Saturday, September 24, 2016

Weird & Wonderful- House of Leaves

I can't believe it, one of my book clubs finally, successfully tackled Mark Z. Danielewski's "House of Leaves" (2000), monstrous, meta-textual, experimental doorstopper of a book that it is. What fun!
Okay, so it's too much to call it a premise, but it works kind of like this: the book you're holding was edited by unknown editors, who make a few clarifying comments. The main text was edited together by Johnny Truant, who added footnotes that run to many pages long, detailing his personal life. The text he edited is an academic text by one Zumpano, a scholarly examination of "The Navidson Record", a film that Zumpano, being blind, couldn't have seen. So there's 3 or 4 levels of fictionality here. Additionally, there's a lot of crazy stuff on the page—different colors for certain words, whole sections crossed out, recursive footnotes, text arranged in very nonstandard ways. Plus, it's like 700 pages.

Oh, and the Navidson Record is a horror story of sorts. All the narrative threads in here are horror stories, of sorts.

So! Reading & discussing this present...interesting challenges. Challenges that City Lit's Weird & Wonderful club rose to! Possible spoilers below:

  • Have to include Joan's 2-word review: "Meta Schmeta!"
  • We talked about the (huge) differences between the Truant & Navidson sides of the story. Remarkable split in the group, with some of us finding one or the other really boring or intolerable.
  • That in turn led us to talk about how they play together or reinforce each other, despite very different styles and tones.
  • A lot of discussion of how this blurs reality and fiction, with particular attention paid to the quotes, references, and interviews—some real, some obviously fictional, lots we didn't know or had to check.
  • Some interesting discussion on sexism in the book—the "attractive Karen" gimmick, and the sexual assault recurrence trope. Is Danielewski making us question these tropes (seems at least plausible given other things with the framing/unreliable narrator), or is he just shielding himself from criticism--this is what Truant etc. believe, but not the author?
  • The reality of Truant's sexual adventures was a point of contention: we're wondering if we're supposed to come to see that as a major point of unreliability, his narrative blurring facts with his personal fantasies, or if maybe that all did happen.
  • Extended discussion of the footnote & semi-academic format, including things like "see exhibit B", where B is missing/redacted etc.
  • Another brief review: "My boyfriend looked at it and tried to throw it in the trash!"
  • Telling comment from a re-reader: "It does strike me differently now that I'm a home-owner."
  • That led us into some discussion about how the experience of reading this book has changed--a few of us read it fairly soon after it was published. We noted its complicated release history, different versions of the text, and the fact that you couldn't just use Google for some of the puzzles and codes back when it first came out. Also noted the "Whalestoe Letters" (supplementary material), and talked for a bit about why the pelican poems are included.
I trotted out my grand theory of the book, which is basically that what's awesome about it, and why the horror elements are effective, is that it requires the reader to be complicit in this really weird way. All these textual experimentations are kinda bullshit, but you have to consciously decide to keep reading, to keep a space in your head where this level is "real", and then the next level is "real", consciously battle the intrusion of the text—the footnotes, the weird arrangements—because you really want to know what happens next in the Navidson Chronicle. That level of buying in, over one's own objections, is why the horror elements are so effective.
  • We had a discussion about fonts! And there was much rejoicing.
  • Note on how the cat & dog, kids' reactions to the house are among the most effectively terrifying.
  • We noted some things that the book put us in mind of, including Chamber's "The King in Yellow" (1895) and its usage in "True Detective" (2014-), and the complex-but-often-empty world of the "Myst" (1993-) video games.
  • Inconclusive debate on why the book ends with "Yggdrasil", the world-tree in Norse mythology, what connection if any that has to Ash Tree lane. We note that many of us learned of Yggdrasil from the "Thor" movies, making me think of one of my favorite photoshops. Also I have "Natalie Portmanteau" written down in the margins of my notes, and...that's all.
  • "Why would you go into the closet?!" And discussion of explorers, hubris. Some of us would check it out, others would steer clear!
Extended discussion of similar quasi-real, quasi-fake, and hard-to-categorize horror stuff. Including:
  • "Candyman" horror films
  • "F for Fake", Orson Welles' documentary about forgery
  • SCP, a kind of collaborative X-files-ish thing
  • The whole concept of "creepypasta" like Slender Man and herobrine
  • Vandermeer's tower/tunnel and other elements of the "Southern Reach"
  • Danish film "The Vanishing"
  • Del Toro's "Silent Hills" trailer
  • Bryan Evanson's "Windeye" and "A Collapse of Horses"
  • Schwartz & Gammell's "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark"
  • Classic horror film "Dead of Night"
  • China Mieville's "Three Moments of an Explosion"
  • Ponysmasher's "Lights Out"
Oh, and one final dismissive review: "This feels like it was written by a guy who wears a fedora." Youch!

Still, a really fun discussion of a really intriguing book—"House of Leaves" is an interesting experiment in its own right, a (dare I say it) deconstruction of the novel itself, and has been weirdly influential, a cult favorite—you run into fans in the oddest places. One of the baristas I work with is the drummer for the band Pelafina (the name of Johnny Truant's mother), for instance.

Good stuff. Be sure to check out City Lit's page for upcoming Weird & Wonderful clubs, as well as many other great events. And, gosh darn it, with Bookworks closing and Amazon creeping in, stop by the store and get something!

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