Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Recovering from Pneumonia

So how was your week?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Review of the First Fifty-Five Pages of 'House of Leaves'

I can imagine, having been around in 1999 when 'The Blair Witch Project' became such a sensation in the public consciousness for several months, exactly how the genesis of the novel 'House of Leaves' came about. Remember that one obnoxious wannabe stoner who saw it before you did and dragged you to it talking the whole time about how bad it would mess with your head, and how scary it was, and how cool it was, and how it was totally based on a true story and the actors were all really dead, and how all this bit was totally symbolic because Plato talked about how there was this cave, right, with shadows on the wall, and there were shadows on the wall in this bit and that made it so deep, and how he was going to totally get laid later that night after he scored some pot with these guys he knew who were in the Jamaican Mafia, which is totally a thing and you just don't know about it because you're not cool like him, because he's really cool and deep and does drugs and everything, man, and...

I can only assume that author Mark Z. Danielewski had a similar experience, and wanted to replicate it exactly in novel form. The innermost nested narrative, the story of a family whose house slowly begins to get bigger on the inside than on the outside, is effective and creepy, and made me want to read more. But I cannot imagine--I literally cannot imagine a situation in which someone came up with that central concept and said, "Hey! You know what would improve this? If it was narrated by a rambling half-baked pseudo-philosophical pompous windbag who frequently interrupted it with long pointless digressions on linguistics that aren't nearly as intelligent or interesting as he/I think they are, which are in turn repeatedly interrupted by a narcissistic douchebag who spouts off alternating lines of BS about how scary you're going to find the rest of the novel and about how much trim he gets!"

That's the central problem of the book, and it's an insurmountable one--there literally is no amount of time I can spend reading the authorial voices of "Zampano" or "Johnny Truant" that is too short. These are two people I wouldn't want to spend five minutes in an elevator with, and Danielewski seems to be under the impression that there's no digression too trivial to break away from the Navidson narrative in order to spend several pages with these two gentlemen as they explain the various mytho-poetic and symbolic meanings of the word "echo", or talk about their endless attempts to pick up women and the boring lies they told to get laid. It doesn't just halt momentum, it actively guts any interest I have as a reader in continuing. Knowing that there was another goddamn Johnny Truant sequence coming down the pike in a few pages made me want to put the book down and play video games. Or read io9 articles. Or spend a good few minutes watching paint dry. Anything, really, so long as it didn't involve reading the text in that Courier font.

Was the editor drunk? Did they leave the room? Did they edit the novel blindfolded as some sort of challenge? Or did they just finally, after repeated warnings to the author about how they were taking a really interesting horror novel and turning it into an obscure cult novel that was only going to appeal to pseudo-intellectual stoners, give up and let the author publish it as it was? This is a question that will keep me up at night far longer than any of the supposed terrors that the narrator warns me about.

It's a shame, because I'd really like to read an expurgated version that focuses exclusively on the Navidson record. Or give it to someone willing to adapt it ruthlessly, like William Goldman did to his own novel of 'The Princess Bride', and turn it into a film. (Which apparently Danielewski has refused to allow on multiple occasions. I'm giving him a lot of flack here for turning out a novel that I can't imagine ever ever ever wanting to read because it's awful, but I will admit to admiring him for sticking to his guns and refusing to alter his artistic vision. It's just the artistic vision itself that I can't stand.)

Basically, what I'm saying is that this book now joins a highly exclusive club. I will be turning forty this year, and I'm a voracious reader (I read maybe a book a week? Sometimes two or three?) Let's say that equates to roughly 2000 books I've read over my lifetime. I can think of exactly two off the top of my head that I didn't think were worth finishing. 'House of Leaves' is one of those two.

Monday, January 05, 2015

The Important Thing About 'The Librarians'

If you're going to watch TNT's new series 'The Librarians'--and let me make it clear at this point that I am doing exactly that, every week, and that I consider it to be "appointment television" in a way that about three other shows on the air right now are and I'll freely admit that I let two of the others pile up for weeks on the DVR in much the same way that this sentence clause is piling up in this paragraph--then there's something you should understand first. Because if you don't, you're going to hate it.

Namely, the show is crushingly unsubtle. Deliberately, hilariously, thuddingly unsubtle. Not a thing about this show is subtle. I feel reasonably safe in saying that it's by design and not by accident, but this is a show that works in big, bright, obvious strokes like a live-action cartoon. It's ludicrously straightforward about everything it does, and if you don't see that as part of its charm, seriously. Stop watching. Now. Because I don't see it changing.

How unsubtle is it? The Christmas episode is all about Matt Frewer's recurring villain Dulaque (whose true identity has been given a few crushingly unsubtle hints here and there) and his plans to kill Santa Claus. This is the level of subtext we're operating on, people. They're establishing who the villain of the season is by giving him a story where he attempts to kidnap and murder Kris Kringle. (Jolly old Saint Nick, by the way, was played by Bruce Campbell. I never knew how much my life had been missing a scene between Matt Frewer as a Bondian supervillain threatening the life of Bruce Campbell's Santa Claus until I got it.)

Does this make the series bad? Hell. No. As I say, it's being done for a deliberate purpose--they have a lot of silly action-adventure ground they want to cover in any given episode, and dancing around with the setup takes up valuable time that they can use doing the fun stuff later. Why bother with subtle, understated character arcs when you can get that stuff out of the way in one early scene where everyone talks about their ideal Christmas? It's not like dwelling on it is going to make it any better, and this way you get to the stuff everyone wants sooner (like Bruce Campbell delivering the immortal line, "Someone jacked Santa's ride!")

This week's episode is another perfect example. It's about fairy tales coming to life and turning a small town into a rolling disaster-broth of big bad wolves, trolls, and wicked stepmothers who accidentally fall into their own ovens. Does this need subtlety? Like a fish needs a bicycle.

Ultimately, I think that Ezekiel Jones sums up the series perfectly. There has been a scene in just about every episode where someone tells him that he needs to change, he can't just be a happy-go-lucky dimwit who coasts on his luck and thieving skills to replace intelligence, empathy and strength of character. And every episode, it turns out that nope, he's just going to keep being a live-action cartoon and it'll all work out awesome for him because he's just that awesome. That's the series in a nutshell--be awesome enough and you can just glide right past all your flaws. Hey, it's worked so far.