REVIEW: Danielewski’s “House of Leaves”

I’m finally reading Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves and this book is out of its mind. The footnotes are like the titular house’s hallways. Sometimes the hallways are rooms. Before we devolve into further metaphors, let’s backtrack: a guy moves into a house and finds that it’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. That’s just the story within the story; it’s not where it begins but it’s where it will end. The story emphasizes geometric impossibilities, if not outright spatial horror, and it manages to somehow simulate this disorientation in the book itself. Take for examples its footnotes – initially innocuous, increasingly bizarre, increasingly difficult to navigate, growing bigger and bigger until they consume entire pages. Annotations and errata edge out the narrative. But is it that the narrative is the annotations and errata, or is the act of consuming and edging out? Can you break the fourth wall if you can’t find it?

Even this, even the act of writing my thoughts feels like I’m just another component of the story, another way the story climbs out of the book. Much of the book is people from all sorts of disciplines from mythologists to engineers trying to figure out the house on Ash Tree Lane, and they analyze the effects of the house’s grotesquerie without understanding what is causing them. In a way, this is not a book that tells a story. The story sidles in sideways; the story is implied. The book reminds me of Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides, except with a house instead of depressed teenagers. This is fiction that has, by virtue of its subject and construction, found a way out of The Matrix and IT IS COMING FOR US NEXT.


If you like this book, you might also like: Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions. Do you like stories about people consumed by their obsessive quest for something liminal? About people who fall deeper and deeper into that rabbit hole until suddenly their world is upside down? I was reminded very much of Auster’s book as I read this. I loved The Book of Illusions, and I am enjoying the hell out of House of Leaves, and I’ll tell you more about it once I find my way out of the damn thing.

Originally posted April 16, 2011

“Indonesian And”: Language and Conjunctive Identity

‘Garis Batas’ by Agustinus Wibowo (published by Gramedia)

I’m reading a book called Garis Batas (‘Border’) by Indonesian writer and backpacker, Agustinus Wibowo, and it’s making me realize how much I unconsciously associate the Indonesian language with a certain attitude – one that tends to be socially and religiously conservative, and whose conceptions of Indonesian identity are frustratingly simplistic. It’s a limited and myopic judgment on my part, and one entirely devoid of nuance and compassion. I just never knew how deeply this bias was ingrained in me until I read Wibowo’s book and felt my heart fill to the brink at how much this guy’s experiences mirrored my own. Wibowo seemed to have the same priorities and cynicisms I do when it comes to matters of cultural identity, colonial legacy, and immigration bureaucracy. We can’t always help what ideas we internalize, but we can be aware of it and hopefully start taking steps in the right direction to mitigate our own ignorance.

Garis Batas means ‘borderline’, and the book is about Wibowo’s travels through the Central Asia, relating anecdotes and analysis about the Soviet legacy and how well (or not) the -stan countries have held up under the weight of Russian influence and international pressure. It’s fascinating stuff, and exactly the kind of reading I loved getting in college because I superimposed a lot of my identity angst onto my studies. HUMAN MIGRATION FLOWS, HOW DOES IT WORK? It’s a subject close to my heart, and to read about it in the Indonesian language is like a rediscovery of the subject and the language all over again. I don’t always agree with Wibowo’s observations, but I relate to his wanderlust, his curiosity about the historical foundations of national essentialism, and his romantic cynicism. Seeing my own thoughts reflected to me in this way has perhaps done more to repair this artificial divide between my ‘Indonesian side’ and my ‘American side’ than anything. It’s about finding a foothold. It’s about realizing you’re not alone, no matter why you do or do not call the place where you live ‘home’.

“Imagined Communities” by Benedict Anderson (published by Verso Books)

Even now, I find that my usage of Indonesian or English tends to depend on subject and audience. In my experiences, the Indonesian language tends to be associated with my family and our traditions, and the English language tends to be the language of friends and academia. Indonesian is the first language I learned, but English is now the language I know best. It has been ever since first grade, when we moved to the Philippines and I became distanced from my mother tongue. But languages are funny. Finding yourself in books is a strange and wondrous thing. When I read Benedict Anderson’s sociological writings about the Philippines and Indonesia in college, I felt I was brought closer to the subject (i.e. my homes) because it was expressed in a language I’m comfortable with (i.e. English). With Garis Batas, it’s the opposite. I feel like I’m being brought closer to the language because I relate to the sentiments it’s expressing. My point is that language doesn’t exist in a vacuum. These are exactly the kinds of reasons why people say that if you want to suppress a culture, you cut out their tongues. To feel apart from the core of you is a very alienating thing, but it is an alienation that people can get used to. A marginalized complacency. It’s like when people have asked me dubious questions about the difference between People X and Indonesians/Filipinos with the assumption that the ability to otherize people and the ability to feel marginalized are mutually exclusive things. They are not.

I would like to emphasize that I don’t speak for all Javanese Indonesians or Indonesian expats. I grew up receiving a strict definition of what it means to be Indonesian, and it’s something I’m trying to deconstruct. There is a soul-deep difference between saying “I am Indonesian AND” and “I am Indonesian BUT”, the latter of which I’ve been saying my whole life, dividing me. There is a time and a place for compartmentalization, true, but I’d like a little less of it in the areas that matter most.

Originally posted June 30, 2011.

WIP: Dan Barry’s “Bottom of the 33rd”

There’s this sense of wonder, that time has stood still or left the building entirely. It’s the archetypal endless summer baseball game, with all the trappings of a reality that is less than convenient. The players are burning bats in a barrel to keep warm, family members call hospitals trying to find out what happened to their loved ones who haven’t come home from the ballpark, and everyone is falling to the kind of ponderous desperation that makes coincidences feel like epiphanies. Between innings, the third baseman lies down in the infield with his head on the base. In Rochester, a fan is recording the radio broadcast on multiple cassette tapes, even over a mix tape of Elvis songs she received from a friend for her birthday. And the older players who are already running out of time, here they are, released into the night’s specific timelessness, trying to do something, god, anything. Wade Boggs and Cal Ripken Jr. played in the longest game, but so did Dave Koza and Drungo Hazewood and Sam Bowen.