House of Houses by Kevin L. Donihe

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: House of Houses

Author: Kevin L. Donihe

Type of Book: Bizarro, fiction

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It is bizarro. And pretty gross. But mostly the former.

Availability: Published by Eraserhead Press in 2008, it is still in print and you can get a copy here:

Comments: One of the main problems with being a reviewer when you were once a sort-of-writer yourself is that there will come a time when you will read a book in which a writer had an idea similar to something you wrote about and goes in a completely different direction with it. You will read the book and think, “No, that is not right at all. This would have been so much better if I had garnered the huevos to get my own riff on this idea published.” Then you give your head a shake, realize that maybe the ideas were not so similar after all (and in this case, the similarities are superficial at best) and do your best to judge the book on its own merits. Even after coming to my senses, I still had some issues with this book but ultimately, it was a book worth reading, even if I know deep in the core of my blackened, wannabe heart that I could have done it so much better.

The plot of House of Houses, like so many other bizarro books, is not easy to encapsulate, but here’s my attempt: A man who loves his house so much he wants to marry it wakes one day to find that every house on earth has collapsed. He goes in search of an explanation and meets some interesting people, including a Superhero named Tony, and eventually finds himself in House Heaven, where houses go when they die and people have a fairly disgusting role to play in the construction of new homes. I was made genuinely uncomfortable at times, reading the descriptions of the human work camp, and that’s no small feat with a reader as jaded as I am. Carlos eventually finds his beloved house, Helen, but it doesn’t end well. Like a lot of bizarro books, there is some content in this book that is relatively nauseating. This book, more than some other bizarro I have read recently, is a very good combination of the horrific, the foul, the surreal, and the fantastic. And for sensitive readers with aversions to scenes of extreme human degradation, this book walks a fine line between bizarro and extreme horror. There is often something surreal about the violence in bizarro books, but as outrageous as the plot line in this book, the violence and gore had a very real, human feel to it. So squeamish readers, be aware.

Sometimes bizarro harbors weaker writers whose extravagant imaginations make up for a lack of skill, and that isn’t necessarily a criticism. I feel some of the most admired writers, Tolkien for instance, could tell a unique story but were not so amazing technically. This is not the case with Donihe. His words are well-chosen, his plot familiar yet bizarre, and his treatment of characters absorbing and interesting. The transformation of Carlos, from hopeful lover to quest-taker to mentally defeated cog in a brutal machine, is what makes this book so superior to many of the books I have read recently, including mainstream novels. It is no small feat to make a character so sympathetic and understandable in the midst of the chaos Donihe creates. So the bulk of this discussion/review will be me recounting passages in which Donihe makes us understand the mind of a man who loves his home like a wife and who descends into incredible, frightening and violent situations.

Carlos’ reaction to the devastation of all the homes is not only a look into a mind where the non-human becomes anthropomorphized in the saddest way possible, but it is foreshadowing of what is to come for the humans in this novel.

I feel sad for these homes, but only because they are (were?) Helen’s brothers and sisters. I never knew them like I knew her, never got to experience their unique essences. Seeing them in this state is akin to seeing the corpses of human strangers at a mass funeral.

Carlos is mentally and emotionally tied to houses, beyond and above his romantic love for Helen, and Donihe makes that clear in an expected way.

We pass another person trying to build a replacement house out of what appears to be Twinkies, another from tiny twigs or maybe matchsticks. I’m glad the bus does not stop for them. What they’re doing is a mockery, and I hate it (and them).

A mockery is an interesting way to look at the situation of desperate, deranged people trying to make shelter. Of course to a man like Carlos such actions are a mockery of the real wood and brick houses he loves. (Also, I wonder if there is a bizarro trend in using Twinkies inappropriately. Not long ago it was the President wearing a suit made of Twinkies, now someone is using them to build a house.)

After a while in House Heaven, Carlos’ perspective begins to change. After a confrontation with Manhaus, the head honcho in Heaven, Carlos begins to understand that his love of houses is not necessarily returned, that many houses hate humans for their behavior inside their walls. Carlos uses the word “shack” in front of Manhaus only to learn that is is akin to a racial slur, a word that should never be used in front of any sort of dwelling. He eventually escapes from his dreadful job in House Heaven and as he surveys all that is around him, it is startling how quickly his perspective changes after his time in what is for him a living hell.

The cityscape is stunning, but I still hate it. I want to tear the whole place down with my hands, brick by brick, and then defecate on it. It doesn’t matter how many house souls I harm in the process. Even those who haven’t directly harassed me are guilty, even those who hold no grudge against humanity or even sympathize in private with our plight. Fuck them. Let everything in their lives burn.

Except for Helen, of course, whom he is desperate to find in House Heaven, and a plot line I won’t discuss too much because it’s too important a part of the book to spoil. Just know this insane element: Houses in House Heaven resemble creatures from the old show H.R. Puffinstuff. Yeah. Somehow, that was the most distasteful part of the book. Gah, that show affected my id when I was a child.

Carlos ends up back in the house building industry of House Heaven, and it is an emotionally wrenching, tiring job, converting human beings into bricks in a gruesome, mechanized process. He watches the worst sort of depravity until he goes numb.

Shit happens.
And shit continues to happen, but it concerns me less and less until I notice nothing outside myself. The lever is a part of me, totally indistinguishable from flesh. When others sleep, I pull. The foreman likes my performance. I’m his best employee, but, in truth, I don’t give a royal rat’s ass what he thinks. A lever thinks and cares about nothing, you see. It just opens a door, closes it, opens again.
I want to be more like a lever. That’s all I think about.
And so–with a little time and practice–a lever is what I become.

The ending closely mirrors my own story, which sits on my hard-drive, gathering ether-dust, so almost needless to say, I approve. There were some tricks in this book, like the way Donihe handles the fact that everyone can understand and read things in House Heaven – the language and print are actually in another language but the listener/reader is perceiving it in their native language. There were other small problems with the book, personal to me and not worth mentioning. Ultimately, the reason this book is good, better than than sum of some of its parts, is because of how Donihe handles Carlos, his love for Helen, his mental decline. Carlos could be the hero in any number of war stories: the GI who falls in love with a foreign girl, is taken captive, realizes his captors could not care less if he likes them because of entrenched feelings that have nothing to do with him. It’s a story that is not wholly new but in Donihe’s bizarro universe, it feels fresh.

Overall I liked this book and found Donihe’s writing style vivid, engaging, weird and meticulous. I definitely plan to check out more of his work in the future.