12 April 2010

3 Word-Bending Novels

The first really "absolutely-freaking-weird-as-hell-but-still-pretty-darn-cool-because-I've-never-seen-anything-like-it" book I ever read was House of Leaves. That book is awesome. Of course, you kind of have to approach it with a VERY open mind and at least somewhat know what you're getting yourself into before you attempt to read it. My senior year of high school I recommended it for one of the four books we read for book club, and that turned out to be a pretty big mistake. Those 14, 15, and 16 year-old kids just weren't really prepared for the 700 page mess of wordy sentences, copious footnotes, constantly changing fonts, and the necessary flipping between appendixes, exhibits, and chapters. Very few of them managed to finish it in 9 weeks, and what they did read pretty much went right over their heads. My English teacher didn't care for it much either, probably because it's full of run-on sentences, drug abuse, and unnecessary narrative- but that's part of what makes the book what it is.

Besides, I mostly only recommended it so that I could get my own free copy.

Anyways, I read House of Leaves during fall break of my senior year. My parents and I had embarked on a road trip from Arizona to Oregon and then down the California coast and back to Arizona- if I remember that right. All those college-search trips have really blurred together in my head. All I know is I had hours of driving through rural Nevada and Oregon during which to get lost inside the maze that is this book. It had been recommended to me by a couple of my friends who had started passing around a copy, but being impatient, I decided to just get it from the library. I literally read during every minute of inactivity from the moment I got into my parents' van on the first Saturday of break until I finished it a shocking 5 or 6 days later. Trust me, that is no easy feat with this book. I started reading it again casually a week and a half ago and I've only made a 100 page dent. This book is a project, to say the least.

After I read it, though, I felt this urge to search for other books like it. Basically, House of Leaves uses abstract techniques of arranging words, paragraphs, pages, and story lines, so that the act of reading itself becomes a part of the story. It's kind of like concrete poetry, in which the words are written to form a picture that boosts the impact of the poem. Only, House of leaves is much more complex than that. It's difficult to explain, but it's nothing short of fascinating. The way Mark Z. Danielewski uses fonts, colors, arrangements, and basic literary tools to emphasize themes and support his story is a unique technique I can only describe as "word-bending", hence the title of this post. I wanted more.

The best way I've found so far to find books that are similar to books I know and love is to use Amazon. There are probably cooler ways out there, but I like the way Amazon knows things I've bought, things I've looked at, as well as things other people who have bought and looked at the same stuff as I have like. I looked up House of Leaves and just scrolled down to see what recommendations the site had based on my search, and then went to the library and got a couple of them. To this day I've read two others, aside from House of Leaves, and my search for others always continues. Being an equally visual and auditory person, I can't help but be attracted to a book that looks abstract and interesting based on a mere flip-through. Below are these three mind-and-word-bending books which I have quite enjoyed, and which I recommend you take on- if you think you have the time and mental stamina. Trust me, other books are better suited for before-bead reading. These are (excuse my french) a definite mind-fuck.

1. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

I've made my case with this one I believe. However, I will give you a brief plot outline (which, for all of these books, will only barely skim the surface).

The book begins with a letter from a man named Johnny Truant. He describes the circumstances which led to his possession of a chest full of scraps and leaves of paper- everything from postage stamps to newspapers to envelopes to post-it notes- which previously belonged to a now-deceased old man named Zampano. Every bit of this paper is covered in the old man's writing, and as Johnny looks at it closer and begins to piece it together, he discovers it is the manuscript for a book that the old man was writing. The book turns out to be a comprehensive analysis of a fictional documentary entitled The Navidson Record. The film, which exists neither in Zampano and Johnny's world nor our own, is about a family who moves into an extremely absurd and eventually dangerous house and begins to explore it's mysteries. SO. House of leaves is a mixture of Zampano's novel which Johnny pieces together, The story of the Navidson family which lies inside Zampano's novel, and finally, Johnny's commentary which digresses often into accounts of his own drug-filled, emotionally complex life. Basically, it's 3 very absurd stories rolled into one.

2. The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall

This was one of those books I read where the whole time I was thinking "huh... I'm not sure if this is good enough for me to want to finish". But, perhaps because it was summer vacation, I kept picking it up until it was finished and at the end I was thinking, "Wow, that was actually a good book. I kinda want to read it again". Interesting how that happens...

Anyways, this was one of the books recommended by Amazon because of my interest in House of Leaves. It employs the same use of abstract fonts and arrangements of words to support the story, but to a much smaller degree than House of Leaves. Still, the story is complex and un-worldly in a way that seems like it could still possibly happen at some point. I was a little turned off by the science-fictiony feel of this novel, which I wasn't really looking for, but overall the concepts impressed me.

Actually, the concepts are so abstract and confusing that it's difficult for me to give you a plot summary, but I'll try. Basically, this novel is about a British man named Eric Sanderson who wakes up on the floor of an unfamiliar house with no idea where he is, who he is, or of any details about his life. Conveniently, there are instructions in this house (which turns out to be his) which tell him to call a woman (who turns out to be a psychologist). Eric discovers that he has become victim to a vicious conceptual creature called a Ludovician, which feeds on his memories, thoughts, and ideas- leading to these frequent episodes of complete unfamiliarity which get worse as they continue. This is the 11th time Eric has woken up without knowing who he is, and this time he decides to embark on a mission to find and slay this conceptual creature. See, it's incredibly confusing. Amazingly though, it actually makes sense while you're reading it. When you boil it down, the Raw Shark Texts is a novel that blurs the line between the "real" world, and the conceptual world of thought which consists of the rivers of ideas and memories which form a gigantic web between every living person. Oh yeah, and there's some romance in there too. And it has a nice, satisfying ending, which is more than can be said for House of Leaves, that's for sure.

3. Only Revolutions by Mark Z. Danielewski

The author of House of Leaves is back again and confusing as ever- probably even more so. I confess, I didn't have a chance to completely finish this book before I had to return it to the public library and move away to Oregon, but what I did read I really liked, and I plan on finishing it in the very near future. I have to warn you though, if you start to read this book, keep at it for a good hour or so. Don't read the first twenty pages, go "what the heck is this even about? This is all jibber-jabber!" and cast it aside in confusion. True, it doesn't make any sense whatsoever. But, like House of Leaves, it all comes together in pieces and after a little while you become accustomed to the strange manipulation of words and the abstract writing style.

I can't give you a super in-depth summary of the plot, but I can give you the basic layout. This novel follows the stories of two teenagers- Sam and Hailey. You read Sam's story first, and then once you finish the book you flip it over and ta da! Read Hailey's story. The book is designed so that one story is upside down while you're reading the other- meaning you read the book cover to cover twice. There is also a date on every page, with a list of a few event which happened during that month or year- this is relevant because Sam and Hailey are immune to time. They are perpetually teenagers (16 I think...) and they travel over a course of 200 years or so trying to outrace history. Sound confusing? Well, it is. Just try reading it, you can see for yourself. It's really interesting though, and Danielewski certainly lives up to the reputation he made for himself with House of Leaves

If you've got a bit of time of your hands, enjoy abstract literature, or are just bored with the ho-hum paragraphs and times new roman package that is a "normal" novel, you should go out and rent one of these books. Chances are, you'll be fascinated- even if you don't particularly enjoy the story, you'll certainly be impressed with the way the author finds a creative way to tell it. Be warned though, opening any of these books is embarking on a strange and mind-bending journey. I hope you're ready!

as always.. pictures to come.

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