essay-like, more dissertations about philosophical and socio-economic problems, than stories.

But this review is about Stephenson’s newest work: Reamde. The book’s jacket explains that it is about a kidnapped woman whose uncle is the founder of a MMORPG á la World of Warcraft. It also promises a chase that reaches across continents and cultures, includes gunfire and techno-gadgetry, and has radical Islamic terrorists as key players. These things are all true, but I found my interest in the story waning within the first two hundred pages. For those of you unfamiliar with Neal Stephenson, this might seem like a long time. However, Stephenson rarely writes anything below eight hundred pages, and Reamde itself has over 1,000 – so in reality the author was losing me within the very first fifth of his book. Sure, the structure and intricacies of T’Rain (the aforementioned MMORPG) were interesting, and as ever Stephenson showed a knack for getting characters out of scrapes in new and exciting ways that I was unable to predict. But ultimately I had to admit to myself that I simply didn’t love the book. Don’t get me wrong: I liked it well enough. But powering through a thousand-page work that you just kind of like breeds its own form of discontent. If you are going to write such a long novel, you need to capture your readers immediately and hold them throughout – much the way that Stephenson had done to me with Anathem.

So after finishing the book I tried to write the review in my head. What was it exactly that made me not love it? A compendium of grievances came to mind. Stephenson tries to world-build the same way he did in Anathem, but the main difference is that the world of Anathem is utterly foreign and is thus ripe for building in interesting ways. The world of Reamde is our world, and therefore trying to “build” it in the same way simply seems boring. Describing the plants on a different planet is necessary and can be really cool. Describing the different breeds of trees on the border between the US and Canada, however, makes me yawn. The plot itself seems a little too familiar for Stephenson’s style as well. As a young twenty-something, I already know about online role-playing games. As someone who lived both pre- and post-9/11, I know about radical Islam. As someone who has watched a television show in the past fifty years, I know about kidnappings and chase sequences. That isn’t to say that stories involving these elements can’t be fun, or even that they can’t be “new.” But certainly Stephenson’s brand of hyper-detailed intellectualism doesn’t easily lend itself to such familiarity, such modernity. If I can imagine it well enough, I don’t need so many details.

For me, though, the most damning parts of Stephenson’s novel were the characters. In Cryptonomicon, chapter-ish sections of the book were divided between characters and their points of view. This is the way that Stephenson approached Reamde as well. It worked in Cryptonomicon because the characters were all so different – both in their personalities and in their “quirks.” In Reamde, however, the characters seem to be almost all cut from the same mold – they only differ by their names and histories (upon which Stephenson elaborates ad nauseam). Take Zula: a quick-thinking, levelheaded, good-hearted, improvisational Eritrean orphan. Or Richard: a quick-thinking, levelheaded, good-hearted, improvisational American entrepreneur. Or Sokolov: a quick-thinking, levelheaded, good-hearted, improvisational Russian mercenary. The list goes on, encompassing character after character with those same four attributes, differing only in where they are from, what they look like, the language they speak, or the occupation they hold. And on the other side of the story, the terrorists all have similar “evil” traits.

Despite its many problems, though, Reamde is an enjoyable read, and worth putting time into. I think Stephenson has a lot to say about the current state of our world in a voice that is both unique and intriguing. The characters might be the novel’s downfall, but the plot itself moves at a steady pace and is truly exciting. However, the novel as a whole ultimately fails to reach the astronomical promise I once allotted to Stephenson. It certainly fails to live up to the standard of Anathem. But, I guess, not every work has to be a masterpiece.

OVERALL SCORE: 7/10