House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

A Love Story Framed Within a House of Horror – House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

It is a curious thing to have a chat with a book store manager who is ardently recommending a book to a customer. I was such a lucky customer, and upon browsing the book being recommended to me, I was amazed to see the text artfully laid out on the creamy pages. Mirrored text, inverted text, scattered text, text grouped in tight squares, text running at the bottom of the page, and text forming circles. This is what I came to know later as an example of ergodic literature.

It is a curious thing to see a single word printed in a different color. House, haus, maison, domus are all rendered in blue. Further scanning revealed footnotes on footnotes, extensive appendices, full-color collages, and index. I was sold, so to speak, but I didn’t manage to read this book after two years.

House of Leaves (2000) is popularly known as a terrifying story about a house that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. That is only one layer of narrative because that surface story is just as expansive as the story that happens outside of it, which is definitely bigger. Such stories upon stories, I feel, demand to be read with a support group. To be blunt about it, there are three main story arcs:

  • The Navidson Record, a documentary film that deals with the aforementioned house and the family that inhabits,
  • The story of Zampano, a writer who, upon his death, leaves behind the manuscript of an academic and critical study of The Navidson Record, and
  • The story of Johnny Truant, a tattoo shop employee who stumbles upon the aforementioned manuscript.

There are many references and parallelisms with the myth of the Minotaur and his labyrinth, which one might find really interesting. The Minotaur references are supposed to be not there, according to Johnny Truant, but even if the text about it were successfully removed, one would still detect them.

The narrative style depends on which text the reader is on. The Navidson Record reads like an expository report. It presents a lot of details that one might feel are irrelevant until the thesis is presented. An example is a discussion on the physics of sound. How fast does sound travel? How soon is an echo created? How far is the source of an echo once it reaches the ears? Once the formulas and the factors are presented, the reader, as a parent, will realize the horror of hearing his or her own children’s echoing voices, who are just playing at a seemingly nearby part of the house.

Additional story arcs are left for the readers for their own theories, which are best discussed with a support group. Although this book can be read alone like any other book, the urge to discuss this after is going to start aching, an ache that demands to be soothed with the balm of a book discussion.

The artistry of the text’s layout may strike the distrusting reader as gimmicky and pretentious, but this has its purpose. It serves as the cinematography of the book, creating images in the reader’s head and an illusion for the eyes. To illustrate, some text is cramped in a tight square at the center of the page, a square that gets smaller and smaller as the character crawls through a tunnel that gets smaller and smaller until he is squirming through it on his belly. This creates not only an illusory tunnel but a feeling akin to claustrophobia.

Another example is that as the characters get lost, the text runs on the top, bottom, or edges of the page, with footnotes jumping at each other, thus making the reader just as lost as the characters in this labyrinthine reading. One may dismiss it as drivel, but it does work.

The not Kindle-friendly design demands some skill from the publisher, but more skill is demanded from the author, Mark Z. Danielewski. It actually requires a different kind of talent and intellect to put together this seemingly mashed up pulp and let the reader make sense out of it. One is always on the lookout for any coded text, suspicious misspellings, or any winking clues that are left at various places. One wonders if this indeed is a début novel.

As if that task were not daunting yet challenging enough, there are the appendices, particularly The Three Attic Whalestoe Institute Letters, which all seem to push the story further and shed a different light when the story is supposed to have ended. The truth is it all might not make any sense but the reader is still left wanting to untangle the reality from the fiction.

Perhaps the attempt to do so is the point of the book. My support group and I might not have the best theories, what with so many questions still left hanging in the air, but we are quite happy to at least have unspooled our own threads of thoughts.

I do not know anything about Art with a capital A. What I do know about is my art. Because it concerns me. I do not speak for others. So I do not speak for things which profess to speak for others. My art, however, speaks for me. It lights my way.

This is the art of reading this book. In the end, House of Leaves will continually be that horror book with the unconventional text layout, but one must not forget that at the core of it is the story of a couple, a couple named Will and Karen, trying to save their relationship as they delve so deep into their respective psychological houses, houses which reveal something about the guilt of success, the trauma of the past, the depression that is never suppressed, the fear that we don’t know exists, and the complexity of human nature.

[Read in June 2014.]
[5 out of 5 stars.]
[709 pages. Trade paperback. New.]
[Read with Kristel, Maria, and Monique.]

F2F30: The City and the City by China Miéville

TFG’s Book of the Month for June: The City and the City by China Miéville

The City and the City Face to Face Book Discussion Details:

  • Date: June 28, 2014
  • Place: Balboa, Shangri-la Plaza, Mandaluyong City
  • Time: 3 PM to 6 PM
  • Discussion Leaders: Gwaxa and Meliza
  • Attendees: Me, Aaron, Aldrin, Allan (my guest), Cary (after), Ella, Honey, Marie, Monique, Rhena, Tina, Tricia (after), Veronica, Ycel
  • Food I Ate: Banana and berry shake (I already ate before arriving at the venue).
  • Activities: True or false trivia, word games, unseeing and unhearing, and book raffle (I won one of the three books).
  • After the Book Discussion: I left right after the discussion so I don’t what the others did.
  • Other Nominated Books: Embassytown and Un Lun Dun, also by China Miéville.
Discussion Time

Discussion Time

The F2F30 Attendees

The F2F30 Attendees

  • Next Month: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. If you wish to join us, please visit the discussion thread and the event thread for more details.

Photos courtesy of Rhena and Ycel.

Book Report: June 2014

Book Report: June 2014

Today is the exact middle of the year (check Wikipedia), and today I will present not only my June Report, but also my Mid-Year Report.

Here’s the June Report:

Books Finished:

  • Attachments by Rainbow Rowell – 1 out of 5 stars. I’ve returned the copy to its rightful owner. 1/3 of my 2014 Dare Reads.
  • The City and the City by China Miéville – 3 out of 5 stars. Our June book of the month.
  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green – 4 out of 5 stars. Read this as fast as I can to catch the movie in the theaters. 2/3 of my 2014 Dare Reads. My copy is currently in the hands of my office mate.
  • The Stories So Far by Jessica Zafra – 4 out of 5 stars. Finished this as soon as I bought it from the author herself. (Php 399, June 21)

Currently Reading:

  • House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski – Currently on page 74 of 709. After so many failed plans, I’m finally reading this. What’s more, I’m finally reading this along with Kristel, Maria, and Monique.
  • Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf – Currently on page 70 of 172. I paused because I ordered a new edition.  I can’t resist the Vintage Classics Virginia Woolf series. (USD 6.26, The Book Depository, June 26)
  • A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens – Currently on page 61 of 470. This is our July book of the month. A difficult first chapter should be surmounted before the pages spin what seems to me a beautiful tale.
  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – Currently on page 211 of 604. I’m thinking of restarting this book.

New Books:

  • Embassytown by China Miéville – I won this from our book discussion raffle. Thank you! (from Gwaxa and Meliza, June 28)
  • The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford – I would like to think of this as a belated birthday gift. Thank you! (from Huhi, June 16)
  • The Summer Book by Tove Jansson – An NYRB Classic that has great reviews from some of my favorite reviewers. (USD 12. 04 less USD 4.5 partial refund, The Book Depository, June 26)
  • The Waves by Virginia Woolf – The search for the meaning of life continues. (USD 8.64 less USD 4.5 partial refund, The Book Depository, June 26)

Here’s the Mid-Year Report:

2014 Fave List (4 and 5 star books)

  • Atonement by Ian McEwan
  • A Death in the Family by James Agee
  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling
  • A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr
  • The Stories So Far by Jessica Zafra
  • Tenth of December by George Saunders
  • To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

2014 Mid List (3 star books)

  • The Alienist by Caleb Carr
  • The City and the City by China Miéville
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

2014 Hate List (1 and 2 star books)

  • Attachments by Rainbow Rowell
  • If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
  • The Trial by Franz Kafka
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

A Search for the Meaning of Life – To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

To the Lighthouse (1927) tells the vacation of the Ramsays and their guests at the family’s summer house. There is really not much of plot summary to offer. It is two days divided by a decade concluding in a trip to the lighthouse. The absence of a surface plot is accounted by the rich interior lives of its characters: Lily Briscoe, Mr. Ramsay, and Mrs. Ramsay, the central character who held everyone together.

[Read in August 2011.]
[Reread in April and May 2014.]
[5 out of 5 stars.]

The characters are based on Virginia Woolf’s own parents. Woolf explained that she could not get over her mother who died when Woolf was thirteen. She set out to write this novel to lay down deep emotions, and this helped her to stop hearing and seeing her mother more often than not. In a particular perspective, it is an ode to her mother, but true to her original intentions, she wrote the novel with her ruminations on life and death.

A popular question discussed among the readers of this book is about its title. Why “To the Lighthouse”? Why not “The Lighthouse”? “To” implies a destination and a journey. Hence, “The Lighthouse” does not suffice because the novel is not merely about the place the characters will reach, which is a “tower, stark and straight” and “barred with black and white”. They embark on their own journeys in search for some meaning, some yearning, something that seems unattainable, like the lighthouse, always present in its nearly insurmountable distance.

The characters go through their respective journeys in the way that they know how, which depend on how they view life. Mr. Ramsay fears that all life is doomed to oblivion. Man may be able to work his way from A to Z. He may be able to produce the most illuminating scholarly works but even a stone would outlast his reputation. This frustrates him and explains most of his outbursts and the tensions among the family members, but there is Mrs. Ramsay, always there to offer the sympathy that he wants.

Mrs. Ramsay, however, does not care much for the future or for reputation. She values the present. She doesn’t want her children to grow old, she wants to make things as perfect as they are for the moment. She uses her gift in maintaining social harmony to meet this, to make moments last for as long as they could. She reads to her son James, she knits a stocking for the lighthouse keeper’s son, and she does so, she is observed by their house guest, the painter Lily Briscoe.

Lily Briscoe struggles with her artistry and the social conventions clashing against each other. The voice of a man repeatedly saying “Women can’t paint, women can’t write” drones like a bad headache. As if that were not enough, she can’t translate the fleeting visions that occur to her to paint and canvas. This would recur through the novel as she ponders on the purpose of art, wonders if art can truly keep a moment, marvels at the beauty of Mrs. Ramsay, and asks The Big Question:

What is the meaning of life? That was all–a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.

An important section of the novel is Time Passes, the middle part that has all the ten years between the postponement of the lighthouse trip and the real trip. As opposed to first and last parts, both written with much detail on the consciousness of every character, Time Passes relates the years with a detachment that seems to say that the war, the lives, the deaths, everything in this world, are inconsequential. Time may stretch to great lengths during painting sessions, a lively dinner, or the moment before sleeping, but it may also compact everything the world has ever cared for in a matter of pages. This dual nature of time, clocking so fast or so slow, is portrayed in such lush language that it is impossible to not at least stop and think about your own ticking clock.

The journey for the little daily miracles in this novel is never a smooth sailing. Woolf’s expansive use of the stream of consciousness narrative, of which this novel is considered to be a landmark, threatens to deflect the reader from the flow of the characters’ thoughts. It is easy to go astray, to get lost, or to drown, but when the matches are struck, they are, you will see, such illuminations, such visions.

[198 pages. Trade paperback. New.]

A Death in the Family by James Agee

A Child’s Perception of Death – A Death in the Family by James Agee

A Death in the Family (1957) explores the bliss of marital life and the tragedy of death through the points of view of the surviving wife and the little children. The author, James Agee, is a self-doubting alcoholic with three wives and four children. He died of a heart attack inside a cab before he finished this autobiographical novel. He had worked on it for seven years. After his death, editor David McDowell wanted to help his surviving family. Hence, the novel was edited, published, and received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.

[Read in May 2014.]
[4 out of 5 stars.]

It seems that the novel did not need a lot of editing. The simplicity of its beauty need not be marred by McDowell’s pen. There are parts that do not seem to fit within the plot and these were placed after each part of the novel in italics. It’s as if the editor didn’t want to lose these parts for their sheer lyrical power, so it would be better to let the readers experience them.

Rufus Follet, a sensitive boy not older than six, is the novel’s main protagonist. It is through his perceptions of his father’s death that we get the most compelling parts of the novel. What is it like to be dead? Why do people have to die? Where do people go after they die? These are some of the questions that he asks and processes with his innocence and little knowledge of the world. His mother, Mary Follet, explains the event to him with the help of religion. God has taken their father, Jay Follet, to heaven, and soon, they will all be together up there.

Such explanations are received with a child’s curiosity, one that leads to more questions that are more difficult to answer. Mary tries her best to help Rufus understand what is going on until she reaches the point of near vexation and uses her adult authority instead to put a finality to the child’s questionings. Rufus is left wondering what a concussion is and how to properly pronounce it, and he is a slightly disappointed that he cannot show his new cap to his father. Catherine, the three-year-old sister, asks Mary again why their father cannot come home. For Catherine, dead is something that doesn’t exist in the children’s universe.

With death comes religion. For Mary, religion is her balm to the overwhelming sadness that suddenly takes over her life. For some, religion is the answer to death-related questions. For others still, it is the bane of human reasoning. In discussing death, Agee allows the reader to reëxamine beliefs and faiths without the pomposity of a fanatic. It makes one read more slowly, to wonder and to muse.

There are raw emotions in this book. The first part of the novel is lovely in showing us the beginnings of a new family. Jay takes Rufus to a bar and prides himself in his boy’s ability to read at a young age. Jay asks Mary what she wants for her birthday. Jay drinks a little but sings his children to sleep when the nightmares descend upon their room:

And God knows he was lucky, so many ways, and God knows he was thankful. Everything was good and better than he could have hoped for, better than he ever deserved; only, whatever it was and however good it was, it wasn’t what you once had been, and had lost, and could never have again, and once in a while, once in a long time, you remembered, and knew how far you were away, and it hit you hard enough, that little while it lasted, to break your heart.

Jay Follet is a great man, and aren’t great men always taken away just a little too soon?

If, as a child, you have experienced such a death in your family, you will be amazed at how accurate Agee depicted the scenes. A child knows that there is something going on, that there is grief, that there is mourning, but what exactly are these? Why are the adults acting strangely? A child knows that a certain code of conduct must be followed during such an event, but why is it so important to accordingly? Why are they told off if they outside to play? A child knows when not to ask questions, but what are these adults talking about? What is the afterlife and what is a miracle?

This one is. Having read a novel that might not have made it to my shelf is nothing short of a miracle.

[318 pages. Mass market paperback. Secondhand.]