House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski

House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski

“Passion has little to do with euphoria and everything to do with patience. It is not about feeling good. It is about endurance. Like patience, passion comes from the same Latin root: pati. It does not mean to flow with exuberance. It means to suffer.”


If you’ve ever wanted to read a novel about a group of editors who have re-compiled a second edition of a book, that was originally found (and edited) by a slowly mentally unraveling tattoo artist apprentice junkie, and was originally written in a mixed media form by his junkie friend’s neighbor (found when he died under mysterious circumstances), that is a written description, history and analysis of a “found footage” documentary (that doesn’t exist) about a family inhabiting and exploring a house that is (much, much) larger on the inside than the outside, and is told in such a nonlinear and disorienting fashion to the point of inducing trepidation, extreme boredom, claustrophobia, anxiety, and general unease, then I’ve got some great news for you! House of Leaves is all of these things and tells all of these stories. It’s also kind of fun if you’re into weird mental puzzles.


mark z. danielewskiI enjoyed it. Going into it, it was hard to deny the thematic similarities it shares with Infinite Jest, but as it progressed it started to diverge quite a bit from the direction I expected it to travel toward. Unfortunately, it doesn’t contain any of the amazingly beautiful prose or “new sincerity” of David Foster Wallace’s writing, but it has other qualities that make it very interesting. Mainly, the form of the novel mirrors the story. When characters are crawling through ever shrinking passageways, the margins on the outside edges of the text start to crawl inward. When characters are falling into ever deepening chasms, the text will angle or fall down the page, etc. It’s a very visual novel, and in that way I don’t think it could ever be an eBook. It’s a piece of art that is reliant on the exact physical specifications of the book containing it.

“He knows his voice will never heat this world”

Would I ever read it again? Nah, I don’t think there’s really much of a point. The story itself is overly soap operatic, the prose is good but it’s nothing amazing. The amount of cruft in this book is just mind-bogglingly excessive, and without the amazing prose or story to make that cruft serve a point, it’s just sort of there to make the experience disorienting, which I get is part of the form mirroring the story, but still, it’s the illusion of complexity rather than complexity itself. There are puzzles encoded into it that would probably be kind of fun to suss out, but I can pretty much guarantee that they aren’t going to provide some sort of satisfying answer to any questions left lingering. Reading it was an experience that I’m glad I had, and I have to admire the dedication and exacting nature it must’ve taken to bring something like this to life — it definitely rewards attention to detail — but, having read it, I have no desire to read it again.

Literary Fiction: Five Short Reviews

Euphoria Heinz HelleEuphoria, by Heinz Helle
I was absolutely blown away by Superabundance last year, and resolved to read anything Heinz Helle wrote then and there.  His stories are philosophical ruminations told through tight, clean prose. This followup was slightly different territory than Superabundance, but still recognizable for its quality and conceptual vision. Euphoria was bleak and highly disturbing. I love the way the characters’ lives before and after “the event” were juxtaposed. They were never particularly good people, it just wasn’t as obvious before everything went to hell. If you would like to lose your faith in humanity, this one is the ticket. Fantastic prose, extremely depressing, but it gives you a lot to think about.



Ice, by Anna KavanIce, by Anna Kavan

It’s difficult to determine which parts of Ice are actually happening and which are hallucinated by our unnamed protagonist. Making it even more disorienting, the point-of-view dips away from first person occasionally, capturing events that happen (maybe?) when he isn’t present, only to snap right back to our protagonist’s perspective as if nothing happened. Although, maybe he was actually there the whole time, he’s not really sure himself. Sometimes, mid-book, his character takes on attributes and personas that are entirely new, (he is an invading military figure for a few paragraphs), only to suddenly not be anymore. There’s an almost omniscience to him that becomes rather disturbing. It feels highly metaphorical, but not quite so easily reducible to just that.

Ice becomes harder to label the more that you think about it. Not quite fantasy, not quite science fiction, not necessarily straightforward mimetic literature; it may be something new where those three converge. It perpetually defies classification.

I think Jonathan Lethem says it best in his forward to the 50th anniversary Penguin Classics edition:
“The whole presentation is dreamlike, yet even that surface is riven by dream sequences, and by anomalous ruptures in point-of-view and narrative momentum.”

Amen to that. It’s definitely strange, but oddly, instead of coming across as abrasive and unrefined storytelling, these tactics work to draw the reader into a multifaceted, disturbing, kaleidoscopic, fever-dream that unfolds.



Animals Eat Each Other Elle NashAnimals Eat Each Other, by Elle Nash

A story about the myriad ways we consume one another and ourselves in an effort to get what we need to feel whole. Elle Nash is a hell of a writer. What I loved most about this book, is that it’s possible to view each main character as both protagonist and antagonist. It’s all a matter of how closely you look at their situation. They’re all terribly selfish and acting only in their own interests, but it’s hard to blame them when you think about things from their individual perspectives. They do what they think they need to. Each character in Animals Eat Each Other suffers from a discrepancy between what they possess and what the need, and they use each other mercilessly to narrow that gap.



Universal Harvester John DarnielleUniversal Harvester, by John Darnielle

This was leaps and bounds better than Wolf in White Van, which I thought showed a lot of promise, but ultimately didn’t deliver on it. The plot strayed just a little bit from what I was expecting, but I feel like the detours eventually built the foundation for the path to the climax/ending. Fantastically clever storytelling, with just enough of a resolution to satisfy while still leaving a few threads unexplained. I feel like this novel would heavily reward a second reading. Something I definitely intend on giving it myself.

Darnielle’s prose reminds me a little of Paul Auster, or maybe Don DeLillo and J.G. Ballard would be a more apt comparison. The whole affair has that just slightly postmodern/magical realism/horror genre tinge to it, but ultimately remains in the realm of mainstream literary fiction.

The prose is clear, the characters vibrant, and the story just creepy enough to really be engaging. I’ll be reading everything that John Darnielle writes from here on. I feel like he’s only going to improve in the future, which is a very exciting thought.



Pond Claire-Louise BennettPond, by Claire-Louise Bennett

What a fascinating story collection/novel, and honestly I’m not sure which it is. If you read between the lines, you can put together a narrative of sorts. The character seems to be working things out for herself, possibly some past trauma, through these short musing and ramblings about everything and nothing all around her. It’s a unique window into rural life in an Irish village. It works just fine as a story collection as well. I think it’s probably all in how you approach it.

I try to judge books on whether or not they are what they were intended to be, and not so much based on whether I, one opinionated reader, enjoyed them or not. I did enjoy this one, and I believe that it is exactly what it was intended to be. I also think that Claire-Louise Bennett is a phenomenal writer, and I’ll be paying attention to her writing in the future.

That being said, I had a hard time with the voice of this character. “If you must know” she seemed to find everything “really” “very” something “actually”. Over and over and over. It’s written in first person, so I’m hoping this is meant to be a tic of the character; a hint at her wandering mind. Perhaps it’s an Irish thing? I haven’t read much Irish literature. I still had a hard time with it, and think the fault entirely my own, but thought it worth mentioning.

Boundless, by Jillian Tamaki

Boundless, by Jillian Tamaki

I have to admit I was entirely unfamiliar with Jillian Tamaki going into this, but I love love love her illustration work here, and I want to thank Drawn & Quarterly for sending me a copy of this. I’m also a big fan of the way that the narration jumps around sometimes “documentary style” in these stories. Most of them are slice-of-life focused, kafkaesque, or modern fantasy, which are all genres I think graphic novels are particularly well-suited for. I’ve written about this previously in reviews of other comic/graphic stories, and it’s still rings true here.

Jillian TamakiEvery story collection is going to be a little uneven to some degree, but most of these stories are solid, with just a couple that didn’t quite land for me. The artwork is always something to behold, and the characters feel three-dimensional and genuine.

‘SexCoven’ is a definite standout; it alone makes this collection worth reading. I don’t know if it’s just that I’m around the same age as the author, but I feel like this story perfectly captures the late 90s / early 00s internet culture of niche communities and the ways that they almost universally disbanded in the mid 00s. I probably spent around 6 solid months on message boards dedicated to The Matrix when I was around 20 (please don’t judge me, I thought it was cool as fuck back then). A couple years later and all of those boards are just… gone.

It seems like almost every message board or little niche community has been replaced by a subreddit these days, and that brings a whole other subset of problems along with it. Instead of communities of likeminded internet individuals coming together over some obscure cultural element, we have a subset of the already monoculture-prone redditors coming together over some obscure element of culture. It’s a slice of a slice of what it once was, and way more confirmation-bias enabling. I really do feel like we’ve lost something.

I also particularly liked the story dealing with adultery/bedbug removal, and the one with the shrinking woman. There were so many cool things to read between the lines in all of these. I’ll definitely be checking her other work out.

My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante

What you should know:
The book is fantastic, and I couldn’t help but absorb it in just a few days. I feel like it really got at the core of human insecurity, gender and income inequality, female friendships, and our hierarchy of needs. Somehow it’s also a page-turner and an engaging story. It blows my mind that all of those things are possible in one short novel. I guarantee that it’ll get under your skin and soak in.

Ferrante vs. Knausgaard:
Even though I’ve only read this first novel in the sequence, it’s hard for me to resist the urge to compare Ferrante’s Neapolitan series to Knausgaard’s My Struggle.

Both series are: multi-volume, non-English, first person page-turner novels spanning several decades of their character’s lives, first published in English in 2012, with subsequent volumes appearing annually. They both feature straightforward, simple prose, detailing the ins and outs of their characters’ lives, and are deeply, sometimes disturbingly honest in tone. They both tackle a lot of the same themes, but from inside different experiences. If you enjoyed one, I’d highly recommend the other. Especially if you’re a guy who enjoyed Knausgaard, you owe it to yourself to read something similar, but from a female perspective. Ferrante’s writing really put me inside that experience in an empathic way.

They are also vastly different from one another: The Neapolitan Novels are fictitious, set in Italy, viscerally violent, told in a mostly linear, chronological order, feature short chapters, supposedly gained a lot in translation, are written pseudonymously, and have a tight focus on the friendship between two female characters over the years.

My Struggle is wildly non-linear, purportedly autobiographical, set mostly in Norway, meandering, has no chapters whatsoever, steeped in nostalgia, and is tightly focused on Knausgaard’s view of his general failings as a man, before, after, and during his journey toward becoming a writer.

For more on the similarities between the two works, I’d suggest Joshua Rathman’s terrific essay for The New Yorker: Knausgaard or Ferrante?

Growth, by A. J. Smith

This novel was really something special, definitely a new favorite and a book that I’ll be coming back to often in the future. It’s undeniably clever, darkly humorous, and highly self-aware. It’s cerebral and incredibly well written. It rewards the reader, and sends them down and through a rabbit hole of literature. I found myself torn between wanting to read it slowly, savoring the prose and unique deconstruction of language, and wanting to quickly arrive at the resolution because the story was so engaging. I ended up reading the first half over three or four days, and slamming the second half all in one sitting.

Growth’s main character Bburke is a relatively uneducated fellow, living a simple life, rooted in the present. His primary pursuits are his artistic passion toward landscaping, and consuming a comically large but sadly plausible quantity of cheap beer. He’s never learned how to properly probe the depths of his lack of self-awareness. Ambrose Bierce’s highly cynical early twentieth century lexical masterpiece, The Devil’s Dictionary, said it best when it defined Education as: “That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.” The question is: To which camp does Bburke belong? Is he wise or foolish?

Sometimes blissful ignorance may be preferable to a better understanding, especially when that better understanding holds the power to make us painfully aware of the sad state of our affairs. Enter S.A. and Dickie T, Bburke’s “well-read” recently higher educated hired helpers at his landscaping company. Bburke is about to receive an education of sorts, whether he’d like to or not.

I loved the unique structure used to frame the story. Different literary forms and styles are stacked and layered, like a cake that at first glance has six layers, but on closer inspection actually contains three sublayers inside each macro one. Hopping from style to style kept things fresh, but throughout all of this was a taut narrative thread, tightly connecting events and creating a barreling momentum. The result was a highly engaging, fun, character based tale that never sacrificed quality prose or form in pursuit of being fun or engaging.

It’s safe to say this is a book written for book lovers. Those familiar with the works of Camus, David Foster Wallace, Mary Shelley, Mark Twain and others will be pleasantly surprised. A lot of the main story revolved around the ways in which steeping oneself in literature can change a person, for better and worse. Reading a book is often said to be like having a conversation with the author, and Growth utilized a fun, postmodern take on that saying to illustrate the method in which Bburke internalizes what he reads. He is a non-traditional learner, and he reads in unconventional ways. Have I mentioned how fun this novel is yet? It’s very fun.

Growth actively comments on itself throughout. This is a living breathing thing. The narrator calls out obvious macguffins in the plot and marks future ones as such, the legitimacy of thin characters is called into question, and Bburke himself occasionally seems right on the cusp of realizing that he might exist only as a character in a novel. I’m a sucker for anything that continues in-line with that terrific Cervantes tradition.

The way that Dickie T and S.A.’s dialogue was handled is so perfect. They read like two halves of the same theoretical person, and their banter felt straight out of a DeLillo or DFW novel. Since they are the two characters who are readers, it seems most likely that S.A and Dickie T are familiar with those writers, wish they existed in their novels, and choose to speak as if they do. So much is revealed about them just through the form of their banter. Basically, they’ve read some books, and they think oh so highly of themselves for it. Writing their dialogue, and only their dialogue in this style shows fantastic restraint on Smith’s part. The form itself served the characters and story.

I’m not particularly well-read when it comes to the classics, but I could see Growth rewarding those who are. I wouldn’t say being well-read is a prerequisite for enjoying it, but I think there’s another layer of entertainment available to those who are. I think this works on many different levels for many different readers. Be forewarned though, it will instill in you a desire to revisit some classics, or maybe even approach them for the first time. There are definitely a few more books on my TBR because of this one.

I don’t want to say any more or comment on any vital story points, because I think this is probably best experienced with unspoiled eyes. Check it out, it’s fantastic.

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