Navel Gazing Novel Grazing: A Review of House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski and Caroline’s Bikini by Kirsty Gunn

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Male Belly Button. Photo by Stefano Bolognini. 2006. Wikimedia commons

A funny little distinction exists between form and function. The way they link is invisible, except when it isn’t in which case a seeming chasm forms between the two.

There seems to be a trend in which the subject is the contents of my belly button are considered to be literary. They are novels written as though built upon tweeted diaries but with the “Dear Diary” tags removed and they burn with egoism as do online posts looking for likes in all the wrong places. Reviewers seem awestruck by this fad and as a result only gather and gush. In general these are novels that rely upon structural trickiness. They emphasize the structural with visual emphasis: footnotes, font changes, cute colored forms and words, or they are characterized by an author continually emphasizing the self. There is reflexivity, but it’s reflexivity about the author’s reflexivity. “Look Ma, I am commenting upon my commenting upon my writing.” For many of these, a sort of mismatch arises between the syntactic and semantic function of the novel.

I can go with Barthes and others in the idea of the reader participating in the creation of the coming-into-being of the text. But the type of work I’m thinking is different; it operates like a haiku written by a elementary student who recognizes the form but not the deeper function that almost makes the form irrelevant.

In navel gazing novels the power of the form, and as a result the agency of the reader to help create the being, is supplanted by manipulation in the service of the author’s self-centeredness. It may be as Barthes says in S/Z, a form of rereading “no longer consumption but play….in order to obtain…not the real text but a plural text…” That would be generous here. In these novels this plural is a ruse as each supposed different thread when pulled only leads back to the author. The reader is asked to do something, to unpack, to play a game of connect the dots, to make sense of a fakery of artifacts (footnotes, documents, voices). It becomes sort of a cryptographic puzzle. Who did it once we put the pieces together? Not the butler but the ego.

In this, the author seems to think the trickery provides authority. I’ll let J.M. Coetzee take over here, “What the great authors are masters of is authority. What is the source of authority, or of what the formalists called the authority effect? If authority could be achieved simply by tricks of rhetoric [and I would add structure] then Plato was surely justified in expelling poets from his ideal republic. But what if authority can be attained only by opening the poet-self to some higher force, by ceasing to be oneself and beginning to speak vatically?” (p. 151, Diary of a Bad Year.)

It’s not that the author inserts the self into the novel as a character but the author intervenes continually, always photobombing the scene. And part of my problem in accepting these half cocked versions is that I can think of just too many great authors who have already taken any one of their ideas and developed it into something of genius: Pessoa, Miller, Sorrentino, Cortázar, Robbe-Grillet, Beckett, Woolf, Silliman, Céline, Coover. So I’m not talking about the ideas itself but the way it’s being done and the obviousness of the abyss. So maybe I’m attempting to define a genre that is no more than a failure of Louis Sullivan’s axiom “form follows function,” in which form sabotages function, in which the author’s enthusiasm for the discovered form turns into a novelistic selfie.

Maybe it’s the result of an inbreeding between our time with the conditions of a novel. We can’t escape the clash of time crunched writers and readers who live and die multi tasking, in love wiht sound bytes, and texting/posting every unremarkable thing they do.

So this leads me to two the novels that I’ll lump together as navel gazing novels, House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski and Caroline’s Bikini by Kirsty Gunn. Both share the notoriety of being books I started numerous times, with complete and hopeful intent and both being novels that I stopped caring about. They both also epitomize the issues I have so far discussed in this article. As John Gardner wrote about early Melville in his book On Becoming a Novelist, “There is, I think, nothing actively bad about this writing; but we get no sense of the speaker’s character, no clear mood from the rhythm, certainly no sense of the prose invading the domain of poetry,” which he says with a comparative example from Melville, is a complete contrast to a “booming, authoritative voice.”

One might argue that Danielewski’s writing is vacant because he’s after some ennui or foundational meaninglessness as a theme. Good try but no, it’s too oozingly egotistical. His idea is good, a house bigger on the inside than the outside. Then the book quickly becomes a struggle to imitate Borges ala a sort of rip of his Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote with a Nirvana boogie toward contemporary gothic pop. Jokes are repeated (in case we didn’t get them the first time I suppose) and points are belabored. The attempt is to put the ghost in the machine into a shallow grave. And we as readers get cranky about being batted into ‘getting it’ the way the author demands we get it.

All in all HOL feels solidly like 1993 (it was published in 2000). What I mean is that by 1993, PoMo was in all it’s bloom. Artists and writers had accepted it for what it was. Twenty years had passed since the arrival of Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation and everybody got that truth was suspect and everything turned echo. The internet was developing. And we get the later results of the full fledged internet like the page of funny latin phrases, things that Danielewski likes to insert as though something fresh. HOL becomes then just like the author says about a character, “Eventually he detoured into long winded non-stories…lots of ‘Hey, my thing for that whole time thing was really a kinda art thing or something.” True enough.

Here’s a good example of Danielewski belaboring a point that raises the sort of question Gardner asks about the struggle of a writer to hear in his mind what he’s saying: “Quick note here: if this crush-slash-swooning stuff is hard for you to stomach; if you’ve never had a similar experience, then you should come to grips with the fact that you’ve got a TV dinner for a heart [nice so far with a good punchy ending, but Danielewski just can’t leave it alone so he continues to belabor and ruins it] and might want to consider climbing inside a microwave and turning it on high for at least an hour, which if you do consider only goes to show what kind of idiot you truly are because microwaves are way to small for anyone, let alone you, to climb into.” Now this deserves being sent to the Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest for wretched writing.

As I read, I always sensed the author yuk-yuking in the background like a comedian that keeps telling the audience, “Ok this one I wrote last night and it’s really funny. That was funny right? Right?”

Where’s the plot you ask? Didn’t you ever play Zork? It’s about the same. Weird house, underground labyrinth. Zork was fun. Did you make a map like I did?

Remember, Infinite Jest came out in 1996, so not only does HOL get no extra credit for the Borgesian meta-carousel but no extra credit for the use of footnotes. No credit either for Truant’s nice voice that slowly dwindles away like a movie actor who starts out with full on brogue and by the end of the movie has reverted to speaking their native lower east side slang. Basically the novel puts mustard on mustard and a good editor and some severe cutting would have made a big difference. As it stands HOL is all Brooklynese Badda Bing echos Badda Boom whip de doo. This just in: Freewriting ≠ suspense.

As the book progresses authorial decisions feel more tricksy. A funhouse at the midway is entertaining the first time through but then it becomes common and then downright annoying. I 86’d it on page 98, by far the farthest I’d ever gotten. I probably won’t try again. But there seems to be something that haunts under 30’s about this novel and I think it’s all Baudrillardian (not in the novel as far as I know so we can’t credit Danielewsky here). It’s the idea, as I mentioned, that there is no underlying reality, reproductions of events takes on it’s own reality (By the way DeLillo’s Underworld with that iconic film description haunts me way more than this Navidson thing, which I suspect could have been an influence), everything becomes both a simulation and a simulacrum. After all the readership it seems to resonate most with is the generation for whom “I’m having an existential crisis” was/is the catchphrase.

“Who would wish to be known as crafty?” asks poet Donald Revell in The Art of Attention. I’d guess Caroline Gunn for one. The same tricksy dramaturgical staginess found in HOL is all over this novel with the author creeping the reader throughout. They say you can’t judge a book by it’s cover but here I think you can. It’s an invitation envelope sideways and boring. F for design on this one. As with HOL, the premise of Caroline’s Bikini is good a guy hires a writer to invent a love tryst — the problem is that everything following this idea blows chunks. I’m using that on purpose because the novel feels so full of hubris. Revell commented on Ronald Johnson’s poem What the Leaf Told Me, with “This is not creative writing. This is poetry.” And this is the main problem with CB, it’s trying so gawd awfully hard to be colossal metafiction that it fails at being creative writing and poetry.

But again we have such astounding precedents in Barthes, Gass, Calvino, Sterne, Lodge, Barthelme, and Nabokov that it’s tough to know why someone would pen a version of metafiction light. The insertions of means and ways in the last pages of the book (not particularly interesting) become pedantic. Take for example under “Narrative Construction” this:

“Overall one needs to consider the moment of attraction. Back on p. 29, Evan Gordonston describes this as a ‘ping’; Emily Stuart on p. 25 as “BANG”, in capital letters, just like that.”

If I really want this, and sometimes I do, I’m going to S/Z by Barthes with his five codes and his focus on the discourse as game. Compare Barth’s doing this:

“(10) I could admire the Dance of the Living! * The Dance of the Deadn (No 8) was a stereotype, a fixed syntagm. Here this syntagm is divided, a new syntagm is created (The Dance of the Living). Two codes are simultaneously understood: a code of connotation (in the dance of death the meaning is universal, arising from a coded knowledge, that of art history) and a code of denotation (in the dance of the living, each word) according to its dictionary meaning, is aded to its predecessor); this divergence, this sort of double vision defines the play on words.”

I simply find Barthes reflections to be clearer and deeper.

I also tried to see the point of all of the vagueness in CB and I think I failed. When I’ve taught creative writing I’ve found beginning students tell stories like, “The girl went to this place and did this thing” when they mean “Little Red Riding Hood took the basket and set out into the forest.” The details create the world. Here is an example that demonstrates what I mean by ta similar vagueness in CB. “I had, I had lost touch, even though the family were still counted as friends by my own, with Christmas cards and calls and all of that.” Here’s another, “I write — a bit more information may be needed here, writing is in the family — book reviews….Along with the reviews, I myself try to write short stories, and sometimes they sell. There was a collection came out several years ago; there was another. And I get something published in a magazine here or there, or something goes on to the radio, maybe, but I keep writing reviews in the meantime.” So tell us why you’re qualified for this job? Yeah, I maybe do some of this and a little of that, you know.

At the very end of the book there is a work of doggerel nodding to Puck’s final lines of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Byron’s line in Don Juan about “a small drop of ink, falling like dew, upon a thought” that in part says,

“I am already weary of the thought

of how my thought in you unwearied lies”

But if you care so much, shouldn’t you be less worried about yourself and little more about me because I was already weary from tedium and conceit by page 20. I called the game by about page 37.

And it ends,

“and whence comes ink, and whence comes all the sheets

I fill with you: if doing so I fail,

Love is to blame, there is no fault of art.”

Au contraire mon ami. May I offer up these sage words by poet A.E. Housman in response:

“Terrence, this is stupid stuff:

You eat your victuals fast enough;

There can’t be much amiss, ’tis clear,

To see the rate you drink your beer.

But oh, good Lord, the verse you make,

It gives a chap the belly-ache.”

Don’t get me wrong, autoethnographic novels can be brilliant, I think Richard Ford’s Bascombe trilogy prove this, as as can be reflexive novels in which one writes about writing or thinks about thinking as with O’Nolan’s (O’Brien’s) At Swim-Two Birds, as can be metafictional novels, I’m thinking of Carloline (the one in Muriel Sparks’ novel The Comforters) who eventually discovers she’s a character in a novel. But I’m not particularly convinced by the current trend of plate twirling of which House of Leave It Alone and Caroline’s Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Bikini epitomize a recent slew of clever-ish navel gazing novels.

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”

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