Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Bookshelf: Nation by Terry Pratchett

Nation at
It is nearly impossible to talk about Terry Pratchett’s recent work without mentioning the author’s ongoing struggle with Alzheimer’s; it’s a senseless and tragic thing which threatens to take a charming and talented person away from us. Of course, the author has been keen to remind everyone that he’s still alive and fighting and that we should perhaps wait a while before composing eulogies. Still, Terry Pratchett’s NATION (which I have to continually remind myself is NOT called Terry Nation’s PRATCHETT) is itself a novel dealing with senseless tragedy and our attempts at making sense of said situations, and getting by afterwards. Though billed as a young adult novel, it feels aimed at a broader range of readers, and it’s an engaging and provocative story which raises a lot of challenging questions no matter the age of the reader. The skill with which Pratchett handles what can be inflammatory, unpleasant, or even just familiar subject matter is remarkable.

The majority of the book centers around Mau, a boy from an island community who has just completed part of his rite of passage to become a man. (His precise age is never set down, but I’m going to say he’s a teenager because that seems to fit.) However, on his way home, he lives through and becomes the sole survivor of a massive tidal wave that destroys the society of Nation and everyone he knew. The boy’s hopes of completing the rites of manhood are dashed, and his faith in the gods who allowed this to happen are almost totally destroyed, but a voice in his head tells him to go through the proper rituals to bury his kinsmen at sea and begin re-founding Nation all by himself. He’s not alone for long, though, because the wave carries with it a ship, and the sole survivor of the wreck is Daphne (or Ermintrude, as she hates being called), youngest heir to the throne of Britain who was being transported there to fulfill some contractual business best left aside for now. She’s about his age but that’s all they have in common, and they have to try and communicate as survivors of nearby islands, and a few unsavory characters, drift in.

Response to tragedy has been an increasingly popular theme of fiction in recent years, for obvious reasons. I’m not sure things are worse now than they’ve ever been, but between sudden natural disasters and endless wars it’s gotten to be a bit much. Inevitably, how you can reconcile a belief in a benevolent deity or deities with the objective existence of death and calamity is a big question for many of us. Pratchett himself is an atheist, and no stranger to criticism of religion, so once I worked out that this was going to be a main theme I did not hold out much hope for an answer that was not, “You can’t, God either does not exist or is a right bastard.” Which, in brief, I’ve heard already.

What we get is a little more complicated. Mau falls out with the gods pretty quickly, but other characters we meet hold on to their faith, and the events that take place are open to interpretation. It’s provocative whatever position you come at it from, and Pratchett doesn’t seem interested in presenting an answer so much as prodding the reader and throwing the issue out there.

Nor is religion the only subject on the table. I’m not even sure if it’s the main one. I think it’s more about how we cope with disaster. This involves faith and the loss of same, but equally important are the social structures that are broken and torn, needing to be repaired but inevitably being changed in the process. As the official man of Nation, Mau has to make sure that people are fed and cared for, that beer gets made, that women have a place to stay, and that the god anchors are in their proper place even if Mau doesn’t believe they’re important, because others do. We essentially see a new culture born from the ashes of an old one, and that’s interesting.

It helps that Pratchett writes this all with his usual deft comic touch. The subject matter is grim, and not trivialized, but the tragedy is so quick and the need for the survivors to get to surviving so urgent that we don’t dwell on it any more than we need to. The tone instead is very matter-of-fact, and no doubt the author had to keep the pace brisk for the YA market (though young adult fiction can get a LOT more depressing than this, believe you me.)

The one part of the book that doesn’t fit at all is a plot device brought up early, forgotten for most of the novel, and raised again near the end without much urgency. There’s apparently some kind of virus sweeping Britain, and the Royal Family all caught it and died quite suddenly, and there’s an esoteric clause stating that the new monarch needs to be coronated within a certain amount of time or the entire country gets turned over to France or something, and this leads to Daphne (who is not the new monarch, but is the daughter of him, I think) being on the boat that runs way too far aground. It’s not a bad plotline, but it’s a lot more than is necessary to get her into the story, and though there’s a thematic link, it seems like a concept best explored in another book altogether. Also, though it’s not usually expected that an author give every character’s age, it would have prevented me from somehow imagining Daphne as being in her early 20s and Mau as around 10, and thus being more weirded out than I should have been when faint romantic elements started cropping up.

I enjoyed NATION quite a bit, and it’s a book that holds up well in the memory. It’s a book about tragedy that is not at all depressing, because it’s also about the aftermath and how those left behind have to pick things up and move on. It raises questions and encourages the reader to consider multiple answers. Pratchett tackles some big issues here, and then turns around and asks us what we think. I appreciate that.

Grade: A-

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Again with the Memes: 20 Actresses

Ah, the holidays. A time of low traffic and low posting, but also the end of the month and thus a time for my frentic last minute updating. Fortunately, I can just catch the tail end of a meme that went through the film blogosphere recently (starting with the Film Experience Blog and most recently at Film & Discussion). In short, list your 20 favorite actresses in no particular order. I've listed these more or less as I thought of them, and in the order that I was able to upload the images. With them, I'm posting the roles for which I know them best.

I did this in a bit of a hurry, and many fine actresses no doubt slipped my mind. My apologies to everyone who was overlooked.

Julia Sawalha- Absolutely Fabulous, Chicken Run, In The Bleak Midwinter

Meryl Streep- The French Lieutenant's Woman, A Prairie Home Companion

Emma Thompson- Much Ado About Nothing, Treasure Planet, The Tall Guy

Gaylen Ross- Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Virginia Madsen- A Prairie Home Companion, Sideways, Dune

Uma Thurman- Kill Bill, The Avengers, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Susan Sarandon- The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Dead Man Walking

Tracey Ullman- Small Time Crooks

Rachel Weisz- The Mummy, The Constant Gardner

Jane Leeves- Frasier

Helen Mirren- The Queen, Age of Consent

Brigitte Helm- Metropolis

Tami Stronach- The Neverending Story

Joan Cusack- Grosse Pointe Blank, Addams Family Values, Toys

Charlotte Rampling- Orca, Swimming Pool

Cate Blanchett- The Aviator, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Life Aquatic

Amy Adams- Enchanted

Jennifer Connelly- Labyrinth, Requiem for a Dream

Jessica Harper- Shock Treatment, Phantom of the Paradise, Suspiria

Madeline Kahn- Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, Clue

I'm sure I'll think of some more, but that's the list as it stands right now. Feel free to join in.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Academy of the Underrated: The Godfather Part III

Godfather III on DVD at
To coincide with the most recent release of the GODFATHER trilogy on DVD, all three films (the first two with restored prints) have been making the theatrical rounds. I missed the first film for nothing more or less than criminal personal negligence, but I caught II and III. I’m going to have to review the first two someday, but for now I’ll just take a look at the least-loved entry. THE GODFATHER PART III, is, to be sure, the least good of the three films, but when you consider that the first two are among the finest American films ever made, that’s not saying too much. The fact that it’s not up to this lofty standard means it gets a lot of flak, but in truth it holds up pretty well as an appropriately operatic finale to the story of Michael Corleone and the legacy he’s spent a lifetime trying to get away from. (Spoilers for the first two are below the cut, but seriously, you haven’t seen these films?)

The film takes place in 1979, after Michael Corleone (Al Pacino, natch) has moved back to New York and is continuing to try and become a respectable citizen. The first major sequence is a reception after Michael has been honored by no less than the Roman Catholic Church for his charity and humanitarian work, but in attendance is local enforcer Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna), who’s been having run-ins with Michael’s bastard nephew Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia), who’s inherited his father Sonny’s bad temper and masculine charms. All of this mobster business threatens to interfere with Michael’s attempt to finally make the Corleones legitimate; by paying off some of a deficit incurred by the Vatican Bank’s less-than-scrupulous accountant (Donal Donnelly), Michael will get their vote on a takeover of Immobiliare, the largest real estate company in the world, effectively transferring all his family’s holdings to this one clean business. When Michael calls the owners of his casinos to a meeting to formally dissolve their partnership, a brutal massacre takes place and he is forced to once again play the Mafia game to protect himself and his family. There’s further trouble brewing within the household, though, as Vincent has fallen in love with Michael’s own daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola.)

The plot dealing with Immobiliare and the Vatican is a rather intricate one, such that, having seen the film three times now, I’m still not entirely sure I get all of it. But it’s as fascinating as the elaborate ventures in the earlier films, showing corruption at the most rarefied heights of power and nicely playing into a brief but suspect chapter in the history of the Catholic Church. The idea is that Michael is essentially trying to wash his money clean, and atone for his many, many sins in the process. The film is the story of his attempt at redemption, and as one might imagine it does not go smoothly.

The weak link that’s been constantly attacked in regards to this film is Francis Ford Coppola’s decision to cast his own daughter Sofia as Mary. In his and her defense, the role was supposed to go to Winona Ryder, who bowed out for some reason at the last minute, and Sofia was the only person available on short notice. However, the poor girl just can’t act. She comes off as bored and wooden, and not nearly as sympathetic as the character is meant to be. This is a significant flaw, make no mistake. But it’s not quite the killer you’d expect, as the romance between Mary and Vincent (who does have a competent actor bringing him to life) doesn’t take up that much screen time. Coppola was also at a slight disadvantage in catching Al Pacino sometime after he decided that subtlety was a mug’s game; the chilling detachment of PART II’s Michael Corleone is replaced by a more bellicose personality, and the character this time is prone to diabetic fits which have the actor lurching about like the Frankenstein monster. That said, I don’t dislike his performance; if he goes over the top now and again, well, this is a bit of an opera. Literally, as Michael’s son Anthony (Franc D’Ambrosio) has grown up to become a singer about to make his operatic debut in a Sicilian production of CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA, the performance of which forms the film’s final act.

Once again we’re treated to some amazing locations and warm visuals, though obviously the period detail has been downplayed simply because there’s less of it. A rich bronze look defines much of the picture, taking place as it does in Michael’s autumn years. The picture has a slow pace, but it’s the slowness of old age, and there’s something oddly satisfying in the way the protagonist takes stock of his life and attempts to put things behind them, even when it doesn’t work. He confesses his sins, most particularly his ordering Fredo’s death, to Cardinal Lamberto (Raf Vallone), soon to be Pope John Paul I. He reflects on, and tells his children about his late wife Apollonia. Just as prominently he attempts to affect some kind of reconciliation with Kay (Diane Keaton), who has moved on with her life but never fully stopped loving him or being scared of him. Pacino and Keaton are at their best together, in a long interlude where they try to assess just where they are in regards to each other. Talia Shire returns as Connie, who in her later years has become a strangely dark figure who understands the family business better than ever. Veteran character actor Eli Wallach’s turn as the too-pleasant Don Altobello is especially memorable, and though it’s nearly unforgivable that the filmmakers failed to hire back Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen, and as odd a choice as it was to have the new lawyer be played by George Hamilton, he fits in better than you’d think.

Perhaps even moreso than the other films, THE GODFATHER PART III is a tragedy, and a good deal of my affection for it springs from how gloriously it all goes wrong in the end. There’s something strangely fitting about it, and though the film doesn’t quite get to the root of Michael’s moral failings, to the why of what he does, it’s a strong reminder of just how hard redemption can actually be. It’s difficult to not just recognize sin but turn away from it, and though Michael is always haunted by what he does he can never quite give it up. This is a worthy finale, and what mistakes it makes are not nearly as significant as what it gets right.

Written by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Grade: B+

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Bookshelf: Dragons of Winter Night by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

Link to Dragons of Winter Night at
And I’m out. Life is too short to read books that you don’t enjoy, and at some point around the middle DRAGONS OF WINTER NIGHT started to feel like work. I had been looking forward to this second volume in the DRAGONLANCE saga, on the grounds that the middle installment is usually where things get really interesting, plus the dead-of-winter angle seemed appealing and seasonally appropriate. But instead this is where Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s game fiction turned bestselling trilogy goes off the rails, losing the clichéd charm of the first installment in a morass of bad plotting and downright uninspired writing. It’s not without its good moments, but to get to those you have to wade through a lot of stuff that’s just not interesting.

My first difficulty comes with describing the plot. Our heroic adventure group have taken refuge with a group of people fleeing from the Dragon Highlords who now control Krynn. They’re sent on a quest to find the port city of Tarsis so the refugees can hopefully find some safe haven, but when they get there it’s been landlocked for centuries, and an attack by the Highlords splits them up. Laurana, an elvish girl who’s in love with Tanis (he’s obsessed with some evil warrior woman who shows up eventually) joins Sturm, Flint, and Tas in search of one of the fabled Dragonlances, weapons that can actually slay the flying menaces, while the rest of the group goes after an orb to control dragons in the midst of a haunted elven city. I think. Eventually the first group comes across a dragonorb too, and there’s some business with Sturm’s old order of knights suffering from political infighting, and there are elves and humans in conflict over who gets to keep one of the dragonorbs, and gnomes get involved somehow.

If these books were in fact drawn from a D&D campaign, this was obviously the point where the Dungeon Master made the mistake of splitting up the party and had to handle separate plotlines in the vain hope that they would intersect again. The alternative, of course, is that Weis and Hickman planned this storyline, which would be unthinkable but then again I saw the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN sequels. The point is, this is not good plotting. The second installment of any trilogy always faces a challenge because it has to bridge two other works and thus often lacks its own beginning and end, and you often end up with lots of parallel action for some odd reason, but there’s parallel action and there’s whatever the Hell this is. I can no longer recall how anything in this book fit together, and was halfway tempted to steal someone else’s plot summary. And I understood THE AVENGERS.

This might be forgivable if this mess of loosely connected setpieces were consistently fun. There are some bits I like. The haunted city portion ends in a bit of a cheat, but it’s pretty damn moody before that. The action is generally good, and I liked the final battle. But we also have to wade through a lot of tedious political bickering, none of which reaches a level of sophistication beyond junior high debate and serves no purpose other than to reiterate the high fantasy cliché that diplomacy and debate are completely worthless.

My great failing in reviewing the previous book in this series is that I somehow managed not to pick up that it is a HUGE Mormon allegory, from the golden plates to the white Native American types. Strictly speaking I don’t object to fantasy being used as religious symbolism, but in this new context it was impossible to ignore a scene between Caramon and bar-wench-turned-warrior Tika which seems to exist solely for the purpose of establishing that he will not sleep with her until they can be in a committed relationship, essentially an abstinence message made incredibly ill-fitting by the fact that everything prior has established them as lustful stoats who could not be pried apart with a crowbar. It was what made them entertaining. Speaking of poorly wedged-in morals, an inordinate amount of focus is spent on Tas, the halfling who can’t help taking other people’s things because his culture has no concept of ownership and is absolutely not a thief. This itself is worth remarking upon for an entirely different reason, namely that his third-person-limited voice is cloying and twee, a forced roguish tone that quickly wears out its welcome. Between him, the comic tinker gnomes and the return of Fizban, the book stretches the reader’s tolerance for cutesy comic relief to the breaking point.

While we’re on the subject of characters, it’s weird how quickly the focus shifts away from Tanis, our protagonist from last time, and in fact he’s not even present for the book’s climax. Raistlin, also an interesting character, drifts to the sidelines as well. Goldmoon and Riverwind are also marginalised despite their prominence in the first book, but I actually didn’t mind that.

The prose is as workmanlike as ever, getting the job done and painting a few vivid pictures, which is why the book fails to slip from mediocre to outright bad. I do have to fault it for downplaying and often forgetting the whole “winter” thing- there’s the occasional mention of snow and/or ice, but it’s so sparse that if this were a film you wouldn’t be able to see the actors’ breath. Conveying season is a subtle thing, but if you put “winter” in your title you should indulge in a little overdescription.

I was perhaps forgiving of DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT’s flaws because I was convinced this was going somewhere. About midway through DRAGONS OF WINTER NIGHT I decided that if this was going anywhere it was sure taking its sweet time, and at this point my only real interest was in seeing the “state of play” for the DRAGONLANCE setting, which is something I could get on Wikipedia while reading a much better book. There is simply nothing sufficiently earth-shaking here- nothing that changes the game or raises the stakes or makes me think this is going to go in some very unusual direction. It’s just more running around, without the basic dungeon crawl coherence of the first novel. This is not quite a book to be hurled across the room with great force, but I was tempted.

Grade: C

Random Movie Report #58: The Cars That Ate Paris

Link to the DVD on Amazon.comObviously there’s no way a film called THE CARS THAT ATE PARIS could possibly live up to its title, especially if said film is from Australia and directed by Peter Weir. Indeed just about any assumption you can make about a film with said title is probably wrong. Paris is a backwater Australian town, the cars do not actually eat anyone or anything, and the film is a bizarre black comedy about consumerism or rural poverty or something like that. It’s hard to tell because nobody talks very much, and though the film has some nice visuals and not bad ideas it feels strangely half-done. It’s the sort of movie that has just enough good or potentially good parts to make you regret that it doesn’t work.

The theoretical protagonist of this picture is Arthur Waldo (Terry Camilleri), an unemployed man who is roaming the countryside with his brother looking for work when a bright light forces them off the road. Arthur awakes in a hospital the town of Paris, where he’s told his brother is dead but he’s welcome to stay as long as it takes to recover. His injuries aren’t much, but he quickly finds that he’s not really allowed to leave, as the townsfolk have already decided that he will be a part of their community. Paris’ not-so-well-kept secret is that their economy is built entirely on causing car accidents and salvaging useful items (and the occasional new citizen) from the wreckage. This has created a bizarre form of trade where car parts are used as currency, and the indolent youth build brutal and garishly-painted roadsters. Despite this, the Mayor (John Meillon) and the elders try to create a semblance of normalcy and hope to grow and progress like every good small town. Arthur has been unable to drive ever since he killed a pedestrian some years back, so he’s trapped and might as well do what he can to fit in.

This is really a great premise, reminiscent of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE released the same year. Here it’s used as the setup for a sprawling social satire in the vein of THE LOVED ONE and THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN, only on a lower budget. What it’s a satire of, I haven’t quite worked out yet- there are some jabs at consumerism in a few scenes, but that falls by the wayside and the main body of the film seems to be more about small town provincialism, or possibly the cannibalistic nature of free enterprise in a poverty-stricken environment. Were I Australian I might understand a bit more of this.

Not helping matters is the fact that there’s very little dialogue in this film. Weir takes a highly visual approach, which generally speaking is what good directors are expected to do, but while the various near-silent vignettes establishing life in Paris lay down the basics well enough, I felt starved for details. This is effectively an alternate society we’re being presented with, but instead of being immersed in it we’re kept at a distance. The film is littered with undeveloped concepts, like the hints that the hospital is performing unethical experiments on the vegetative crash victims in their care, or the building of a new health care facility that’s supposed to mark the town’s great leap forward, or Arthur’s own piecing together of what was done to him and his brother. Eventually the film decides that it’s about the conflict between the city elders and the youth gangs, but that’s so elementary that it can’t really sustain a feature.

The characters, sadly, all remain pretty one dimensional, with Arthur being particularly ineffectual (though this was the fashion at the time.) This is the real killer, I think- satire needs vivid personalities, even stereotypical ones, and though I can’t fault the cast, they have nothing to work with. It honestly feels like pages and pages of conversation were cut out at the last minute, and that the filmmakers worked out a lot more detail to the Parisians than they ever bother to tell us. It’s like going to a restaurant where wonderful smells continually waft from the kitchen, and being served scraps.

It’s not that the scraps are bad. There are some wonderful images here, notably the late appearance of one of the killer cars, an old-school VW Beetle covered in spikes like a porcupine. I think I’m not spoiling too much if I say that there is eventually an automotive rampage that has something of a monster movie quality; we can’t see the drivers of the custom dragsters, so they appear to act on their own volition. This happens at the very end, though, and I’m not sure it’s really enough. There’s not a lot in the film that’s genuinely funny, but I was particularly amused by a sudden Leone/Morricone parody during Arthur’s term as traffic cop.

Peter Weir would of course go on to better things; pictures like THE LAST WAVE and THE TRUMAN SHOW are good examples of how his surreal visions can work in harmony with a solid story. Without such an anchor, THE CARS THAT ATE PARIS is more a scattering of ideas than a fully developed satire. It’s one film I honestly think calls for a remake, but in the meantime this is really only something I can recommend to Weir fans and possibly VW devotees.

Story by Peter Weird, Keith Gow, and Piers Davies
Written and Directed by Peter Weir
Grade: C-

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Bookshelf: House of Leaves

Link to House of Leaves on Amazon
HOUSE OF LEAVES is a book I heard about in figurative whispers, which is the inevitable result of not following book chatter very closely (probably not a good idea for an aspiring writer), but it had the effect of making the work more tantalizing. This is a horror book, of sorts, but it’s also a dense and metatextual and deconstructive assembly of a story that witnesses madness, and so it has an appeal as a real-world version of the Necronomicon (that isn’t some crappy New Age cash-in.) Appropriately enough it took a while for me to track down a copy, though I’m sure real forbidden books of cosmic horror cannot be found in paperback at Borders. Though Mark J. Danielewski’s debut novel has not had the kind of insidious effect on me that it has on some readers (that altar to Tsathoggua was there when I moved in, honestly), but it’s a beautifully crafted and compelling book with only a few niggling flaws.

The book is a multilayered affair, presenting itself as a manuscript by a man named Johnny Truant, consisting of his footnotes on a text by a man named Zampanò, who died in the apartment that Johnny later leased because L.A. residents can’t afford to shun ominous and foul places when the rent is low enough. Zampanò, in turn, was writing a huge critical work on The Navidson Document, a widely-circulated film purporting to be a documentary on a haunted house. Well, sort of haunted. Instead of having ghosts, the house has a series of rooms that should not exist, reached through a door that should lead outside. This foreign space is barren and offers no clues as to its origins, purpose, or true nature. Needless to say, Will Navidson, father of the household and veteran photographer who’s been in many dangerous situations (and started making this film because he was trying to do a documentary on his family) insists on exploring, and bringing in others to explore, while mother Karen tries to be supportive but is not-so-secretly wondering what the neighborhood is like in Timbuktu.

Zampanò covers the ominous developments in the most scholarly manner possible, though his notes start to show signs of obsession as the mystery deepens. Johnny, in turn, uses his footnotes to detail his story on how working with this text is starting to drive him insane. This is one of those books wherein the arrangement of text, footnotes, etc. is key to the overall effect, and it can be very disorienting and maze-like in itself. That of course is the point- arguably this is a book meant to be re-read and skimmed and looked at piecemeal in addition to (if not instead of) a straight beginning-to-end reading. A number of typographical distinctions become important- as an example the word house is always written in pale blue. (There’s another word that always gets written in red and crossed out, but revealing it may be some kind of spoiler.)

HOUSE OF LEAVES is pretty much at the extreme minimalist end of the horror spectrum- it never even so much as defines the outline of any creeping monster waiting on the other side of the door, and our characters instead face the more existential threat of pure oblivion. Not explaining things and indeed insisting that the reality is inexplicable seems to be a popular trend in the genre, and it definitely has its benefits. At the same time I kind of miss when horror writers would come up with bizarre names and vague shapes for their terrors- something like what Lovecraft does is about my speed, and his work is no less nihilistic for it. In some ways the horror of HOUSE OF LEAVES is one of sensory deprivation- you start to imagine what might be the root of all this, but you receive so little that your imagination is essentially feeding on itself. This doesn’t make it a bad book at all, but you should it know that it’s one that asks more effort than usual on the part of its reader.

If there is really one obstacle to my getting really heavily into this book and its enigmas, it’s Johnny Truant. There are points relatively early in the narrative where his footnotes get longer and closer together as he tells you his story, and I started to outright dread seeing his font pop up. Truant’s story is the kind you’ve probably heard. He lives in Los Angeles, works at a tattoo parlor, drinks, experiments with drugs and has a friend with access to the kinds of pharmaceuticals that would make Hunter S. Thompson turn in early because he’s really got a lot to do tomorrow, he had a traumatic childhood, he has a lot of casual sex with attractive women but is in a courtly kind of love with a stripper who's named Thumper because she’s got a bunny tattooed near the entrance to what she calls “The Happiest Place on Earth”, there are late night car rides with people who should not be driving, etc. It’s very much a hardboiled L.A. narrative of the kind you get in indie films and one-man-shows and comic books, and though Johnny freely admits he’s adopting a “tough guy” voice it gets to be a little much anyway.

Having such a consciously “colorful” element to the book gets in the way of the pure existential horror, as do frequent attempts to tie the madness of the house and its alien hallways to specific psychological issues on the part of the people who explore it. Is this a true cosmic trap for the unwary or just an extension of individual drama? Strangely, Zampanò’s scholarly tone does not intrude on the same level, though it’s arguably just as deliberate a voice and it has the kind of dryness that you would imagine is not conducive to spine-tingling suspense. That Danielewski pulls this off is actually pretty damn remarkable.

The book’s presentation as a found object continues to the inclusion of pictures, a half-finished index, and various appendices, and the narrative itself becomes increasingly uncertain as one expects from postmodernist fiction. How effective this is for you, I suppose depends on how much stock you put in Derrida. It’s worth noting, though, that some cheaper printings apparently leave out some key textual distinctions (coloration mostly); I think I’ve got the right version linked up above, but you may want to double-check.

So HOUSE OF LEAVES has yet to haunt my dreams, though those of a geekish persuasion may simply conclude that I made my SAN roll. Still it’s quite cool and though the text takes some work, it’s worth the effort for the dedicated reader. It’s obviously more effective if your tastes run towards existentialist minimalism (or minimalist existentialism), but from any philosophical perspective this is a wonderfully intricate book with many, many surprises.

Grade: A-