Archive for April 13th, 2005

How Good is Too Good?

April 13, 2005

Some novels suffer from too-good-a-concept syndrome. The ideas at the heart of these novels are way more interesting than the actual novels. Not because the writer doesn’t have talent or just can’t follow through. It’s just that their original ideas for a novel are so very creative that it would be nigh-on impossible for them to sustain the uniqueness and creativity of these ideas for any extended period.

Three or four years ago, there was a small hullabaloo in the literary world. Actually, there are always hullabaloo’s going on in the literary world. The “literary” writers, or more acurately, their readers, disdain genre writers (i.e., courtroom dramas, mysteries, horror, sci-fi, romance novels) because they (the genre writers) aren’t, supposedly, as creative and slash or just kind of do a paint-by-numbers sort of thing and ta-da: a novel. For those not following these little debates about what is a good book exactly, this would be the equivalent of a Jazz enthusiast moccking country music fans. Or maybe the tension in Hollywood between blockbusters and independent films.

This particular hullabaloo’s center was Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. No one could quite figure out exactly what this novel was supposed to be or in what section of the bookstore to shelve it. House of Leaves blended genres in ways book snobs didn’t like (A Country musician did a cover of a Jazz standard, Stallone starred in an Independent film). It was experimental literature (in the capital “L” Literature sort of way). It was a horror story. It was a mystery. It was post-modern, or maybe post-post-modern, even. It played with the basic design concepts of books (resembling at times a graphic novel more than a word novel). It imitated, in places, academic writing. Theoretically, it had no real audience in mind when it was written. Which of course meant it attracted quite a large audience. It was praised by many as the next big thing and pooh-poohed by others as gimmicky and Danielewski was, by these others, labeled as a pretender.

House of Leaves is a layered novel. The story is told from the perspective of a young man who stumbled across some substantial and extremely unorganized research of an old, well, actually dead, recluse of a man who had spent the majority of his reclusiveness researching the story of a documentary which no one could find. So you have the story of the film, the story of the recluse, and the story of the young man all going at the same time. Since the documentary is more or less the center of the novel, let’s start there.

A famous photographer (National Geographic, etc.) and his family buy a normal looking house. The house looks like a house, but it doesn’t quite act like one. The photographer finds himself measuring the house one day and discovers that the house is actually larger, dimensions-wise, on the inside than it is on the outside. He puts tape-measure to house again and again, and each again yields the same result. The interior of the house is (and I forget here the exact figure) something like 7/16 of an inch larger than the exterior of the house. These dimensions are disturbing, of course, but even more disturbing is that these dimensions allow the house to move and breath, at least on the inside. The family will wake up to find that a door has transformed into solid wall, that hallways are missing, that the water closet has vanished, the temperature is way too hot or cold. This causes some minor inconveniences, of course, as sometimes a child, say, wakes up trapped in a room that no longer has an exit. But the house doesn’t stay this way too long–the doorway will appear at some point and the child will be okay. The house seems more prankster than demon.

Regardless of the house’s humours, the normal family would move to grandma’s house right about now. But this man is an adventurer. He loves it. This is not just a new home, this is his new project. After discovering an heretofore nonexistent stairwell in a back room of the house, he gathers together some camera-men and they go exploring. They take several trips down the stairs, and after some run-ins with something much more demon than prankster (presumably the soul of the house?), they employ some commando-types to accompany them. As they document their journey down the steps, we learn that the steps will lengthen and shorten randomly, steps will become so tall they must be rappeled down, and at times there seems to be no bottom at the bottom of the stairs. A journey taking three days down might take three weeks back up because the short stairway is now a very, very long staircase. On the occasions when they reach the bottom, they are met by a maze of rooms and something that can never quite be made out with the cameras begins to kill them.

This is the story-line of the novel that is most compelling, and it is also is the part of the novel that suffers from being too creative. The concept is chilling. Books don’t usually scare me, but there were parts of this story-line that kept me awake–waiting for my doorway to disappear or for my stairs to descend into some infinite abyss. But the idea is hard to sustain. This is, I suspect, one of the reasons the novel is layered. Danielewski knew that the concept was too good, in all likelihood. So he surrounds this story with multiple layers. We get to know the recluse of a researcher, somewhat. An interesting, if pathetic, cat. And the young man who tells the story, Johnny Truant, we get to know more than we want to about him. His adventures in tracking down sources and trying to make some sort of meaning out of all of this research isn’t much different from the documentary he is trying to understand without actually having seen or the recluse. Like the house and the documentary and the dead man, Truant’s life is itself, tragic and pathetic and chilling.

The design of the book also mirrors the documentary, or, rather, the house. The sections of the novel that deal with the documentary are themselves a maze. There are little “windows” in the middle of pages that are printed backwards (the rest of the page is written all normal, as if there is no “window” disturbing the narrative). Some pages don’t follow the left-to-right writing style we’re accustomed to reading. Instead, they wrap themselves around the page in a circle or square. There are about thirty or so pages in the middle of the book with only one word on each page. This is one of the reasons many people labeled the book as gimmicky. This is for effect, and it absolutely begs, for us nerds, to ask would it have caused as much of a stir if he’d simply written the story without any special artsy page designs? Obviously, Danielewski is trying to create for the reader the experience of being disoriented, of being sucked into something that maybe you’d rather not be sucked into. It can cause a chilling effect but can also be annoying. I mean, turning a book round and round and trying to stay on the same line isn’t the easiest of tasks.

I try my best to avoid the arguments about whether something is a good book or not, whether genres are all that important, whether crossing genres creates something that shouldn’t be created. Four years after initially reading House of Leaves, I still wouldn’t know how to classify it. I liked it for whatever reason. I wasn’t disturbed by Danielewski’s gimmicks. And I think the nay-sayers who focused on that part of the book were just looking for something to be upset about (how dare this new guy think he is a better writer, more creative and inventive and experimental, than ________ ). Yes, the designs and footnotes and diagrams and appendixes seemed a bit condescending at times (like, did he not think we’d all figure out that the funky designs were supposed to create some sort of experience for us that we couldn’t have had without his help?). Gimmicks don’t bother me. I was more disappointed because he set my sights too high. A house that is alive! An adventure! Researching something that may or may not even exist! Although I enjoyed the book (I’ve even bought it as gifts for friends), I finished it disappointed that the concepts were forced for too long, that the layers of stories couldn’t, despite his Danielewski’s efforts, form a novel nearly as interesting as the mere idea of that novel.

Like all hullabaloos, it’s kind of blown over now. When Danielewski’s next book comes out (if it comes out–this one took ten years to write), the debates about his gimmickiness will resurface I’m sure. This book doesn’t change the genre of horror writing, nor has it changed the ways books are designed, nor has it changed anyone’s mind about whether or not a modern “horror” book can be considered great litereture. But it is one of the most creative concepts for a book to have come out in the last few years. It is worth at least thumbing through the next time you’re in a book store, if you can find where they keep it.

I am currently reading: Parasites Like Us, by Adam Johnson. A Good Man is Hard to Find…, by Saint O’Connor. Theodore Rex, by Edmund Morris.