Top Three Reads - 2004
So instead of Top Ten's, here's a Top Three. If my memory functions like someone trying to carry soup with a fork, I guess these are the few morsels of tasty thought-meat that managed to stick between the tines.
Top Three Books Read In 2004
# 3: Mark Z. Danielewski, "House Of Leaves"
House Of Leaves is introduced by Johnny Truant, LA waster and self-appointed editor of a trunkfull of notes and scribblings by a blind man called Zampano, all of which relate to a film called The Navidson Record, a film which, it appears to Truant, does not exist and never has. The Navidson Record, according to Zampano's writings, is a documentary begun by a Pullitzer-Prize-winning photojournalist on moving into a new house with his family as a simple representation of mundane domestic life. It quickly becomes a representation of something entirely other, when a door appears overnight, a door which opens into an ash-grey corridor that cannot possibly be there given that the door has appeared in an exterior wall. As Navidson and other characters begin to explore the impossible house, and with constant footnotes by Truant splitting us off from the text like doorways off a twisting corridor, slowly the reader is drawn into the story within the story within the story, into the depths of the house.
# 2: Jeff Vandermeer, "City Of Saints And Madmen"
City Of Saints And Madmen begins on the front cover itself, with the gorgeous artwork of Scott Eagle, a list of words particularly favoured by the author and, most importantly, the story of a traveller's arrival in the city of Ambergris. On the surface the book is a collection of short stories set in this fictional city, some straightforward, others told using various metafictional conceits and devices, four novellas forming the basic text of the book, while the rest of the stories are separated out as an Appendix. But apart from the fact that these stories are absolute nuggets in their own right, there's much more going on here in the way they relate to each other. As the book progresses, various fictive texts - historical glossaries, academic footnotes and art history interpolations - are used to make Ambergris far more rounded, far more real in the reader's imagination, than most fantasy cities, until in the last of the four novellas we are taken right through the looking glass. Fact and fiction are flipped inside-out as the author writes himself into the book as a madman in an asylum, a victim of his own creation. The Appendix is, we are told, actually a selection of this madman's scribblings and scraps. In the end, we have to see this book as a novel rather than a collection of short stories; the difference is that here it is the reader himself who is the protagonist, arriving with the traveller on the front cover, descending into the madness of the city with Dradin, piecing together the city's history with Duncan Shriek, and finally, together with the author, utterly submerged amongst the artefacts of Ambergris, illustrated chapbooks, monograms, bibliographies, magazine clippings or lunatic's notes.
# 1: Edward Whittemore, "Jericho Mosaic"
Jericho Mosaic is a more straightforward book - if any of Whittemore's work can be described as straightforward. It's actually the final book of his breathtaking Jerusalem Quartet, a series which begins in myth and legend, with a great symbolic collosus of a Victorian Englishmen, Plantaganet Strongbow, striding through the pages of Sinai Tapestry, glimpses of humanity and reality flashing in the wild tales swirling round him like desert sunlight on the great bronze sundial he carries strapped to his side. The series takes us on into the first half of the 20th Century in Jerusalem Poker, through the brutalities of Smyrna and the transition of the Holy Land from a time of myth to one of modernity. For many readers I imagine this is their favourite of the series, so finely balanced it is between fabulous ideas and empathic impact. I'm not so sure. Things change, times change, and so Nile Shadows is like an inversion of the first book; here it is the humanity, the reality, of its central character's life and death which permeates the novel. Here it is the fantastic which is merely glimpsed among the simpler, more mundane and more tragic joys and sorrows of Stern, a man who dreams of a Holy Land where Jews, Muslims and Christians can live in peace, knowing that it can never be. Part of me holds out for Nile Shadows as my favourite of the series. At the end of this rambling, digressive tour of the middle-east, the 20th Century, and the whole of the human condition, we come to Jericho Mosaic, based on the true tale of an Israeli spy who spent decades in deep cover in Syria. In some ways it stands apart from the other three. Characters common to the earlier books are dead and gone. The story here is relatively simple, myth pared back to leave us mostly with history - the history of a spy called The Runner, of Mossad, and of Israel itself. But it remains suffused with Whittemore's themes and humanist mystical sensibility. And to me it's a fitting end to a powerful work.
It was a hard call to place these books in order. All three of them are wonderful. All three of them are monstrous. All three of them are wonderfully monstrous, monstrously wonderful… strange chimaeric creatures with the slouch of a lion, the soar of an eagle, the snort of a bull and the sorrow of a human being. Like the central symbols of the titles - house, city and mosaic - these are complex structures, composed of fragments, segments, spaces, shards of narrative.
So each book is a house, an architectured construct of rooms and corridors, written by the glow of a flashlight darting here and there to pick out the solidity of walls, ceiling and floor… or the blackness where such solidity is disturbingly, impossibly absent, where there is only mystery. Everywhere in these books we find mystery.
Each book is a city also, a metropolis of boulevards where artists drink coffee, of side-streets where madmen riot and of gardens where saints dance naked, a city explored and explained in the various guide books, glossaries and journals - the facts and fictions - which any traveller might purchase from a small bookshop on the main thoroughfare of the business district; but it is a city with gaps in its history, with silences, disappearances, unseen atrocities in the dark tunnels beneath the streets. Everywhere in these books we find mystery and horror.
And each is a mosaic, an intricate pattern made up of gleaming narrative shards, each tile of a tale itself a crystal gem - lapis, turquoise, malachite, obsidian - glowing with the light it catches and reflects… and all these sparkling pataphysical moments of lives together resolving, at a certain distance, into a larger picture of life itself, one that is not perhaps entirely consistent or complete but which seems somehow more coherent, more comprehensive, because it is made up of fragments. Life, in these books, is a fragile thing, all too often shattered. So everywhere in these books we find mystery and horror and sorrow.
I can't really do any of these books justice. I'd need to write about them at much greater length. Hell, I might even do so if it weren't for my profound sloth and flighty butterfly attention. So instead I'll leave this with a quote from Jericho Mosaic, one which appeals to me for the way it relates reality and fantasy, accepting the sense of wonder so important to the fantasist, but looking beyond that, searching for a sense of truth and so finding a subtler and more poignant wonder in the world:
I've never known anyone who wasn't astonished at seeing the Jordan for the first time [says one of the characters] To be so small, just a quiet little stream a few yards across and shallow and warm and yet to be so famous. It's always imagined quite differently.