So I finished House of Leaves.
Hmm, hmm, hmm.
There was a good story in there, sort of Lovecraftian, but you had to mine pretty deep, and there was a lot of stuff in there that I just plain wasn’t able to read. It did the “wordswordswords” thing where a sentence just dissolves into meaningless verbage, and even though all the words are in English, and if you work really hard, you can just about get a sentence, it is not in any sense readable. I am not smart enough, perhaps, but I require clear, lucid prose. I am willing to accept that there was a lot that, due to this failure, I didn’t get. The interactive flip-this-book-around-and-read-backwards stuff was reasonably entertaining, if somewhat gimmicky. The basic story was fairly neat.
And then there was the guy in the footnotes.
I feel a rant coming on.
This is a failing on my part, I think. It’s something I first noticed while attempting to read Phillip K. Dick. James loves his stuff. I cannot read it. I slogged through “Valas” and “Do Androids Dream” in an effort to establish my geek cred, and the movies based on his work are often great, and his ideas are certainly snazzy, he was capable of very cool sci-fi concepts, without question–but Dick appeared to be incapable of writing a character that I did not wholeheartedly despise. There was nary a redeeming feature among them. I did not LIKE them. I didn’t even like not liking them. There are characters that are fun to hate. These weren’t. These were just pathetic and flawed and dirty and annoying, I realize that in being so, they might portray with piercing accuracy the flawed standard of the human race, and furthermore I don’t care. They were marvelously accurate, I’m sure, undoubtedly I would appear just as flawed and loathsome in such pages, yes, I know, but it didn’t matter. Reading about them was like having to clean the litterbox for four and a half hours, with your fingernails. In a bar. Frequented by Scientologists. I wouldn’t want to hang out with any of them. I would advise my friends not to date them. Shallow, I am certainly, but there you are. I was not interested in how wonderfully flawed and human they were, I just thought they were basically sucky human beings. When they died, I did not feel even the pang of empathy reserved for faceless numbers in the newspaper–I thought “God, die faster and more quietly, will you?”
(James points out that I have been highly unlucky in my choice of Dick books, and managed to pick two where the characters were deliberately heinous/spineless/worthless, or in the case of “Valas,” was more interesting in the sense of “Look how fast he can make that thing go!” where “thing” is “Dick’s brain.” This is certainly possible, but after those two, I am loathe to expend another few hours of my life on reading, and a few weeks on being irritated at a dead schizophrenic.)
It’s not even that they’re not good people. China Mieville’s characters are flawed and cowardly and cold and detached and naive and whatever, they are not idealized fantasy heroes, but I can identify with them, I understand them, I know people like that. I couldn’t identify with Dick’s characters. I would not do those things, I would not be in that situation, I cannot think of a single reason why their company would be preferable to that of an incontinent armadillo. There is some kind of vital disconnect between the two sets of characters. I don’t know why.
My response to the narrator in the footnotes, who alternated between “So I had sex with this random chick,” and “Oh woe, my brain is falling apart, I’m on drugs, and I have childhood trauma and there’s a monster maybe/not after me,” was basically identical. Either have the decency to die and get it over with, or shut up already. I began skimming his bits and then I stopped even bothering. Every now and then I’d dip back–yup, still a whining loser. Still fantasizing about strippers. I’ll check back later. A few dozen pages later on, yup, more whining, and sex, and wordswordswordswords. Just die. Die quickly, and quietly, and without fuss. You will do the narrative a great service. No? Lord, the first narrator in the subtext had the decency to kick off in the first chapter. Follow that example.
It is almost certain that I am not cool enough to read this book and get the real subtext. I’m sure there are dark and fascinating mysteries hidden for people who want to read and check every footnote and follow the bibliographies, a scavenger hunt for people who can sit through the sex scenes and cross-reference them. I am not that person. You will need a much better mystery to keep me reading. If I want angsty incoherencies laced with bad sex, I can prowl the darker regions of LJ, and the pages will be right-side-up the whole time.
So in the end, it was a fairly cool story bracketed by tedious but forgiveable bits, but footnoted with endless degenerate whining, and not the fun kind of degenerate whining, the solipsistic kind. The bits with the house were neat, though. Not enough of those. Although that’s probably inevitable–you show too much, the unfamiliar becomes familiar and ceases to be scary. So thumbs up for the main narrative. I realize that all the annoying whining and the tangled and labyrinthical you-call-this-prose was probably meant to instill in the reader the same sense of “Holy crap, this shit goes on FOREVER,” that the explorer sees in endless corridors, devoid of anything particularly interesting, in which one searches in vain to find SOMETHING. So as far as that goes, rousing success, I’m sure. There were moments where I was indeed willing to believe that the page was expanding into infinite realms of antediluvian suck. If we substitute “bad sex scene” for “featureless corridor” (and indeed, we could draw parallels, although we’d have to substitute “mild disgust” for “gnawing terror”) then yes, the illusion was compelling. Score for the author on that front.
Anyway, as I said, it was probably brilliant, and I am simply not hip enough for it. I accept this. I’m okay with this. I have come to terms with my uncoolness over the years.
So on the Ursula scale it gets a “Hmm.”
Edit: Okay, I thought of a better analogy for the characters in the Dick books. It was like vomiting. Vomiting is something we all do at some point, but there is no glory in it. It is an unpleasant, tedious experience, waiting for that horrific involuntary come-on-get-it-over-with stomach clench, and about the only redeeming quality to it is that once it’s over, you no longer feel like vomiting. It is best done privately, or in the company of someone who loves you enough to hold your hair. You may be able to identify with someone in the throes of barfing up their toenails, but you don’t particularly want to hang out in the same room, and they’d just as soon you weren’t there either. It is a personal low point. And in a novel, it is fine to mention it, it is certainly something that happens, it need not be glossed over–but 300 pages of people doing nothing but vomiting would be well nigh unreadable. That is how I felt about those characters. Reading about them was like watching someone be violently ill. The initial shock fades quickly, and you’d just as soon shut the door and leave them to their private hell.