Sucked into the Maze: an Exploration of House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

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House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski is a stupefying maze of a book. It is a story within a story within a story which defies the conventions of traditional page formatting and linear narrative. The strengths of this book lie in the way that its strangeness and its narratives come together to leave the reader with some very strong overall impressions.

The main text of House of Leaves is a faux-academic examination of a non-existent film entitled The Navidson Record. The film is a documentary(?) that deals with the Navidson family, who moves into a house which begins to expand, shift, and change dimensions as they live in it. The academic exploration of the film is written by Zampanò, a blind man (yes, who is writing about a film) who dies while writing this treatise. The text is then found by Johnny Truant, who takes it on to try to complete it, inserting his own life as footnotes alongside the academic footnotes of Zampanò. Truant goes insane while working on the book, which is then found, edited and published by nameless editors, who also add their own footnotes. This is presumably the status of the text when it reaches the reader.

The theoretical examination of The Navidson Record is a clear riff on academic writing. It is written formal language and is footnoted with hundreds of academic articles to back up the theories that Zampanò espouses. The problem with this is that try as Johnny Truant might, he cannot find evidence that the film being theorized about even exists. Some of the footnotes come from sources that do actually exist (thanks to the comps list, I was familiar with Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air), but most of the sources do not. Danielewski (or Zampanò?) even goes so far as to quote actual people supposedly giving their take on The Navidson Record, including such well-known people as Anne Rice and Susan Sontag. This makes The Navidson Record seem like a notable film and the reader must constantly remind herself that not only are the theories and quotes mostly made up, the film itself does not exist.

This academic writing completely falls apart as the book progresses. The text itself spins out of control, the words of Zampanò’s theories literally turn upside-down, go down staircases, and run across the page. He begins writing nonsensical footnotes that appear in boxes in the middle of the page, run on forever in lists, and bleed through to the other side so that the reader is reading the text both forward and backwards. German and French litter the pages, sometimes untranslated. There is braille, musical notation, and ASCII pictures. Each time the word “house” is mentioned in any language, it appears in blue and slightly askew.

The footnotes also refer the reader to several “Exhibits” and “Appendices” in the back of the book. These contain photographs, lists of things that Zampanò plan to include but which are never found, and collections of poetry. The most notable of these contains a series of letters to Johnny Truant from his mother. She writes these while in a mental institution and they range from traditional-seeming letters to letters with scattered text to letters in secret code. The reader is referred to these letters early on and this helps the reader understand how to read other parts of the book.

The main reason that all this is tolerable is that it fits so well with the story itself. Like the house in The Navidson Record, the book folds in on itself, containing story within story. It is a maze, just like the house is, and the reader must navigate it in the same way that Will Navidson must navigate his house. It is impossible for the reader not to get lost in it. This mirrors the experience of both the people in The Navidson Record and Zampanò and Truant, who, as they are writing about the film, get lost in the darkness that the theoretical explorations suggest. Instead of being alienating gimmicks, the nuances of the book pull the reader in, making her feel like one more layer in the maze of stories that make up the book. The only way this effect could be more effective is if the book left space for the reader to footnote her own experience of researching the film (which I will admit to attempting, even knowing it didn’t exist) and reading the text. For my own part, I was so engrossed in the book that I felt nearly compelled to add footnotes that recounted what was happening in my world, that the leaves were falling, darkness was multiplying, and my house, like the Navidson house, seemed to be emitting a low growl.

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.

Magical Memoir: Waiting for Snow in Havana by Carlos Eire

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Carlos Eire’s Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy is a strange gem of a memoir. It recounts the story of his childhood in Havana, during the transition of the country to a communism and the effects of this transition on Eire and his family, culminating in his being shipped out of the country without his parents, to be orphaned in the U.S. This memoir is interesting and magical for a number of reasons. The reader knows from the start of the book what the outcome will be – the dustcover tells young Carlos’ fate. However, the genius of the book is in the way that Eire tells the story.

The book opens on the day that Batista is overthrown, as Eire says, “the world changed as I slept.” Right from the outset, we know that this is a different kind of memoir, one filled with whimsy and magic. On the very first page, we learn that Eire’s father believes that he was Louis XVI in a past life and that his mother was Marie Antoinette. For the rest of the book, Eire uses this interesting tidbit to extrapolate meaning and draw conclusions about what his parents might have thought and felt during this tumultuous time. He refers to them more often by these names than by their real names and this allows him more room to paint them as characters as well as give him distance from his relationships with them. In so doing, Eire gives himself the space necessary to examine people close to him without too much fear of spilling family secrets or offending.

This magical start to the book continues, as the metaphors grow and shift. There are thematic tropes that come up again and again, as if they are haunting Eire’s childhood. Lizards, Immanuel Kant, American movies, and Jesus’ eyes pop up in the strangest places, and yet they hold the narrative together. The repetition of these images gives the readers a touchstone to hold on to and ground them as Eire describes a world that is spinning out of control.

Eire’s point of view as a child helps as well. For much of the book, we are getting the perspective of young Carlos, seeing his parents as he saw them, seeing Cuba as he saw them. This gives him an incredible amount of leeway in terms of how factually accurate he must be. From the prologue, it is clear that Eire is writing from his memories. These are his own personal experiences and the way that he saw things as a child. Eire makes it clear that we are dealing with personal experience set in history, dealing with memories which can be fallible and malleable and may not match the history books or memories of others.

This emphasis on personal experience also allows Eire to take some very strong political stances. Even if the reader does not agree with Eire’s ideas about the Cuban Revolution, his individual experiences cannot be argued with. We see in very close detail the repercussions of historical events on his family and on him. He makes a very large, well-documented historical event into a personal life event. Interestingly, looking at the revolution from a child’s perspective gives us a view that feels somehow pure or untarnished because this child’s view does not have the historical or political context surrounding it. The reader experiences just the effects of the events. In this way, the reader is sympathetic to Eire’s political views because it is clear where they came from and how they developed.

The most interesting part of Waiting for Snow in Havana is the structure. The narrative itself is far from linear. The reader begins the book already knowing the end. However, Eire pulls us along quickly with his use of foreshadowing. He often mentions things that he promises to tell us more about later. The book moves from the day that Batista is overthrown to the day that Eire boards the plane to the U.S. However, the movement in between is not chronological. The book works like a memory itself, associative, repetitive, slippery. Part of what Eire is writing about is a different way of seeing the world, the way that growing up in Cuba shaped his view of reality, and the structure of the book mirrors this. It is emotional and metaphorical. The stories of his childhood in Cuba serve as jumping off points to tell the story of what happens to Eire and his family after he leaves Cuba. These childhood memories also serve to give a frame to discuss big philosophical and religious questions and to examine political views. In this way, Eire makes the magic, history, and whimsy of his childhood relevant and timeless.

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.

Bursting out of You or Showing Up?: How to Romance the Muse

 

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There’s so much to Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life that I feel like I should be reading it more slowly. Today I read 30% of it in one sitting and I could barely contain all the thoughts that it brought up in me.  I sat in the airport and both laughed and cried in the short time that I read.  Other passengers stared.   The ideal way to read it would be to read just one page or one section a day, and ruminate on and write about that one bit.  It’s so dense with wisdom, with feeling.  It’s the kind of book needs to be chewed, tossed on the tongue and savored.  It needs to be digested and felt.

The part I found most encouraging in the sections that I read was Annie’s descriptions of her own writing processes.  I see quotes like Bukowski’s “If it doesn’t come bursting out of you, don’t do it,” and sometimes feel that I am on the wrong track.  There are days when I sit in front of the computer screen and need to walk around the room, have a coffee, make myself a sandwich, have another coffee, and still it’s like pulling teeth to get anything out.  Some days I know that all that I wrote that day will be useless in the final draft.  In terms of word count for the work I’m wrestling with, I’ve done nothing all day.  I think about Bukowski’s quote and think about how it’s not bursting out of me, it’s not even coming out when I’m trying.  Maybe the muse isn’t smiling on me. Maybe I’m not chosen.  Maybe I’m just a fraud thinking I can write when really I can’t.

But Dillard experiences the same frustration.  The same feeling that it’s coming too slowly – or not at all.  She also makes her two cups of coffee and “fools around all day” when she’s trying to write.  The honesty and authenticity with which Dillard writes about her writing process and her struggle brings tears to my eyes, inspires me, and soothes my soul.

She writes, “Even when passages seemed to come easily, as though I were copying from a folio held open by smiling angels, the manuscript revealed the usual signs of struggle-bloodstains, teethmarks, gashes, and burns.”

Writing isn’t easy.  It’s a process, a life.  For most of my writing life, I followed Bukowski’s advice.  I only wrote when I felt like I was going to explode if I didn’t.  I waited, passively, for Calliope to smile upon me, to fill my chest and my mind until my hands couldn’t write fast enough.  In the last ten years, all this waiting got me maybe fifty pages of writing that I was proud of.  Sure, when I was bursting, my writing was good.  But I made a promise to myself that I would no longer wait for my genius to show up, but I would work at it.  And I’ve written the same amount of work that I’m happy with in the past six months as I had in the ten years prior.

Yeah, sometimes it’s wrestling.  And sometimes nothing comes out.  Sometimes what comes out is terrible.  But showing up means that Calliope visits more often.  It means that I have time set aside in my day to work, to think about writing. It’s not as easy as passively waiting for the muse, but the more often I show up, the more often it comes bursting out of me.

 

 

Reading for Writers: The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

Chapter 1.1

In her first chapter of The Writing Life, Annie Dillard begins to explain the complexities of writing.  She hones in on the process.  She starts with the importance of the word as a tool, a hammer, a pick, that gets to the root of the gold you are searching, plumbing depths and getting you closer to truth.  But she also asserts the need to know that many of your words will need to be scrapped, thrown away for the good of a piece.

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This first chapter is a perfect example of sparseness that works.  Dillard moves back and forth between musing about writing and metaphors for writing.  For example, she tells of the inch worm that is constantly searching climbing a blade, “in constant panic” (7).  When putting forth her metaphors, she does not fumble with explication or transitions. Instead she boldly throws the metaphor out juxtaposed with her thoughts about writing and allows her reader to draw their own conclusions about the meaning and purpose of the metaphor.  This book would be a quick and easy read; this first chapter is a mere 21 pages.  But Dillard trusts that her reader will stop and parse the nuance behind her words.  This makes for an enjoyable, engaging experience for the reader and an excellent example of how to write in a way that engrosses the reader.

I loved her discussion of why to write word by word:  “The reason to perfect a piece of prose as it progresses – to secure each sentence before building on it – is that original writing fashions a form.  It unrolls out into nothingness. It grows cell to cell, bole to bough to twig to leaf; any careful word may suggest a route, may begin a strand of metaphor or event out of which much, or all, will develop.” (15)

Though she also discusses the merits of writing like a steam train, without thinking and just going, going, going, this quote really resonated with me and with the way that I write.  I love a little thesaurus.com and Wikipedia.org while I am writing.  Sometimes I feel the need to find just the perfect word and when I do, it leads me on a new idea or metaphor that runs away into the sky in beautiful swirls of words.  This happens also with Wikipedia. Often I have a question or want to know more about some small detail I am including and once I get into Wikipedia, I’m off on new paths that I never imagined but are wonderfully complex and inspire the piece I am working on to go further than I ever thought.

My creative nonfiction professor balked when I told him how long it took me to do our weekly three-page exercises.  I was often spending hours on an assignment that was intended to take only one or two. “You’ve got to learn to write faster. There’s going to be demand for your work and you’re going to have to fill it.”  I tried to explain that I wasn’t being overly meticulous or editing as I wrote, necessarily, but that my process for creativity and association took a lot of time and consideration to come about.

I love the non-linear, associative, over-the-top writing of someone like Tom Robbins (some of you might know that he’s one of my favie faves), who said in an interview with the New York Times, “The reason I write so slowly is because I try never to leave a sentence until it’s as perfect as I can make it,  so there isn’t a word in any of my books that hasn’t been gone over 40 times.” I think this kind of consideration and thorough thought about each word is exactly the reason that Robbins’ sentences are so jam-packed with meaning and imagery and purpose and humor.  They leave me both feeling full and always wanting more.  In the same interview Robbins says that he often starts with just a title, and you can easily imagine how you can go from just a title to a whole whirlwind of a novel if you building it word by word in this way.

The quote above from Dillard helped me to remember why I write this way.  After a failed (well, 17,165 words, which was excellent for me, but not the 50,000 word target) attempt at NaNoWriMo and a push from my nonfiction prof, I was doubting my process and this little aside in The Writing Life reminded me that my process is my own. It does get results and I do love what comes out of it.  So, I can let go a bit on this insistence on word count and instead remember that what I need to put in is time.  Sit so the muse will show up.  And when she does, I’ll be there, listening slowly and conscientiously, even if she gives me only 100 words a day.