My Unpredictable Love-Hate Relationship with Mark Z. Danielewski

House of Leaves was one of the most memorable reads I've experienced over the past fifteen years.

poster by Justin Fetters
I've been surprised hearing how many people in my online circles disliked it; viewed it as a husk of a book, like some coconut drained of its milk, devoid of depth, vacuous, second-rate writing dressed up in the glitz of precious experimentation to disguise the poor quality of its plot and prose.  The critics cited the over-the-top textual formatting that required the book be turned sideways or upside-down or sometimes reflected in a mirror in order to read it, among other "innovations" or what they'd more likely term "gimmicks," as rationale for their disdain.

When these criticisms laid out above are levied at Mark Z. Danielewski's follow up novel, Only Revolutions, I'd question the critic why exactly he or she were being so nice to what I'd describe as a maddeningly frustrating anomaly of a novel, a book so difficult to parse for pleasure it might as well be championed the 21st century's Finnegans Wake.  But some people loved it.  I happened to hate it, yet loved House of Leaves.

Learning this morning of Danielewski's forthcoming twenty-seven part serial-novel, The Familiar, to be published in 2014, and for which he's already been paid one million dollars (at least for its first ten installments), I absolutely cannot predict whether I'll love or hate it.  Had I learned this morning instead of the latest pending release from a William T. Vollmann or Denis Johnson or Joan Didion, predicting would be easy: I'd of course love them absolutely no questions asked!  Not so, the more mysterious and enigmatic Mark Z. Danielewski.

Love or hate his novels, I'm unwaveringly wowed by his unpredictability.

L.A. Times Jacket Copy Article on The Familiar


When I Sink My Teeth into Dracula

Beneath Dracula's ghastly pale skin; beyond the iconic blood lust and delectable gothic horror, lies a far more delicious subtext that ultimately drove a big fat stake through late Victorian ideals as Bram Stoker successfully stalked and skewered that culture's hypocritical heart regarding women.  Men could be sexual scoundrels and yet honored (some things never change), while women who violated just the slightest sexual more (were merely perceived as being "flirtatious" -- oh the impropriety!) found themselves branded whores and ostracized.

What better way could Stoker have commented on just how much that double standard sucked than with vampires: creatures emblematic of not just the demonic but divine, holy devils heralding the end of a repressive and dying Victorian culture that sucked the life and enjoyment out of almost everything, and yet who paradoxically also symbolized a supercharged eternal equality and its attendant sexual liberty for women that made them as powerful as men in deciding their own destinies?

That's what Dracula means to me when we venture into its deathly and yet life-affirming flesh through the double puncture wounds about its neck  -- liberation and equality -- and why that damnable Twilight tripe whose egregious ethos (I won't call it a "philosophy" a la Stoker's and thus demean that noble term) so peeves me and sucks in ways that have absolutely no redeeming qualities for women or sensuality; but are, in fact, deserving of our deepest disdain even if only for their unwitting portrayal of young women still shackled by outdated and inappropriate Victorian chains, depicted as nevertheless enjoying their dungeon.


Happy Twilight Zone Thanksgiving!

Thing I like the best about Thanksgiving is The Twilight Zone marathon on one of the local channels.  I've already seen two episodes I've either long forgotten or never saw to begin with; one in which Roddy McDowell finds himself in a museum-like living room that displays humans in "their natural habitat" -- an idea that George Saunders later blew through the roof in the title story of his collection, Pastoralia; and a rare sentimental oddity in which an elderly couple have the opportunity to "trade in" their old bodies for younger models.



{***to be read in a monotone voice w/out any pauses (periods excepted) for breath***}

I'm sore.  Painting our house interior all weekend (and I'm about ready to get painting some more today.  Took time off work -- to paint!).  It never ends: taping, cutting in, touching up, reaching with extended rollers impossibly high, climbing up and down the ladder, dripping paint everywhere, cleaning up the paint over and over that dripped everywhere even through drop cloths were laid out, uselessly; cleaning out brushes ad nauseum, cleaning out paint pans, opening paint cans, closing paint cans, getting unintentionally high off of paint fumes, stumbling over step stools from getting unintentionally high off of paint fumes, developing raccoon-like eyes from the paint that's misted down off the rollers as they're applied heavily and with much muscular force to the vaulted ceilings so that a second tedious coat of paint won't be necessary. Incessant painting making me crazy like Van Gogh.  And for what?  So that when people I hardly ever see and hardly know show up in a few days, all smiles, "Happy Thanksgiving!", they'll presumably think we've always lived in a spotless house with fresh coats of paint. 


The Publishing Triangle's List of the Best Gay and Lesbian Novels

One of my favorite literary resources when I'm hunting for something interesting, different, or an arcane tidbit on classic and/or contemporary literature, is The New York Public Library Literature Companion edited by Anne Skillion.

The compendium is full of stunning surprises.  One such surprise, maybe not so stunning, but nevertheless surprising, since it's a literary list and I was convinced I'd captured them all, but somehow, at least this one (there's undoubtedly others, sure hope so!) escaped my clutches for more than a decade.

It's The Publishing Triangle's list of The Best Gay and Lesbian Novels, a top 100 list whose selections were made by gay and lesbian authors and critics, and intermingles classic stuff with contemporary stuff (at least contemporary to around the year 2000).  Can't say I've ever gone out of my way to seek out gay and lesbian literature (and neither have I avoided it), but a quick perusal proves I'm unfamiliar with many of these books and writers, and for that alone, I'm pleased to have discovered the list, as I do have a thing for discovering writers, gay or straight, in lists that I'd of otherwise never discovered.

One of these days, I'll probably itemize this list in a LibraryThing thread, because a list truly doesn't become a list in my eyes, until every title of the list glows that beautiful and addictive blue of hypertext in a touchstone.


My Two Sentences on Four Novels by Steve Erickson

Reading Steve Erickson's unsettling, reality-bending novels are like following the unscripted scripts of the most lucid yet opaque and intoxicating of dreams that make awakening so acutely depressing that mere consciousness, compared to the kaleidoscopic panorama of soul-fulfilling phantasmagoria comprising sleep and that's too soon evaporated after opening one's eyes, tantamount (thankfully for only a few grief-stricken seconds soon salved after several blinks) to losing everything.


I've never been disappointed by anything I've ever read of Steve Erickson's (four unforgettable novels so far) -- Days Between Stations (1985), Tours of the Black Clock (1989), The Sea Came in at Midnight (1999), Our Ecstatic Days (2005) -- though I've been consistently confounded, even confused a time or two by what's been termed his "slipstream surrealistic" prose, which more reflects, I'm positive, my own inexpertise as a, nevertheless, hopefully maturing reader, rather than Erickson's unparalleled and arguably paranormal skills as an author.


Relative Stranger Redux

{***This piece was originally posted on June 27th, 2010.  Since posting it, I've come into possession of a photo album of my uncle's, given to my father (little bro of my uncle) by my uncle's third wife who was with him when he died.  My Dad had most of the photos already, so he passed it on to me.  I'm glad he did.  I'd planned on sharing several photographs of my uncle; in fact, in preparing them to post here, I spent several hours picking the right pics out of hundreds to choose from -- scanning, cropping, figuring out where to insert them in the text -- but throughout the process, a disquieting sense of unease began pervading me, and I became uncomfortable and ultimately convinced that it would not be in keeping with my uncle's spirit or memory sharing what he preferred keeping private.  I'm confident he wouldn't mind my writing about him, warts and all, but sharing his photo album? ...  He'd be peeved by that -- a fact I'd of never known about him until perusing his album and considering carefully the implications of how precisely it was arranged.  I have added one photograph from his album, regardless, as it sums up the effect he had on me, the few times I was with him, perfectly.  I've also added a brief postscript, commenting on the enigma of his photo album in relation to his family. ***}

My uncle Jim died of cancer a few weeks ago. Hadn't seen him, or spoken to him, since his mother's funeral six years ago. At her funeral, Jim quipped with his usual sarcastic jabs how she was still bugging him about his drinking and his "cancer sticks," pestering him with her phone calls nearly to the day she died. He spoke as if her pestering had been obvious, that what she chided him about was absurd. Jim seemed to want a shrug of agreement, if not sympathy, but instead I said, "Hmmm," and barely nodded.

"See you around," he replied, but I didn't really agree with that comment either, knowing that we probably wouldn't be seeing each other around anytime soon again.

He sounded genuinely bitter toward his mother. It seemed more than just his usual sarcasm. No surprise. That was their relationship in a sentence: my grandmother nagging him about his drinking and "cancer sticks," and his automatic bitter reaction, masked with black humor. Even dead, she still bugged him, and that's what had bugged me.

What had he been so bitter about? What had she done to Jim for him to share something so personal with me; I hadn't seen him in years. Something so charged with an undercurrent of hostility? I didn't know why then, and now that my uncle is dead, I still don't know why now for sure, but I have a theory ...

Jim resisted coming home because of his mother -- that I know for sure. We rarely saw him, even at Christmas, and even then, when he was around, he kept his distance. It was no secret that he was tipsy in our company. No secret that he smoked more than just those "cancer sticks."

Margaret, the woman Jim lived with longer than any other, said he hadn't wanted a funeral or anything to do with a church memorial, though I doubt anybody from Jim’s family, except maybe my father—Uncle Jim's little brother—would've flown out. Not because there was bad blood or some horrible falling out between them, or between Jim and my aunt Lola, his older sister, but because ... How can I describe it?  Simply, there was absolutely nothing between Uncle Jim and his brother and sister. No sibling bonds, let alone rivalries. No connections. No deep affection.  Nada.

In fact, Jim’s sister hadn't even called Jim when my father told her he had cancer, that it was probably terminal, that even with chemotherapy his prognosis was poor. I would have considered that pretty cold of my aunt, but did Jim ever contact her when she battled (and won) her awful war against breast cancer? Was that, then, the reason she hadn't called him: because he hadn't called her?

Maybe, maybe not. There were no doubt other significant life events, good and bad, that mattered over the decades, when some sibling acknowledgment would have been appropriate—births, deaths, divorces, foreclosures, accidents, graduations—when Lola's phone never rang with a good word of condolence or congratulations from Jim. Perhaps there had been too much indifference for too long from Jim to expect that she would ever reach out to him again.

Even so, despite his startling disconnection from my dad and my aunt, it’s hard to pinpoint a specific moment or incident when the silent rift of apathy between them opened wide and kept yawning wider until it effectively separated them forever …

Except perhaps for the situation with Jim’s daughter, Tori; who, assuming she’s still alive, would have no way of knowing that my uncle, her biological father, had died. I suspect she might not have wanted to know. Perhaps she'd grieved the loss of her father decades ago.

Uncle Jim severed ties with Tori when she was twelve, when his first—and first ex-wife—remarried. She'd decided that their daughter would take her new stepfather's last name, and my uncle blamed his then twelve year old daughter for that decision. The few times the delicate topic ever came up in my company, I heard him say, "She's not my daughter" or "I don't have a daughter." I never met the girl who would have been my cousin, who in old Polaroids was pretty and had pigtails. I've wondered if at times she’d wished that my uncle wasn't her father. I wonder if she told people that Uncle Jim wasn't her father, or, simply, "I don't have a father. He's dead."

If anybody knew what Tori felt about my uncle Jim, her estranged father, it would've been my grandmother, who remained in contact with Tori, exchanging birthday and Christmas cards and graduation announcements and such … until, as happens as preteens become teens and teens become young adults with lives of their own, my grandmother no longer got a birthday card or Easter greeting from Tori, and they naturally drifted apart.

Knowing my grandmother, though, I don't think it’s far-fetched to assume she nagged her son about more than just his drinking and cancer sticks, especially when she no longer heard regularly from her abandoned granddaughter, Tori.

Coming home at Christmas, then, for Uncle Jim, probably meant facing, once again, his dubious decision to remain self-exiled, divorced from his daughter. Merry Christmas indeed.

I was always curious to hear Uncle Jim's side of the stories. He could spin an uproarious yarn himself, the few I heard, which were always side-splitting, at least when my disapproving grandmother wasn't in the room.

But over the years, my uncle never called me, and I never even once called him. We never became close, even at the end. I guess it just runs in my family. Not calling. Not caring. Not being close ...

I'm no closer today comprehending what Uncle Jim was communicating to me then, that Fall afternoon six years ago at Forest Lawn, when he spoke so bitterly about his Mom.


A Postscript

My uncle's photo album was revelatory.  Its well kept pages made clear how much he cared.  He saved birth and graduation announcements, wedding invitations to weddings he didn't attend.  He saved, I suspect, based on the volume of material in his bulky, overflowing, six-inch thick photo album, every family memento ever sent to him.  Perhaps in his self-exile, that's how he remained close to us, in our pictures and postcards and personal odds and ends passed on to him over half a century.   There's pictures of my kids in his photo album I don't even have, that my grandmother, apparently, forwarded him.

Most tellingly, there's dozens of pictures of his daughter.  Pictures chronicling her life long after my uncle was no longer part of it.  Pictures of a son-in-law and grandchild he never met.


The Book Frog is Open for Business!

Long time LibraryThing pal, BeckyJG, and her partner, Pete, are now living the dream, having just opened their own bookstore, The Book Frog.  Congratulations to them both!  Read about their bookstore's opening in the link below, or read about it also in today's Shelf Awarenesswhere it's the top news item.

I recommend checking out Becky's month-long "Liquidation Diary" also, featured in her blog from this past August and September, that poignantly chronicled her last days working as a Borders' employee after having been employed by the company for nearly two full decades.  Talk about loyalty.  Talk about going through Hell and now entering what I can only imagine must be some semblance of Bookseller Heaven in just a matter of months! 

I understand The Book Frog will have a webstore up and running in a short week or so, so even if you don't live just an hour away like me, you can still help support two tried-and-true pros stay in business for a good long time with your online dollars. Screw Amazon!  Bless the Book Frog!

I can't wait to go see their store and buy a bunch of books on Saturday with my kids! Photos to follow .... 


Homage to Anna_in_pdx; or, in which it is opined if not proven Yetis superiority to Sasquatches

Anna, I received your card in the mail.  I was truly touched by it.  Know that the words of your beautiful card made me tear up (I'm not embellishing) even as I literally wanted to tear up the Bigfoot patch it contained (see scanned image below). Strong as my hands are, however, I unfortunately lack the tensile strength of an abominable snowman's grip to successfully rip that blasted embroidered Bigfoot patch to shreds with my bare hands.

Just look at those little teensy weensy Bigfoot footprints and try not to laugh!

I'm confident you can extrapolate from your own personal experience interfacing with men that some men are, in keeping with the parlance of popular U.S. cultural slang, "boob men" or "butt men" or (like me) "YETI men".  But I think you already knew that, Anna, didn't you?, and yet despite this knowledge, you willfully and with malice aforethought, still decided to taunt me with your sordid and pathetic Bigfoot devotion.

I bet this so-called "Bigfoot" of yours doesn't even wear size fourteen shoes like me.  I bet a Little League cup could service Bigfoot's junk just fine!

Bigfoot my big fat buttocks!  Don't even get me started, Anna, but thanks for getting me started, anyway, because I love hating on Bigfoot.

For instance, did you know, Anna, that Bigfoot has to resort to oxygen whenever it ventures above a paltry 12,000 feet in elevation?  Which sure isn't often since the Pacific Northwest's measly mountains (measly, you heard me) rarely exceed such heights.  Meanwhile, across the Pacific, Yetis run marathons whose courses top out in excess of 25,000 feet in the Himalayas, and not once, if we're to believe the ancient scrolls of Nepalese and Tibetan Buddhist monks (and I see no reason why we shouldn't), has a Yeti ever needed any damn oxygen.  Not only do Yetis have bigger feet than Bigfoot (and bigger penises), they've also got bigger and better lungs. Bigger and better everything!

And don't you dare call me a Bigfoot Bigot, Anna, just because Bigfoot belongs to a minority population of dark-haired monsters, like Blacula or the Cookie Monster, while my superior Yetis are white complected.

Face it, Anna, as I've said before and so say here now again: Sasquatch are pussies. And while it's true you could also call me -- at least in this specific Sasquatch-euphemism-context, a "Sasquatch man" too, I'll never be a "Bigfoot man".