The Plight House by Jason Hrivnak

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The Plight House

Author: Jason Hrivnak

Type of Book: Fiction, experimental, borderline ergodic

Why Do I Consider This Odd: This book is a test to see what you know about the depths of human despair and it’s also a distraction you can use, reading it to the despairing one until he puts down the gun or she hands you the bottle of pills.

Availability: Published by Pedlar Press in 2009, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I have a strong feeling that this may be a book that requires a certain level of experience to understand. Of course, feelings of misplaced responsibility and grief are common enough, so I don’t want to discourage anyone from reading The Plight House. But I do think that unless you have tried to end your life or tried to prevent someone from ending his or her life, this may not have a certain resonance. I say all of this because, as I indicate above, this book is borderline ergodic. The way Hrivnak constructed his book forces you to interact with the text in a manner that forbids passivity and can defy understanding unless you are willing to work hard. The content is also so very specific and tied to an extremity of experience that could, for some readers, be alienating.

That having been said, I think you should read this book. This isn’t House of Leaves level ergodic. This is a book that can be completed in one sitting, if you don’t mind the feeling of being flayed now and then. But fair warning: this is definitely not a book for those who prefer linear narratives.

Brief synopsis: The protagonist met his friend Fiona when they were nine and they became inseparable. They created a strange otherworld they called the “Testing Range” wherein they created trials for the people they knew, trials that verged on torture but had a specific end and meaning. An untalented violinist who loves her music but is afraid of rats would be put in a cage full of rats for a night. If she survived, she would have the talent of a virtuoso for a year. At the end she would have to make the choice to expose herself to rats for even longer in exchange for another year of talent or she would lose her talent forever. The protagonist and Fiona create these trials for everyone around them. Fiona has a neurological condition but as she gets older she also seems like she has some sort of personality disorder. When Fiona’s family moves, the protagonist tries to keep in touch with her but eventually he can’t find much to say to her anymore.  They’ve become too different.

He attends college and gets a job but his friendship with Fiona has left him avoidant and near schizoid, craving solitude to the point that he lives his life in a darkened room, sleeping only to dream and waking only to record his dreams. He manages to hold a job but one day receives a letter from Fiona’s father. Fiona has broken into the grade school she had attended with the protagonist. She slashed her wrists and died. In her belongings, her father had found a page from the “Testing Range” notebook that she carried with her and he contacted the protagonist and asked him if he could explain what was written on the page. The protagonist, racked and wrecked with grief, decides to write The Plight House, a test for Fiona and a chance for him to achieve a sort of redemption in the face of crushing sorrow.

Using the magical thinking that we all engage in, the super-powerful what-if we practice when the unthinkable happens, the protagonist imagines what would have happened if only the Plight House had existed before Fiona made the decision to kill herself.

The Plight House is the missing element from the night Fiona broke into the school, its failure to appear there no different from the absence of a stolen property or a garment devoured by moths. I picture the manuscript sitting ready on a clean, well-lit desk, a batch of sharpened pencils at the side. I picture Fiona noticing it in the course of her wanderings and stepping cautiously into the light, aware of a twist in the game.

She would have understood within the first few pages that the test was not written by a doctor or a parent or, even, fundamentally, by a friend. And its coldness would have come as a great relief to her. I knew from the outset that the test’s chance of success would inhere in its refusal, first, to sing her back toward a world that she despised, and, second, to use guilt as a straitjacket. My only hope was to create a resonance , duplicating both in myself and in the text the particular frequency of despair that was driving her toward suicide. I’m not sure what, if anything, it would have meant to her to experience that resonance. But so long as she understood that she had been seen, and therefore accompanied, in that worst of all possible moments, I could have lived with her decision.

Of course, that’s not true. One does not write a book like the tests in The Plight House, an exercise to prevent the worst, if one is going to be sanguine if the worst actually does happen.

In fact, the final words of the last paragraph make it clear that the narrator means very much for this book to be used as a means to prevent the worst, with no eye to any other alternative but salvation and preservation.

If it becomes necessary to administer The Plight House, do so without apology and without expectation of thanks. Her tears of protest may rend your heart, but remember the alternative. She stands to lose everything, and so, therein, do you.

The synopsis and quotes I produce above are contained in the first 29 pages. That’s the only linear part of this book. Then the Plight House begins.

House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: House of Leaves

Author: Mark Z. Danielewski

Type of Book: Fiction, horror, ergodic literature

Why I Consider This Book Odd: Well, because it is ergodic literature. Full stop.

Availability: You can get a copy here:

Comments: I’ve been away for a while, fellow odd bookers. I sometimes get hung up on a review or discussion and because I am not-quite-right, I cannot move on until I have addressed the issue. I think the problem is that in many ways discussing House of Leaves is not unlike discussing Finnegans Wake. There is an arrogance and hubris involved in thinking you can really get a handle on the entirety of either book. I’ve flirted with the House of Leaves before, but not until recently did I read the entire thing, from beginning to end in one go. By the time it was over my book was in tatters (and I was paranoid enough at the time that I wondered if the book construction was meant to echo the house’s obliteration), I had book fatigue and I barely remembered why I loved it so much in the first place. I left it, didn’t think about it, read some lighter fare and gradually let myself like the book again. Hence trying to review it and sensing that perhaps I understand it but wondering if I am full of shit.

This book. Oh dear lord. I have a wretched habit of bending the page when I find a passage meaningful to me. It’s a foul, filthy thing to do, and as a bibliophile, I hate myself for it, but I was never an underlining or highlighting sort of gal. The hell of it is, I went back to the dog-earred pages and read and read and half the time I had no idea what it was that grabbed me the first time. I comfort myself in my wasted effort that the book was in miserable condition by the time I was through – spine destroyed, pages loose, the front end page fallen out completely. I have no idea what I loved when I was reading it so it stands to reason that this is going to be less a review than a discussion of why I like this book and if it is messy and incoherent, it won’t be the first time and it won’t be the last. All I can say is that when a book is half footnotes, I don’t think it is a cop out to quote chunks of text that speak to me or explain my points.

In this discussion, I need to emphasize two things: 1) In my opinion, Johnny Truant’s story is the reason to read this book and it may seem weak not to address all the text concerning The Navidson Record. But it’s my party, and to be frank, all the details are the trees and Johnny is the forest and I think to analyze all of the endless references and throwaways that Danielewski uses in this book, you miss the humanity of it; and 2) I refuse to change my text color when I use the word “house” or refer to anything having to do with the Minotaur. Just not gonna do it. It seems forced, affected and precious when anyone other than Danielewski does it.

So, with that out of the way, a plot synopsis: An old, blind man by the name of Zampanò dies and in his apartment, Johnny Truant finds an in depth analysis of a documentary film called The Navidson Record. The book recounts Zampanò’s analysis of the film, interspersed with numerous foot notes from Zampanò, Truant and an editor. There is an unnerving catch, however: The film does not exist. Zampanò’s in depth analysis, including copious research, is of a film that does not exist and the resources he quotes do not exist. The analysis becomes so entrenched at times that the reader wonders if the real catch of the book is the “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” minutia that often goes into academic research. The level of introspection given by fictional research into every element of this fictional movie gives the book so much self-referential claustrophobia that the reader finds herself going mad as she reads it, which, of course, is the entire point.

The written analysis of The Navidson Record tells the story of a family that moves into a house in Virginia. The house is seemingly sentient and able to change itself on the inside without affecting the outside measurements of the house. It creepily rearranges itself internally, becoming larger than the outside proportions, finally creating a hallway that leads into a maze. A search party is sent into the maze with disastrous and appalling results, but at the end of the failed missions, the house collapsing then righting itself, The Navidson Record is a love story, wherein an icy and adulterous model, Karen, finds herself fighting to save her relationship with Will Navidson. Yes, I think it is a love story. I realize just about everyone who has read this book may disagree with my assessment, but the enduring themes of this book are, in fact, love. Maternal love fighting through mental illness, self-love fighting through emotional collapse, and romantic love enduring the unthinkable and impossible.

But for me, as I say above, the reason to read this book is to know the tale of Johnny Truant. Johnny tells the story of his life in footnotes to The Navidson Record, letters from his mother from the Whalestoe Institute, a home for the mentally ill, and a diary he kept during and after his immersion into The Navidson Record. Johnny is a drug abuser, and as the son of a mentally ill woman who died institutionalized, it is hard to say what causes Johnny to drift, then dive headfirst, into mental issues of his own, but Johnny is the heart of this book, the love story of Will and Karen and the peril they live through notwithstanding. Johnny’s story of his life, as he reveals it piecemeal, in a manner that makes it hard to know him if you skip a word, is the reason why I continued reading when I felt I just couldn’t take another damn five-page footnote.