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.