Gliding Over All
August 8, 2013 6:24 AM   Subscribe

House of Leaves of Grass: Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves (previously) remixed with Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass into a 100-trillion-stanza poem. Artist's statement. Instructions for reading.
posted by Cash4Lead (28 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
That is... dizzying. And interesting. I bet you could set up a way to tweet stanzas at random.

"Blistering with love
forever! Soldiers!"

I also expect you could do a House of Cards mash-up, too.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:29 AM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


I posted the intersection of my userid and got:

All is a procession!
forever! moment!

All is a procession!
this is not for mother


Dunno what to make of that, but now I want to feed Whitman into the Markov script.
posted by jquinby at 6:36 AM on August 8, 2013


Also:

Torn to pieces,
This is not for children.

Is good advice. This could be an oracle, honestly.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:36 AM on August 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Second verse, larger than the first.
posted by thecaddy at 6:37 AM on August 8, 2013


Now someone should mash-up Danielewski's Only Revolutions with decent writing and a plot.
posted by stltony at 6:53 AM on August 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


tl;dr
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 6:55 AM on August 8, 2013 [8 favorites]


Only Revolutions is terrific I will fight you.
posted by Rory Marinich at 6:58 AM on August 8, 2013 [7 favorites]


I have strong opinions about House of Leaves and Only Revolutions. I (like tons of other pretentious literary types) absolutely loved House of Leaves. It's strange, because it has a reputation for being obtuse or confusing or experimental, but a lot of that is just on the surface. Get past the occasionally odd typography, and the dual stories told through footnotes, and it's actually a pretty straightforward, and (for me at least), really enjoyable ghost story.

But somewhere along the line I think Danielewski heard too much praise for the more-experimental parts of House of Leaves, and decided to jettison all trappings of narrative, plot, or comprehensibility for Only Revolutions.

A couple of years back, I wrote a blog post on Only Revolutions: An Ugly Pile of Words.

Make no mistake, I think Only Revolutions is terrible. And not just in the "I didn't really enjoy it" sense, but in the full blown, incomprehensible, unintelligible, trainwreck-of-disconnected-stream-of-consciousness, nonsense-poetry sense. Some part of me (semi-seriously) wonders if it was published as an inside joke, a prank on over-credulous reviewers afraid to expose their own ignorance.

I skimmed through The Fifty Year Sword, and found it to be just as reader-hostile as Only Revolutions. I suppose the author can be praised for continuing to get these things published, but I'm honestly at a loss to figure out what the appeal of them are, to a reader. Rory Marinich, help me out?
posted by Eldritch at 7:20 AM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Is House of Leaves really as insufferable as everything I read about it leads me to believe?
posted by 256 at 7:40 AM on August 8, 2013


I skimmed through The Fifty Year Sword, and found it to be just as reader-hostile as Only Revolutions. I suppose the author can be praised for continuing to get these things published, but I'm honestly at a loss to figure out what the appeal of them are, to a reader.

The Fifty Year Sword is a basic horror short story strung out (hahaha oh god) into a novel-sized book. The ending is completely telegraphed and the multiple narrator setup has no payoff, but its visual presentation is appealing, some of the concepts are cool and the writing is well crafted. I read it in an hour, didn't regret it.
posted by cog_nate at 8:02 AM on August 8, 2013


Is House of Leaves really as insufferable as everything I read about it leads me to believe?

256: On the surface, it's pretentious and self-consciously literary and POMO as all hell. You literally have to turn the book upside down and sideways at points to read two or three words of what would otherwise be fairly conventional prose. And half the time, the narrative is told in footnotes.

Scratch a little deeper, and it's really not much more than a novelization of a story that could just as well have been told as another installment in the Paranormal Activity series of films.

I didn't hate it, actually. But once you look past the typographical and formatting tricks (and the self-referential, self-mythologizing aspects of the narrative), it's a fairly short, not especially groundbreaking horror story about a family with a spooky house and relationship issues.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:10 AM on August 8, 2013


Eldritch - I have Only Revolutions stuffed into a dedicated side-pocket in my travel bag. I read it regularly when I'm traveling or otherwise on the road in the U.S. - it's a sweeping, sprinting piece of work that weaves together a lot of disparate imagery from travel and civic history. I try to read it slowly or I get the poetic equivalent of an ice-cream headache.
I love U.S. history and I've found that just a page or two will inspire a great deal of self-reflection about the sorts of things I see around me and how I process them when I'm staring out a bus window or people-watching in an airport terminal.
When I'm home, in familiar surroundings, eating the food I love and carrying out my routine activities by rote, the book loses all its magic for me.

In this sense I love setting it against House of Leaves. House of Leaves terrified me because it implied that I could never actually be at home - and that those comforting rituals of domestic life might be the very things that would lead to my psychological undoing. Only Revolutions is like escaping from the daily routine via be launched, human-cannonball-like, into the great plateau of the surrounding countryside. No house to haunt me and threaten my personal autonomy or my ability to escape.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 8:11 AM on August 8, 2013


Is House of Leaves really as insufferable as everything I read about it leads me to believe?

House of Leaves is pretty good. It creates atmosphere really effectively, and overall, as said above, it's a pretty good ghost story. There's a lot of interesting stuff going on in it.

Like pretty much anything that gets a lot of hype, eventually the hype is going to eclipse the actual quality of the work, so there's inevitably going to be a backlash of people who either want to take the work down a peg or who were exposed to so much hype that their expectations were impossibly high. Or, of course, there'll also be people who just couldn't really get into it, and that is fine too.

All that said, it's not perfect. There are parts of it (thankfully these parts are sort of cordoned off and aren't necessary for understanding the book in general) which are reasonably insufferable, at least, but I couldn't say exactly how insufferable because I only got so far into them before I skipped them wholesale. The worst offenders can be found in supplementary material towards the end of the book: poems written by one of the characters who did annotations, and letters from his mother which are written in code. They become tiresome very quickly. Other than those sections, though, it's a fun book which does what it sets out to do very well.

As you can see, opinion is pretty split on Only Revolutions. I found it to be very like the insufferable parts of House of Leaves described above, and gave up on it almost immediately.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 8:19 AM on August 8, 2013


"Insufferable" really depends on what you like and don't like in books. House of Leaves is a killer horror story, with some really amusing academic satire and one quite sad mother-son story mixed in. It's definitely playing around with how a story gets told, but it does so in some very fun ways IMO—if you can't tolerate experiments like that, though, then you can't just opt out of them, they're pretty fundamental to how the book works.

Only Revolutions is a more "niche" work, because its story is entirely inseparable from the form it's told in; with House of Leaves you're still dealing with, like, prose, whereas Only Revolutions is a prose poem at best (and an incomprehensible mess at worst). But I like it a lot. In a sense it's an even more straightforward story than House's horror story: boy meets girl/girl meets boy, each one falls for the other, each gets her/his heart broken. It's the way the story's told, with all these revolving cycles and mutating characters, that makes it anything interesting.

For me, the near-incomprehensability is what makes the story work, and it's justified because the underlying tale being told is such a basic one. It's like Robert Coover's fairy tales, where the same things happen over and over again with slight variations, slowly revealing a deeper and more disturbing shape beneath. Here the constant patterning, the color and type variations, the various symbols scattered and hidden throughout, all serve to catch your attention and take you into all these nooks and cranny-holes that your protagonist is going through also. And Danielewski sidesteps the problem of "why should you care about this 16-year-old kid?" with this. He doesn't have to give you long monologues about their feelings or emotions or whatever, which let's face it aren't that interesting in 16-year-old kids. What he wants to capture is that feeling of opportunity and excitement, of change and heartbreak, that you can feel purely when you're young and then don't ever get quite as sharply again, because now you know shit about shit and the world is filtered through those lenses.

It's a very "thoughtless" book in a sense; the focus is on sensation, and all of the book's layers revolve around different kinds of sensuality. The character's egoism, which slowly becomes begrudging tolerance of the other, then acceptance, then fondness, then a kind of love, is allowed to be this slow, barely-happening process—and then at the halfway point, when suddenly love turns into dependence and anxiety and despair, worry that you won't be loved back, fear that something will happen to your love, suddenly the world starts to recede and the whole story starts to happen in this kid's head. But life goes on. Problems don't disappear—in fact, problems that used to completely not matter suddenly matter a great deal, because now there's this hope, this dream, that might die if it's not tended. And the nonchalance of the characters at the start of their story, when they're unrestrained and effectively amoral, starts to work against them, because they're too young to understand what they have to do.

The cyclical nature of the book is kind of crucial to this, in part because it forces you as a reader to decide what perspective you want to take here. Do you flip the book around and around, reading part of each story at a time? Then you have a tragedy of two lovers that meet and separate. Or do you read straight through as one person, then straight through as the next? Then there's more of a whiplash, where tragedy becomes comedy, the thing that's crushing one character is being inflicted on them by the other, uncaring one. But the book is involved enough that you could read one story upside-down, in which case you realize that the whole story rhymes with the other story in reverse – page 5 line 3 of one story rhymes with page 360 line 11 of the other – and then you get this constant commentary wherein the way each feels about the other is never in sync, though they're constantly going through the same cycles of longing and apathy.

Like with House of Leaves, I think that if you worry too much about why the book works how it works, you end up getting less out of the story. Danielewski's not trying to write metafiction in the sense that you're contemplating the nature of his work as you read it (pretentious literary sorts frustrate me when they talk about House for this reason); he's trying to see if altering the structure of a story might make it a more potent experience for his reader. I think that with both books of his that I've read, he succeeds; House of Leaves is genuinely terrifying your first time through, and Only Revolutions has passages that still make me cry. It's a vivid and honest story of youth.

This might be a strange leap to make, but I compare Only Revolutions to the kind of love story told in various Final Fantasy games, where the script is cheesy but the tale can still overwhelm you if you let it. The time you spend with these characters, doing all sorts of things, in all manner of environments, generally just accompanying them throughout their journey, brings you closer to them, even if there's nothing there which necessarily "justifies" the way you feel about them. The world you see through Sam and Hailey is madcap and brilliant and beautiful, and because that's what they see it makes you like them more for it. And the great thing about Revolutions is that that process mirrors what happens to San and Hailey—there's no big "OMG YOU LIKE THE SMITHS AND HAVE DEEP THOUGHTS TOO!" moment, there's nothing that the characters really have in common, but they spend time around each other and eventually they fall in love. Comedy? Tragedy? Both and neither, really; it's a thing that happens, and it's beautiful and devastating in turns.

If the major theme in House of Leaves is "you are not at home, you only ever trick yourself into thinking that you are", then the major theme of Only Revolutions is "this will end, and this will happen again, and it doesn't matter, and it means the world". Expressed terrifically. Danielewski is one of the only writers I know who's playing with how literature works from the side of literature, rather than from the side of "let's mess with things and see where it takes us". There are a lot of writers doing new and innovative things, but few who are doing it in novels that also work as novels; Danielewski and David Mitchell are the only two I've come across who I'd say are doing both at once. It's very satisfying to encounter.
posted by Rory Marinich at 8:23 AM on August 8, 2013 [9 favorites]


Rory Marinich, great response; you've clearly given it a lot of thought, and you've given me a lot to think about.

Opinions will vary, of course, but I think for me, the rub is this:

For me, the near-incomprehensability is what makes the story work...

I have a hard time accepting incomprehensibility (near or otherwise) as anything resembling a virtue in fiction. And Only Revolutions is marketed as a prose novel. So perhaps (as with so much in publishing), this is a problem of marketing, not just one of aesthetics. Still, I can't help but be reminded of a Hemingway quote:

"If a man writes clearly enough any one can see if he fakes. If he mystifies to avoid a straight statement, which is very different from breaking so-called rules of syntax or grammar to make an efffect which can be obtained in no other way, the writer takes a longer time to be known as a fake and other writers who are afflicted by the same necessity will praise him in their own defense. True mysticism should not be confused with incompetence in writing which seeks to mystify where there is no mystery but is really only the necessity to fake to cover lack of knowledge or the inability to state clearly."
--Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon
posted by Eldritch at 8:44 AM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think in terms of its language and thematic concerns, House of Leaves is a pretty ambitious and accomplished book, but I found it damn hard to really care about and form attachments to the characters due to the constantly digressing nature of the narrative structure. I think I went into it expecting more from the core story than I ultimately felt I got. And though the friend who recommended it to me found it terrifying, I honestly didn't find it psychologically unsettling in the slightest. Maybe I just don't have the right hangups or psychological preoccupations. But I'd still recommend it, with a few caveats, to anyone who doesn't mind doing a little bit of the heavy-lifting for themselves when they read.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:46 AM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


On the surface, it's pretentious and self-consciously literary and POMO as all hell. You literally have to turn the book upside down and sideways at points to read two or three words of what would otherwise be fairly conventional prose. And half the time, the narrative is told in footnotes.

It's essential to note that this isn't just for surface effect, the book is the house is a labyrinth is Johnny's life is Johnny's mother's mind and so on and so it's that way for good reason. It's ambitious experimentation to try and engage the reader as an active participant in the story, making the physical act of reading parallel the characters trying to navigate the house and their lives. I think "pretentious" speaks to something self-aggrandizing, unearned and cheap and this book isn't that, but I'll admit I'm just not a fan of the modern tic of throwing around the word "pretentious" in the first place as it serves to stifle creative ambition by dismissal of confident (if flawed) new visions and fosters an environment where your experiment better be perfect or it's not worth doing (making no experiment worth doing, really).
posted by jason_steakums at 8:50 AM on August 8, 2013 [5 favorites]


Actually, it's more the self-conscious tone of academic pretension in the passages about the Navidson Record and Zampanò that I had in mind--not accidental pretense, but the intentional, academic jargon stuff. I wasn't meaning to imply that the book was unintentionally pretentious.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:54 AM on August 8, 2013


(And yes, I share your reservations about the lazy use of the term "pretentious" as a way of dismissing experimentation.)
posted by saulgoodman at 8:57 AM on August 8, 2013


I have a hard time accepting incomprehensibility (near or otherwise) as anything resembling a virtue in fiction.

Well, incomprehensible on one level can lead to clarity on another. It's Impressionism versus Photo-Realism, or Modernist versus Romantic poetry. Danielewski is writing text for a system, not text alone; the way the text interacts with his system is what grants it clarity.
posted by Rory Marinich at 8:57 AM on August 8, 2013


Actually, it's more the self-conscious tone of academic pretension in the passages about the Navidson Record and Zampanò that I had in mind--not accidental pretense, but the intentional, academic jargon stuff. I wasn't meaning to imply that the book was unintentionally pretentious.

Ahh, gotcha! Yeah, I think he was just aping a style that he wasn't deft with for those passages, I felt they were a little off too. I think maybe he was trying to make them compelling when they should have been more dry to fit their clinical "real world documents" presentation. They carried too much of the same voice of the main narrative.
posted by jason_steakums at 9:02 AM on August 8, 2013


IMO the best part of House of Leaves is his sister Annie aka POE's album Haunted, though. Springing from the same source (finding letters/tapes of their deceased father), taking some of the same themes, but instead of experimental horror it's a gorgeous personal pop album.
posted by jason_steakums at 9:07 AM on August 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I think he was just aping a style that he wasn't deft with for those passages, I felt they were a little off too.

What? No, no, no. That's not Danielewski trying and failing to pull of dense academic writing. That's how Zampanò is trying to write his opus to lend it weight. It's supposed to sound like crackpot aping of scholarly analysis.
posted by figurant at 10:02 AM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


And Only Revolutions is marketed as a prose novel.

I don't remember that being the case. I know before I even opened the cover on it in the store I knew it was a poem.

Ahh, gotcha! Yeah, I think he was just aping a style that he wasn't deft with for those passages, I felt they were a little off too.

One of the bits of trivia that amuses me is that MZD worked on the Derrida documentary (albeit doing sound), so I think he's probably somewhat fluent.
posted by juv3nal at 10:31 AM on August 8, 2013


And Only Revolutions is marketed as a prose novel.

I don't remember that being the case.

From Amazon's page for Only Revolutions:
Books > Literature & Fiction > Contemporary
Books > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Coming of Age
Books > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Metaphysical
Books > Literature & Fiction > Literary
Books > Literature & Fiction > United States


Also from Amazon:
Your search "Danielewski" did not match any products in: Books › Literature & Fiction › Poetry

If it was marketed as poetry and accidentally thought of as a novel, then that's a mistake made by the reviews cited on the Only Revolutions official web site, who all refer to it as a novel. Likewise, a mistake made by the New York Times review of the book, which says:

Pantheon, after all, also insists the book is a novel, and that's quite a stretch. (emphasis mine).

I definitely agree that it doesn't really hold up as a novel. Perhaps it is poetry, but to me, the marketing (and its placement in the fiction section of every bookstore I've ever seen it in) suggests that it's being put forward as prose, not poetry.
posted by Eldritch at 10:50 AM on August 8, 2013


I have a copy of House of Leaves. In my freezer.
posted by steef at 11:08 AM on August 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Is House of Leaves really as insufferable as everything I read about it leads me to believe?

I’d say yes, but that all depends on you. For me it was a fantastic idea very poorly executed. For others the execution was the attraction. I was immediately sucked in and started tearing through it. After a while I just didn’t give a shit any more, and at points my eyes rolled back in my head so far I was in danger of passing out. I managed to finish anyway but don’t really remember how it turned out due to a lack of interest.

Up to half the book might be filler. I had a hard time figuring out why, but then I read that there are codes imbedded in there. So instead of hiding codes in the actual story he just filled the book with random nonsense to contain them. Which I suppose is much easier.

When you add the throw away stuff, including pages and pages of random lists of things, and the pages that only have a handful of words on them, it’s pretty short. It just seems really long. Like watching a movie on TV with 50% commercials.

I’ve always wished someone would rewrite it.
posted by bongo_x at 11:23 AM on August 8, 2013


Perhaps it is poetry, but to me, the marketing (and its placement in the fiction section of every bookstore I've ever seen it in) suggests that it's being put forward as prose, not poetry.

Fair enough. I went searching, and I'm thinking I may have drawn my pre-purchase impression from this comment.

In other news, there's some neat analysis of OR over here.
posted by juv3nal at 1:15 PM on August 8, 2013


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