Pictures From the Reading

Here are some photos from my reading with Michael Cisco last week, courtesy of Ellen Datlow. As per tradition, not all are flattering.

Also, today is my birthday! I’m turning forty-*coughcough* years old. If you’d like to help me celebrate, please consider buying a book.

House of Leaves

House of LeavesHouse of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I struggled for some time over how to review HOUSE OF LEAVES. Should I do it as an extended, pages-long footnote, the way Johnny Truant’s own experiences intrude upon “The Navidson Record”? Should I do it in code, like one of the letters Johnny’s schizophrenic mother sends him from the Three Attic Whalestone Institute? But I realized these were distractions (as some might claim they are in the novel as well, but I’ll get back to that because they’re definitely not). What was truly giving me pause, I realized, was the question of whether I had given myself enough time to digest what I read before writing this.

But I decided a year could pass and I probably still wouldn’t have fully digested it all, so here I am, writing a review of this twisty, frustrating, brilliant, annoying novel a mere day after finishing it. Let me start by saying that HOUSE OF LEAVES is a novel that fights you almost every step of the way, as if daring you to have the fortitude to finish reading it. It nearly bounced me out several times in the early pages. The ten-page treatise on the science and literature of echoes that precedes a brief mention of how the new hallway in Navidson’s home has an echo in it nearly ended the book for me, but I was determined to stick with it. I’m glad I did. As the pages went on and I got more used to what Danielewski was trying to achieve — modulating the reader’s pace via the density of (or lack of) text; utilizing nested and interconnected footnotes that send the reader ping-ponging back and forth between pages to simulate the disorientation of the characters as they explore the labyrinth inside the Navidson house; shaping text and format into architecture in order to map the interior of the labyrinth — I began to understand that despite the annoyances and frustrations I felt there was something brilliant here. Something I hadn’t experienced before. A novel that feels, like the house itself, bigger on the inside than the outside.

But the book fights you. At the center of the novel is “The Navidson Record,” which is a prose recap of scenes from a non-existent film. As you might imagine, that’s a very distancing approach to storytelling, and it removes a lot of the sense of urgency or forward momentum. Danielewski relies on the reader’s interest in the central mystery of the labyrinth to motivate them to keep going. If you’re not intrigued by what happens in Navidson’s house, you’re not likely to finish the novel. Or, like me, even if you are intrigued you may have to really push yourself to stay with it.

By the end I realized the novel wasn’t actually about “The Navidson Record,” despite some truly amazing scenes to be found within it, but about Johnny Truant himself, whose life is descending into chaos and madness either because of his exposure to “The Navidson Record” or because he has inherited the schizophrenia that overtook his mother. There’s no answer, just as there’s no explanation for the events that take place in Navidson’s house, just clues to sift through and theories to analyze. That’s definitely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, I reckon, but ultimately the ambiguity worked for me.

Despite what you might think, this isn’t the story of a haunted house. There’s no ghost in the house that’s trying to warn the characters of anything or frighten them away. There’s no mystery to be solved that will finally free the spirit. In my interpretation, it’s the story of a young man haunted by the absence of his mother due to her mental illness and eventual death, and as with the house itself, as with life itself, one must simply accept that these things happen and choose either to survive it or not.

View all my reviews

Reminder: Reading THIS WEDNESDAY!

This is a reminder that I will be reading this Wednesday, February 15th, at the KGB Bar with the inimitable Michael Cisco! Here are the details again:

Where: The KGB Bar, 85 East 4th Street (between 2nd Avenue and Bowery) in New York City

When: Wednesday, February 15th, at 7:00 PM

I hope to see you there! Be sure to get there early for a good seat! (And here’s the Facebook event page if you’re into that sort of thing.)

The Scariest Part: Lisa Black Talks About UNPUNISHED

This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is author Lisa Black, whose new novel is Unpunished. Here is the publisher’s description:

Maggie Gardiner, a forensic expert who studies the dead, and Jack Renner, a homicide cop who stalks the living, form an uneasy partnership to solve a series of murders in this powerful new thriller by the bestselling author of That Darkness.

It begins with the kind of bizarre death that makes headlines — literally. A copy editor at the Cleveland Herald is found hanging above the grinding wheels of the newspaper assembly line. Forensic investigator Maggie Gardiner has her suspicions about this apparent suicide inside the tsunami of tensions that is the news industry today — and when the evidence suggests murder, Maggie has no choice but to place her trust in the one person she doesn’t trust at all….

Jack Renner is a killer with a conscience, a vigilante with his own code of honor. He has only one problem: Maggie knows his secret. She insists he enforce the law, not subvert it. But when more newspaper employees are slain, Jack may be the only person who can help Maggie unmask the killer — even if Jack is still checking names off his own private list.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Lisa Black:

The ostensibly scariest part of Unpunished occurs when Maggie finds herself in a darkened, isolated area of a large factory-like setting with a man she now realizes could be a multiple murderer. But the physical situation is the simple part; the truly unsettling aspect lies in the internal debate. What to do? Scream for help (unlikely to be helpful anyway) and then be unable to explain why if it arrives? She’d look like an idiot. Attack first — but if she’s wrong then this perfectly innocent, nice man will want to know why an apparently sensible grown woman suddenly threw a hissy fit to rival that of a freaked-out housecat. She’d look like an idiot. Do nothing to avoid guessing wrong, and wind up horribly murdered because she didn’t want to make a fuss. She’d feel like an idiot, though it wouldn’t matter much at that point because she’d be freakin’ dead. Stand there and debate it some more while he sharpens up his knives and locks the door?

It’s a dilemma.

It takes us decades to learn to trust our instincts, years of repeated warnings to listen to our inner voices — if you see something say something, etc. — and still the natural inclination is to hesitate. We’d feel terrible if we made a mistake. We’d feel terrible if we hurt someone’s feelings. Almost as bad as we’d feel if they plunged a knife into our torso and spilled our intestines onto the floor.

Anyway that’s one part of the book. But what I find much more scary than this particular scene is the overall arc of the series and its effect on Maggie’s life. In the first book — spoiler alert — she kills someone. Not with much aforethought but with definite malice. She could blame it on shock, trauma, fear (though not self-defense), but she knows that those are unworthy excuses. She knows what she did and isn’t exactly sorry…but every day more comes to realize that her life has irretrievably changed. She can’t tell anyone, obviously — that would not only risk incarceration but the loss of her career as a forensic scientist, which pretty much is her life. She can’t tell her friends, she can’t tell her only sibling, a brother to whom she’s been very close since the death of their parents. She’s not remotely tempted to tell her ex-husband, just as well since he’s a homicide detective. It must be like losing a limb — you forget, momentarily, and then at some point in the day you move to pick up a glass with a hand that’s no longer there and run smack into a wall of oh yeah, I can’t do that any more. There will forever be a wall between her and other people. She can’t have a drunken night out with the girls, or whispered conversations with a lover. She will have to think before she speaks for the rest of her life, always parsing her words, monitoring herself for a slip. She escaped justice only to give herself a life sentence.

And that’s what I find scary. That one decision could affect every minute of every day for the rest of our lives. One wrong (or right) impulse, a momentary distraction, an unanswered phone call, and our happy little lives could dissipate before our eyes like the wisp of smoke after a trigger pull.

Lisa Black: Website / Twitter

Unpunished: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powell’s / IndieBound

Lisa Black has spent over twenty years in forensic science, first at the coroner’s office in Cleveland, Ohio and now as a certified latent print examiner and CSI at a Florida police department. Her books have been translated into six languages, one reached the NYT Bestseller’s List and one has been optioned for film and a possible TV series.



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