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.

The Plight House reproduces the cage of rats for Fiona, a series of tests for her tounderstand herself and for the narrator to understand her, but at times I read this as a distraction, a distraction that is ultimately deep but a distraction nonetheless. Section I is multiple choice, section II is full of essay questions and section III is a series of interconnected essay questions. Well, the questions are essays. One can answer them however one sees fit.

I almost think it is folly to try to reproduce any of the Plight House sections because I don’t think small samples can give anyone any idea of the power of these tests. But being who I am, I will try anyway. I’ll just pull a few of the sections that meant the most to me.

Here’s a question from Section I.

13. You have a migraine, the aura cuts glasslike into your field of vision and the pain, once entrenched, lasts for more than a week. Upon recovery, you find your bedroom filled with strange pilgrims. Your caregivers explain that these pilgrims have come to your bedside from distant lands after hearing word of your special powers. What wonders have you allegedly performed whilst incapacitated?
A. You have spoken in tongues.
B. You have levitated.
C. You have belched forth a rare and poisonous snake.
D. You have built a cathedral.

Here’s another question.

8. As you enter your teenage years, your imaginary friend with the amethyst eyes remains your only worldly companion. Concerned by your lack of interest in kinship of the flesh-and-blood variety, your parents take you on a trip to the lake. A small sailboat sits tied to the dock. Your parents raise the sail and set the empty boat adrift on the waters. They tell you that your imaginary friend is in the boat and that he is going away forever. They tell you to wave goodbye. What action do you take?
A. Jump into the water and swim after your friend, with the aim of bringing him back.
B. Jump into the water and swim after your friend, with the aim of joining him in exile.
C. Hide your face in your hands and weep.
D. Wave goodbye, as instructed.

I sense my answers would be D and B. But they may also be D and C. Sometimes it’s hard to know but trying to find the answers forced me to wonder how much defiance, talent and willingness to engage in a life of the mind despite the influence of others I actually possess. And that is the point of the Plight House. Forcing one out of current thoughts, even if the new thoughts are difficult to process.

It was Section II when I began to feel uncomfortable.

1. You are standing in line outside a healer’s tent. It is winter. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people in line and they keep unwaveringly to their places despite the bitter cold. As the line inches toward the tent, you notice that each healed person bears a freshly-drawn tattoo: an old man who had entered the tent confined to a wheelchair emerges some five minutes later walking fully upright, his neck tattooed with a black spider; a blind girl emerges with 20/20 vision and, upon her belly, a tattoo of a burning boat. What is your ailment? With what figure will the healer mark your body and why?

My ailment is a lifelong inability to sleep. I would have a tightly-coiled spring tattooed on my left leg because my early nightmares, as a very little girl, featured a coiled spring. The spring is linked in my mind with my REM disorder because of those early nightmares. My left leg is often the part of my body that aches the most and takes the brunt when lack of sleep manifests itself physically.

Another.

22. I find work in a slaughterhouse. I perfect the techniques of killing with blade and bolt gun alike and soon I can dress a fresh carcass faster than any of my peers. In a bid to outmanoeuvre the slaughterhouse’s competition, management begins to purchase a new kind of livestock. The animals in question are small, doglike creatures with tawny hair and wide, nocturnal eyes. Management warns us to wear earplugs whilst slaughtering them, as their song has been known to unhinge the human mind. From the moment that I start practicing my trade upon these creatures, I begin to suffer from terrible nightmares. My nights become a hell of strange and vivid horrors and within three weeks time I am legless with fatigue. One day, acting on a sudden and uncharacteristic impulse, I rescue one of the creatures from the killing-room floor and hide it in my coveralls. I bring it home. Sitting on my kitchen table, scanning the room with its dark eyes, the creature looks innocuous and unafraid. I remove my earplugs. What does the creature say to me?

It says, “Fuck your sentimentality. You save me and think it means a goddamned thing as you kill others like me? I saw you kill my mother. She begged you to stop and you didn’t. I hope you die and that my voice is the last noise you hear when your soul leaves your body.” That’s what the creature says to me.

Section III is multi-part essay questions and there is no real way for me to produce one of the entire questions unless I reproduce a section that may be longer than this entire discussion. The first paragraph of the questions sets up a scenario and the following paragraphs expand the scenario and ask questions. But one of the first paragraphs stayed with me and is worth discussing. I’ll reproduce it and the first question in the series.

10. You are ninety-four years old. You have been hospitalized. Like a sere and broken bird, you lie alone in a dark corner of the palliative ward, your organs tottering on the verge of failure. Your mind has slipped into perpetual twilight, a frightened incomprehension like that of a caged or injured beast. Daytime is a gauntlet of rough hygiene and pain, the petty humiliation of caregivers who speak of you as if you were already dead. But the nights are far worse. As daylight fades, the stains of old effluvia bloom darkly on the crumbling walls and floor. Cribdeath and gangrene stride wraithlike through the wards. The darkness is a tactile thing. It weighs upon you like water pressure, it pools in your lungs like fumes from a distant star.

10a. In these last nights before your death, you become a sleepwalker. Like a common insomniac, you steal from your bed in the lifeless hours of early morning and go wandering through the halls. Your carriage is erect and your stride is true, your body completely and utterly beguiled by its dream of wellness. And you are lucid throughout. Is this your first experience with somnambulism? Have you in the course of your life been prone to seizures of any stripe? What is it like to relinquish authorship of your steps and do you long all the while for the safety of your bed?

I used to sleepwalk all the time when I was a girl and adolescent. My mother once caught me in the middle of making a sandwich out of cigarette butts. I was in late high school or early college. It ended but came back when I took a specific drug for insomnia. I was never lucid as I roamed in my sleep. I don’t think anyone is lucid when they sleepwalk or it would just be called walking. You don’t know what it is like to surrender control because you don’t surrender it – you are simply overtaken by movement when you are asleep. Overtaken and asleep do not lend themselves well to lucidity or will, but perhaps it could happen.

The first paragraph of question 10 is, minus the effluvia and sense of others speaking to me as if I am dead, a near-perfect representation of what life is like when I am in the middle of a sleepless fog. I think that is why it spoke to me so clearly.

It goes on for several pages until we reach the end of question 10F, and the book concludes:

Why do we devote more passion to the loves that destroy us than we do to the loves that heal us and make us complete? Is it inevitable that we should conduct ourselves thus? Imagine that your death brings no respite from desire, that it pitches you into wilder, more potent states of longing. Though they bury you alone beneath the cold and final earth, you shall burn for the touch of your every unsung love. Discuss.

I wonder if Hrivnak knew about my suicide attempt before he sent me this book because I am not shy about sharing my own experiences in this realm. I have cyclical depression but the older I get the less debilitating it is because I have had decades to understand how to know when it is coming and what I can do when it arrives. But in 2008 this depression merged with a terrible situational anxiety. I was misdiagnosed with a condition I do not have and was given medications that made me psychotic. I tried to kill myself. I spent some time in a locked down mental facility and I seldom discuss what happened afterward, but people who read my journal at the time know. I continued to suffer and the suicidal ideation continued until I detoxed from all the meds I had been prescribed. It was a terrible time but I am very lucky that my depression and anxiety do not organically manifest in suicidal thoughts or feelings that death would be better than continuing onward with my life.

But even though what happened to me in 2008-2009 was situational and I don’t see it ever happening again, once you’ve been there, you’re sort of marked. It doesn’t bother me much anymore. It doesn’t plague me. But I am a person who tried to take my own life and once you cross over that line, you are changed. For me the change is that I am acutely aware of what it means to be a burden, because no matter how much you love someone, being forced to stand witness to such horror kills a part of your soul. My dear husband was the one who watched as I came up for air again and again. He was the architect of my own Plight House. He would swim into frightening waters to drag me to shore, only to stand stunned as I flung blows and threw punches to get away and dive right back into what was drowning me.

I asked him once how it was he managed to live through it all and he said he could still see glimpses of me under all the medications and all the rage the medications caused. I was trapped in there and was fighting to get out. He said that as long as I was fighting, even if the person I was fighting was him, at least I had not laid down and given in.  Hrivnak’s Plight House is what my husband did, day after day, until I emerged as myself again.  It took me months to get off those drugs. It felt like years but it was only months and I mercifully only remember bits and pieces. But he remembers it all and that is far, far worse because he loves me and was forced over and over again into a state of powerlessness as he did everything he could to keep me from death. I suspect that those who succeed during their first attempt at suicide are spared the horrible reminder that they drove a dagger into someone else’s heart, but that’s also not for me, a person who survived and is no longer suicidal, to say.

This was a hard discussion to write. I don’t know if I should discuss such personal things about myself in a book review. I keep backing up and deleting because I don’t know if this is an appropriate way to discuss a book, yet I can’t think of another way to write it other than to react this way. Discussing this book is like I am filling in the blanks during all those times the drugs blunted my memory of what I was doing (toxic psychosis, it is called). I also think I felt strongly what my husband felt each time he kept me from the worst. But even as hard as it is to discuss this book, I am glad I read it. The past is the past but understanding things, even when they hurt, is why I read.

This book could make you very sad. It could open all kinds of wounds you thought had healed. For me, it opened wounds but the psychic blood I lost was rendered negligible as I looked upon the many fortunes I have in my life. As I read it, I remembered all of the ways my husband constructed Plight Houses for me when I was so low and it made me remember that in so many ways he is a much better writer than I am. He is succinct. He can cut to the heart of the matter without all the dithering I am prone to. In the middle of my time in hell, I woke one day to find this on my bathroom mirror.

Save me
This is the best summation of The Plight House anyone could write.

12 thoughts on “The Plight House by Jason Hrivnak

    1. Thanks, Anton. Though we have yet to meet in real life, you are a very good friend to me. You were around during that terrible time and given all the two of us experienced from then until now, I think this is a book you will definitely understand.

  1. Not sure how to respond without sounding trite and lame, but this is a remarkable piece of writing. I can imagine how difficult it was to put something out there that is this raw and personal. I was moved, and on top of that your interaction with the book, laid out on the page, made for one of the best book discussions I’ve read on your site. Thanks for writing this.

    1. Thanks, Ed. It was less difficult to write about my experiences than it was odd – I worried that I was oversharing or letting my perspective cloud the book’s message. It’s been a relief that people understood why this book meant so much and why I shared what I did. Thanks so much for telling me this and thanks for reading my site.

  2. I don’t know if a book like this *can* be reviewed in conventional fashion. It seems to me that what the reader brings to this book determines more than usual how the book is experienced, and the only way to convey how it affected you as that reader is personally.

    I’m intrigued from just what I read, and I’m planning to read it now too.

    1. I tend to think as you do, Mila. I have to think a regular newspaper critic or mainstream literary journal critic would not be able to discuss this book with the depth or personal experience it requires. I was wondering how a person with a word limit in a regular column could even begin to discuss this book.

      Let me know what you think when you read it.

    2. See, after writing this comment, I went to see if any mainstream critics had discussed this book. I found a really crappy review on The Globe and Mail. Here’s a paragraph from the review:

      “The elaborate riddle scenarios, one or two per page, continue. We meet an array of quickly sketched characters, all proposed surrogates for Fiona and the narrator: brothel keeper, astronaut, carnival performer, detective, high-finance guru, kidnapping victim, hideously malformed outcasts and many more. I confess I began to tire of the litany of disconnected and portentous mini-stories and unanswerable closing questions. The endless interrogative cliffhangers are mind-numbing. One episode, imagining the narrator’s brief employment slaughtering pigs, ends with him rescuing a pig, then the question, “What does the creature say to me?” When “Hey, thanks” popped into my mind, it felt like a small respite from thickets of unmeaning. An adjoining question – “What is the occult significance of the seven-eyed pig?” – sent me to Google. It was a fruitless search, but I couldn’t help noticing that it offered some refreshing narrative drive.”

      He found the questions unanswerable? He actually thought a pig with seven eyes has occult significance outside this book and went looking for proof? He was looking for concrete answers to questions that were meant to provoke or inspire reaction or story-telling from the reader. And I just shook my head when I read the part about the man rescuing the pig. He didn’t rescue a pig. He rescued a mythical creature that does not exist outside this book, as is clear as hell in the passage I quoted. The shallow answer he gave to the question of what an animal rescued from the killing floor would say to its “rescuer” was… just pitiful. Looking at that one professional review makes it clear that only a review coming from a place of experience matters where this book is concerned.

  3. I can think of no greater endorsement for a book than the fact it makes one confront themselves in the way you have here.

    I’ll definitely give this a read. Thanks Anita.

  4. Hey Anita,

    This is a fucking amazing piece of writing.

    When I read it yesterday I thought more or less exactly what you say above about it being unimaginable in a professional writing forum – which only shows how horribly limited those forums really are.

    For what it’s worth, the rescued animal told me in a level voice that the only way I could amend for what I’d done was to go back into the abattoir and put myself to death by the method I had used on the creatures – which I think I knew before it spoke. That was quite a chilling mental journey, and it woke unpleasant memories, but I feel sorry for the journalist who couldn’t take one like it.

    I’m buying this book, although possibly not before May when my self imposed book-buying-ban expires.

    1. Vince, thanks for writing this comment. I almost think our response to the animal rescued from the abattoir is somehow one of the most important questions we can answer in this book. Mr Oddbooks said the creature told him, “You have made a terrible mistake.” I didn’t ask him to clarify but when the reviewer I quoted above said the answer was that the animal felt gratitude, I just felt…

      I hate to say people don’t get things because it is invariably patronizing and self-serving to say that, but that reviewer didn’t get it. He didn’t understand he needed to genuinely feel this book. To assign gratitude to an animal who had watched its brethren die at the slaughterhouse worker’s hands was such an easy, no-thinking answer. Especially one regarding an animal whose song is so affecting it can drive men mad.

      I was supposed to be an a no-book-buying scheme as well but I can never make such things truly happen. Please, please let me know what you think of this book once you have read it.

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