Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘House of Leaves

My ten great books #8: Dictionary of the Khazars

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Dictionary of the Khazars

The more books I read or movies I see, the more I’ve come to appreciate works of art that live up to their own promises. They don’t need to be vast or ambitious: I have great respect for straightforward genre pieces—the novels of John D. MacDonald, the movies of Michael Curtiz or Howard Hawks—that deliver on exactly what they say they will. This is doubly true of works that take big formal or conceptual risks. A movie like Memento is a pleasure because it sets itself a tremendous technical challenge and exploits it to its fullest extent. The same is true of a book like Pale Fire, which is irresistible in its conception and even better in execution. More often, you’ll see books that aim high on a structural level but can’t quite close the deal: I admire House of Leaves and Cloud Atlas, for instance, but both novels leave me with the sense that the authors, for all their obvious gifts, faltered near the end. And this isn’t their fault. For a novel to be both perfect and unique, you need more than talent: luck, ruthless patience, and the disposition of the reader all play their part. Which is all to say that Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars comes closer than any novel I know to laying out a series of increasingly improbable formal challenges and triumphing on every level, assuming that you’re prepared to read it on its own terms.

Dictionary of the Khazars, as its title implies, is a dictionary—or, more precisely, three dictionaries with some prefatory material and two appendices—in which the entries can be read in any order. (There’s also the small point that the book comes in two versions, male and female, that differ in a single crucial paragraph, although it’s not until you get to the final page that you understand why.) You can just read the entire book straight through, if you like, or you can read parallel entries in the three different sections, or you can follow the text from one cross-reference to the next. Characters mentioned briefly in one entry receive full treatment in another; you can read the end of one story before finding the beginning or middle; and throughout, there’s the teasing sense that you’re on the verge of uncovering the answer to a puzzle revolving around the fate of the Khazars, a tribe of Central Asian nomads that vanished shortly after their conversion to a neighboring religion, either Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. The fact that Pavic sets all these enigmas and expectations in motion and then actually resolves them is stunning enough: at first glance, the novel seems chaotic, but it’s really a perfect crystal, and it answers all the questions it raises. It’s even more miraculous that the journey is so beautiful, witty, and moving. It’s possible that I reacted to the last few pages so strongly because of the role that this book has played in my own life, as it followed me from one set of shelves to another for more than a decade, waiting patiently to be discovered. But I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t think it might hold the same magic for you, too.

Written by nevalalee

May 17, 2017 at 9:00 am

House of passages

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House of Eternal Return at Meow Wolf

On Friday, I visited Meow Wolf, which is a statement that seems destined to elicit either a knowing smile or a puzzled look, the proportions of which probably change the farther you get from New Mexico. I didn’t really know what it was before I went, which was a good thing, and I’m not sure how to describe it even now, which is even better. It’s housed in a huge building in downtown Santa Fe that used to be a bowling alley and is now owned by local hero George R.R. Martin, who spent millions of dollars in renovations to allow Meow Wolf, an artistic collective with its own long history, to enable its wildest dreams. After buying a ticket, you walk down a darkened hallway into what looks like a crumbling Victorian house, built from scratch down to the last shingle. You can explore every room, look inside every drawer, and even open the fridge, which contains a startling surprise of its own. As you wander, you gradually start to piece together a larger narrative, and you realize that everything you see is a clue. All of the obvious anomalies, from the distorted floor of the upstairs bathroom to the portal in the fireplace, reflect a coherent story about a peculiar family, a missing child, two rival secret societies, and a hub connecting the house to a vast multiverse, tantalizing portions of which are accessible to visitors. (I managed to figure out very little of this for myself, and if you want more information, there’s a much better writeup by Annalee Newitz over at Ars Technica.)

And you come away feeling deeply impressed, even if you leave with most of the mystery intact. I went in knowing almost nothing about it, aside from the notion that it was some sort of interactive exhibit and art installation, and I went from bracing myself for the worst possible version of the experience—I was dreading a kind of kid’s show with insistent actors and cheap set dressings—to the realization that it was probably the best. It’s been compared to an online RPG, and it has to solve many of the same narrative problems, in three dimensions and with a live audience, which obliges it to deal with the challenges of a theme park attraction or a haunted house. There are many small touches of wayfinding that keep you exactly as disoriented as the designers want you to be, but no more, along with subtly incorporated cast members who can give you a nudge in the right direction or indicate a feature that you might have overlooked. And like many of the best video games, it’s accessible both to casuals and to obsessive players. My three-year-old daughter, who is a natural busybody, had a great time simply poking around the house, in which she was granted complete freedom to indulge in her nosiness to her heart’s content. Most of the rooms have both a connection to the overall narrative and elements of self-contained diversion, like the glowing mastodon ribcage that can be played like a xylophone. You can be exactly as engaged with the deeper story as you like, and the fact that local high schoolers seem to treat it as an ideal place to make out probably delights its creators.

House of Eternal Return at Meow Wolf

But if you’re really serious about drilling down to the underlying mystery, there’s a wealth of material at your disposal, much of it remarkably dense: a fake newspaper casually left on a kitchen table, a corkboard with sinister correspondence from the neighborhood middle school, a fat binder of notes about the multiverse, a desktop computer crammed with files. And although the comparisons to video games or theme parks suggest themselves naturally, the best parallel is to Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves. (The formal name of the exhibit is “House of Eternal Return,” which may be a play on words between the act of leaving and the act of returning.) They share the same mingled sense of dread and discovery, and like the novel, the art complex rewards both casual browsing and deep exploration, with much of its charm lying in the implication that it can never be fully exhausted. It was the result of six months of brainstorming and world-building, and the big sensory effects that it creates can’t be separated from its attention to detail on the most granular level. It’s impossible to resist doing a few spot checks, and once you’ve verified that the dresser has clothes in it and that the notebook on the desk is full of real writing, the credibility of the whole enterprise rises enormously. As Douglas R. Hofstadter once wrote of an ingenious word puzzle: “It strikes me as weird (and wonderful) how, in certain situations, the verification of a tiny percentage of a theory can serve to powerfully strengthen your belief in the full theory.” That’s certainly true here, and it would clearly reward repeated visits.

Of course, to see it in the first place, you have to go to Santa Fe, which points both to its appeal and to the inherent obstacles it faces. Thanks to the financial support and creative freedom that Martin has provided, this is likely to be the best possible incarnation of this kind of endeavor that will ever exist, and it’s difficult to envision many other cases in which such a benefactor would be willing or able to take on a similar risk. Meow Wolf estimates that it needs about a hundred thousand visitors every year to break even, which seems like a high bar to clear—even if it represents just one percent of what Game of Thrones pulls in on a good week. Given its nature as a localized interactive experience, it seems destined to be both a labor of love and an irreproducible outlier. (To be honest, I’m not entirely sorry about this: I’m not sure that I want to see a version of this experience that was done with anything less than the resources and the attentiveness that we see here, and a bad knockoff of it would be unbearable.) Yet I have the feeling that its real legacy will be as a crucible of talent, or a hub to an artistic multiverse of its own, with other projects or careers reverberating away from it like ripples in spacetime. To conceive, plan, and above all execute this story in a tangible form, with all of the specific problems that would have presented themselves along the way, must have been an education in itself, and it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the participants went on to do fascinating things with the skills they acquired in the process. It’s a house that leads into many rooms, and the most interesting ones may not even exist yet.

Written by nevalalee

May 24, 2016 at 9:16 am

My ten great books #7: Dictionary of the Khazars

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Dictionary of the Khazars

(Note: For the rest of the month, I’m counting down the ten works of fiction that have had the greatest influence on my life as an author and reader, in order of their first publication. For earlier entries in the series, please see here.) 

The more books I read or movies I see, the more I’ve come to appreciate works of art that live up to their own promises. These promises don’t need to be vast or ambitious: I have great respect for straightforward genre pieces—the novels of John D. MacDonald, the movies of Michael Curtiz or Howard Hawks—that gracefully deliver on exactly what they say they will. This is doubly true of works that take big formal or conceptual risks. A movie like Memento is a pleasure because it sets itself a tremendous technical challenge and exploits it to its fullest extent. The same is true of a book like Pale Fire, which is irresistible in its conception and even better in execution. More often, you’ll see books that aim high on a structural level but can’t quite close the deal: I admire House of Leaves and Cloud Atlas, for instance, but both novels leave me with a sense that the authors, for all their obvious gifts, faltered near the end. And this isn’t their fault. For a novel to be both perfect and unique, you need more than talent: luck, ruthless patience, and the disposition of the reader all play their part. Which is all to say that Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars, which I finished last year after failing to get through it for more than a decade, comes closer than any novel I know to laying out a series of increasingly improbable formal challenges and triumphing on every level, assuming that you’re willing to read it on its own terms.

Dictionary of the Khazars, as its title implies, is a dictionary—or, more precisely, three dictionaries with some prefatory material and two appendices—in which the entries can be read in any order. (There’s also the small point that the book comes in two versions, male and female, that differ in a single crucial paragraph, although it’s not until you get to the final page that you understand why.) You can read the entire book straight through, if you like, or you can read parallel entries in the three different sections, or you can follow the text from one cross-reference to the next. Characters mentioned briefly in one entry receive full treatment in another; you can read the end of one story before finding the beginning or middle; and throughout, there’s the teasing sense that you’re on the verge of uncovering the answer to a puzzle revolving around the fate of the Khazars, a tribe of Central Asian nomads that vanished shortly after their conversion to a neighboring religion, either Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. The fact that Pavic sets all these enigmas and expectations in motion and then actually resolves them is stunning enough: at first glance, the novel seems chaotic, but it’s really a perfect crystal, and it answers all the questions it raises. It’s even more miraculous that the journey is so beautiful, witty, and moving. It’s possible that I reacted to the last few pages so strongly because of the role that this book has played in my own life, as it followed me from one set of shelves to another, waiting patiently to be discovered. But I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t think it might hold the same magic for you, too.

Written by nevalalee

October 1, 2013 at 9:00 am

Disrupting the printed page

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A page from House of Leaves

Robert Louis Stevenson says somewhere—although I haven’t been able to find the exact reference—that all the words on a well-written page should look more or less the same. Stevenson’s advice is generally taken as a warning against the use of ornate vocabulary that doesn’t fit the style of the rest of the line, but in my own work, I’ve also applied it to the level of paragraphs and chapters. Not every chapter should read the same way, of course: a climactic moment should feel different from a chapter primarily devoted to setting up information for a coming run of scenes, and a novel that was written in the same tone throughout would soon grow dull. When you glance quickly over the text without reading it, though, every page of my fiction looks pretty much like any other. Along with the many other arbitrary rules I follow, I’ve never used narrative devices like found documents or diagrams, I stick to one typeface, and I’ve done what I can to make the surface of the book look as seamless as possible, presumably on the theory that any visual device that calls attention to itself can only distract the reader from the story.

This may seem like something other than a matter of style, since it’s primarily visual, but I don’t know what else to call it: it affects the balance between dialogue and description, helps determine paragraph length, and has a subtle but very real influence on the narrative register of my stories. A book that alternates between many different tones often reflects this on the page: the stylistic shifts in a novel like Ulysses are visible at a glance. This is also true of popular fiction, which can alternate between long passages of rapid dialogue, extended sections of description, and strings of short paragraphs and sentence fragments for action scenes. Part of the reason I’ve tried to keep my novels visually consistent is a desire to see if I can get the same effect through the writing alone. In a way, it’s another constraint I’ve laid down for myself: I try to make the story’s events as colorful and interesting as I can while remaining within the same narrow visual range. It limits my range of options while forcing me to develop other skills to compensate, and thus far, I’ve been pleased by the result.

A page from The Tunnel

All the same, I sometimes get a little jealous of novelists who seem comfortable with radical typographical or visual experimentation. I’ve never managed to get through all of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel, for example, but it still occupies a treasured place in my home library: every few months, I’ll leaf through it, my eye caught by its oddly sinister flags, shifting fonts, and stretches of comic strip narrative, each of which stands like an island in the middle of the sea of Gass’s prose. The same is true of the works of such authors as John Barth and Georges Perec, not to mention House of Leaves. When I flip through a novel in a bookstore and come across a diagram or unexpected illustration, I’m always a little tickled, as if I’ve stumbled on a bonbon for browsers. Indeed, a striking typographic trick will often make me more likely to buy a book, or at least remember it: they’re like advertisements within the text for the author’s ingenuity, or cleverness, which may be one reason why I resist them in my own work, at least in the absence of any overwhelming reason to the contrary.

And while I wouldn’t rule out using graphic elements in my fiction in the future, I have a feeling that their presence would be as systematic as their absence has been so far. I’m most comfortable when operating within clearly defined rules, even if they’re only obvious to me, so any attempt at formal experimentation I’d make would probably be closer to something like Dictionary of the Khazars, my favorite novel of this kind, which embeds considerable typographic and visual invention within an attractively uniform surface. It’s a choice that can have unexpected consequences these days, when it’s likely that many of my books will be read on Kindle or a similar format over which I have less control: few, if any, of the novels I’ve mentioned above would survive that transition. When all of your sentences look more or less the same, you don’t need to worry about how they’ll appear in print, and I’ve been glad to leave that aspect of my novels to professionals who know what they’re doing. That way, I can focus on trying to put variety into the story itself, regardless of how it’s laid out on the page—which is more than hard enough as it is.

Written by nevalalee

June 27, 2013 at 8:43 am

Turning pages both ways

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Infinite Jest

A physical book is a wonderful object, but one of its less appreciated features is the fact that you can easily turn pages in both directions. Most works of narrative art unfold in a fixed fashion—unless you pause and rewind, you can’t go back to an earlier scene of a television show or movie to clarify a point you missed, and you’re even more stuck if you’re watching a play—but printed books, while superficially linear, give you easy access to every page at once. In theory, so do electronic editions, but in practice, they’re less accessible than they seem, especially if, like me, you tend to remember where you read something earlier based on its physical location, and spend a minute or two scanning the bottom of every page on the left until you find the part you remember. Kindle books are great for a lot of things, but they aren’t especially good for skimming, and there’s something particularly satisfying about going back in a book to reread an earlier section while holding your current place with a finger.

Books weren’t always like this: the earliest extended works on parchment or papyrus were scrolls, which made it a little more difficult to skip back to the beginning. And the tangible properties of a conveniently bound volume are what make certain kinds of storytelling possible. When reading Infinite Jest, the first thing that strikes most readers, aside from its sheer size, is its back matter, which takes up close to a hundred pages of closely printed notes at the end of the book. Most of us probably wish that the notes were a little more accessible, as did Dave Eggers, who observes of his first experience reading it: “It was frustrating that the footnotes were at the end of the book, rather than at the bottom of the page.” Yet this wasn’t an accident. According to a New Yorker profile of the late author, Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch, suggested that readers might find footnotes less cumbersome, but Wallace was adamant, saying that endnotes would “allow/make the reader go literally physically ‘back and forth’ in a way that perhaps cutely mimics some of the story’s thematic concerns.”

A page from Dictionary of the Khazars

Well, it is cute, but it also works: the notes exist as a kind of parallel but separate entity, discursive and digressive, in a way that wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if Wallace has put them at the bottom of the page, as Nicholson Baker did in The Mezzanine. They also make the notion of the novel’s “end” deliberately unclear. And I don’t think it would have the same impact in electronic form, with each note provided with a convenient link: much of the meaning of Wallace’s notes comes from the act of departure, in which we temporarily escape from the main continent of the text to visit a nearby peninsula. Similarly, books like Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, or Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which essentially demand constant nonlinear navigation through the text, would lose much of their power on Kindle. We’re so used to moving from one link to another online that any structural novelty the books possess would disappear, or be rendered invisible, if they were read on a tablet or screen.

In fact, it’s these weird, nonlinear antibooks that paradoxically make the strongest case for books as a physical medium. These stories push deliberately against the constraints of their form, but that doesn’t mean they want to be liberated: they gain their significance from the act of turning pages back and forth. And there’s a related point here that needs to be stressed. There’s been a lot of discussion about the future of the book, and of how novels and stories can fully utilize the act of reading online. But all of our great novels are hypertexts already. As far back as Dante, you had an author who was hoping to be read both vertically and horizontally—each canto in The Divine Comedy has thematic parallels with the canto of the same number in the two other sections—and any reader of Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow ends up confronting every part of the text in relation to any other. Which implies, at least to me, that the true future of the electronic novel is one that pushes the other way: toward an unnatural linearity that removes the possibility of going back. Of course, I have no idea how this would look. But it’s exciting to think about.

The mystery of the Khazars

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A good book is like a journey, for the reader as well as the writer, and some journeys take longer than others: I just made it to the end of one that took me fifteen years to complete. This book is Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars, but before I talk about it here, I need to explain why I find novels like this so fascinating. According to the Norwegian scholar Espen J. Aareseth, there are two kinds of literature: ergodic, which places nontrivial demands on the reader in assembling or traversing the text, and nonergodic, which asks nothing more of the reader than “eye movement and the periodic or arbitrary turning of pages.” Aarseth defines the former term rather narrowly, but for me, it refers to books that constantly remind you of your process as a reader, often by forcing you to regularly turn pages in both directions. And not surprisingly, such works tend to cast a certain spell over compulsive readers who may not be able to finish them, including me.

As a result, I’ve always been drawn to this sort of story, perhaps because my own fiction is so relentlessly linear. The trouble is that such novels often promise more than they’re finally able to deliver, once all the pieces have been put into place. House of Leaves, for instance, does a terrifying job of hinting at some unspeakable horror lying in wait for readers who can make it all the way through—it’s the only book of the past decade that gave me nightmares—but it ultimately disintegrates before our eyes. Cloud Atlas, as I’ve noted before, is a brilliant piece of writing and imagination, but it finally comes off as a set of nested novelettes with only occasional stabs at larger meaning. Until recently, the only ergodic novel I’d read that really lived up to its promise was Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which does exactly what such a novel ought to do: implicate the reader, inextricably, in the process of its own creation, until it seems less like a book than a place we’ve gone to visit and can never quite escape.

Which brings me to Dictionary of the Khazars. I bought this novel by the Serbian poet Milorad Pavic more than fifteen years ago, intrigued both by its design, which is among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen in a novel, and its unique structure: it’s arranged as a dictionary, or rather three parallel dictionaries, the entries of which can be read in any order, either by following cross-references or simply browsing at random. In the years that followed, I often leafed through the book, to the point where I know certain entries extremely well, but never read more than a third of the material, mostly because it was hard to keep track of how much I had remaining. And while I never forgot it, I don’t think I would have finished it if I hadn’t recently become interested in the historical Khazars themselves, as part of the novel I’m currently trying to write. On a whim, then, along with the more factual sources I was reading, I decided to give Pavic another try, on the off chance he could provide me with some useful ideas.

And what I discovered, much to my astonishment, is that this is one of the few novels of its kind that really lives up to its promise. Dictionary of the Khazars constantly hints at a greater pattern that will be visible to readers who finish the entire book, and amazingly enough, it delivers—when you’ve read the last few pages, the full picture locks into place, and the effect is shattering and unforgettable. The result makes House of Leaves or Cloud Atlas seem half-baked by comparison, and the difference is less one of inspiration than of pure craft: Pavic, who died several years ago, is just as inventive and fanciful as his ergodic peers, but if the book’s individual entries reflect a maddening poetic imagination, its overall structure is ruthlessly logical. (Note that the order of the entries isn’t entirely random: at least one crucial entry and the book’s second appendix aren’t cross-referenced anywhere else, which subtly ensures that the reader will approach them last.) It’s nothing less than one of the best modern novels I’ve read in a long time. And it only took me fifteen years to get here.

Written by nevalalee

August 7, 2012 at 10:23 am

The unstructured magic of Little, Big

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Over the past few years, there have been few contemporary novels I approached with such anticipation, aside perhaps from Cloud Atlas, as John Crowley’s Little, Big. Harold Bloom, who praises dead authors effusively but is much more restrained about recent fiction, has famously called it one of the four or five best novels by any living writer, and the consensus seems to be that this is one of the greatest fantasy novels of all time, and certainly one of the best by an American author. Earlier this week, then, after a long, leisurely reading process periodically interrupted and resumed by other commitments, I finally finished it. And while I admire it greatly, my reaction is more complex and ambivalent than I expected, which is perhaps fitting for such a strange, pointedly elusive novel.

First, a word about structure. I love structure, perhaps because I love the movies, which depend utterly on structure for their power. Structure, at its most basic, is an author’s arrangement of narrative elements into an overall whole, which often coincides with plot, but can also reflect a different sort of logic. At its best, a novel’s structure describes a shape—a pyramid, a circle, a series of spirals—that the reader can stand back and admire, something like the Borgesian conception of the divine mind. As a result, I respond strongly both to perfectly structured conventional novels, like Coetzee’s Disgrace, and to novels that make an unusual structure seem inevitable, like Gravity’s Rainbow, in which the author’s engagement with form becomes a character in itself. And, perhaps inevitably, I have trouble enjoying novels that seem deliberately unstructured.

At first glance, Little, Big has the appearance of intricate, almost obsessive structure: six books, twenty-six chapters (half the number of weeks in a year or cards in a deck), each with its own smaller divisions. On a deeper level, however, it seems designed to provoke, then frustrate, our expectations about a conventionally shapely novel. It begins with a leisurely account of the lives of several families in an imaginary New England, hints at the existence of fairies, then abruptly skips forward twenty-five years, alternating languorous descriptions of rooms and scenery with breathless events barely glimpsed or left entirely offstage. The novel’s technique, like that of House of Leaves, is one of implication, postponement, reticence, full of clues, but no answers, with small vivid scenes that promise to break out into a larger narrative, but either remain isolated in the gorgeous swamp of language or fade decorously away.

Reading Little, Big, I was reminded that an unstructured novel is something quite different from a structureless one. Structurelessness in itself is a narrative choice, and if such a work states its intentions early on—as in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life—it can be as satisfying as any conventional story. The reason why Little, Big often feels so frustrating is that it constantly knocks on the door of structure, only to shy away. It’s an uneasy hybrid of the shapeless family novel and conventional fantasy, with its supernatural events, prophecies, and air of intrigue, and the two elements push endlessly against each other, which can be exhilarating, but more often exhausting. To attribute this to artistic confusion or laziness, as certain commenters have done at the A.V. Club, is to give Crowley insufficient credit: every paragraph of this novel testifies to his intelligence and skill. But it’s fair to wonder if he intended to inspire such bewilderment in many, if not most, readers, while also inspiring rapturous joy in a few.

Little, Big, then, is precisely what its reputation suggests: a cult novel. And while I can’t quite count myself as a member of that cult, I’m at least one of its sympathizers. There are wonderful things here: the dense but lyrical language, the reappropriation of Rosicrucianism and Theosophy, and many of the self-contained set pieces, like George Mouse’s encounter with the changeling, which is a perfect little horror story in itself. Above all, there’s the evocation of a fantastical New England and the family home, Edgewood, which I can’t help but associate with my strong feelings about looking for a house of my own. I may not read Little, Big again—its five hundred pages remain as daunting as before—but I’ll certainly be reading in it for the rest of my life, because there’s magic here. And it’s more magical, perhaps, in that you’re forced to dig for it, without the reassuring map of structure, and always with the promise of finding something more.

Written by nevalalee

September 1, 2011 at 9:41 am

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