"review" · fiction · Lit · mystery · non-fiction · philosophy/criticism · poet-related · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy

the House that Mark built (1)

note: I am linking this review to the RIP V Challenge page so I will try valiantly to avoid spoilers.

The spoilers will return tomorrow, with part 2.


House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Pantheon Books, 2000, 2nd Edition (2-Color version)

709+ pages of text and other things.

“Victoria Lucas once said, There’s nothing “so black…as the inferno of the human mind.””– Pelafina Lievre*

Mark Z. Danielewski’s debut novel House of Leaves lives on our bookshelf.  When browsing the shelves for the RIP V Challenge, Sean reassured me this was a horror novel. It is a horror novel, and a romance story, and … many other things. I will be focusing on the horror aspect. But First, I shall attempt  a brief description of the book.**

House of Leaves contains a manuscript written by Zampano, The Navidson Record. The Navidson Record is a treatise on a film of the same name, which is a documentary following Will Navidson, his lover Karen Green, and their children, Chad and Daisy, as they move into a new home in Virginia and create a sense of new beginnings for their family.  When doors and hallways appear that shouldn’t, events take a new dark turn.

Johnny Truant has found Zampano’s manuscript and notes in a black trunk that he liberates from the dead man’s apartment. Truant decides that he would publish Zampano’s work. The Introduction in House of Leaves is written by Truant and it concludes with a clear warning that the reader will not remain unaffected, and provides a warning:

It doesn’t happen immediately. You’ll finish and that will be that, until a moment will come, maybe in a month, maybe a year, maybe even several years.[…]Out of the blue, beyond any cause you can trace, you’ll suddenly realize things are not how you perceived them to be at all. For some reason, you will no longer be the person you believed you once were. You’ll detect slow and subtle shifts going on all around you, more importantly shifts in you. Worse, you’ll realize it’s always been shifting, like a shimmer of sorts […] only dark like a room. […]You’ll have forgotten what granted you this awareness in the first place.


You’ll watch yourself dismantle every assurance you ever lived by. You’ll stand aside as a great complexity intrudes, tearing apart, piece by piece, all of your carefully conceived denials, whether deliberate or unconscious. And then, for better or worse you’ll turn, unable to resist though try to resist you will, fighting with everything you’ve got not to face the thing you most dread, what is now, what will be, what has always come before, the creature you truly are, the creature we all are, buried in the nameless black of a name.

And then the nightmares will begin.” (xxii-xxiii).

Truant is clearly quite dramatic, but he will go on to illustrate exactly what he is talking about.  Throughout The Navidson Record Truant has included notes. They range from explanations on inclusions, exclusions, or missing pieces to what is going on in his life as he is editing Zampano’s work.  Then there are the Editors who have collected Truant’s work and have published the volume you are reading. They leave little footnotes, too.  Appendix 1 concerns Zampano, with notes and poems, etc. The second Appendix is Truant’s with poems, historical artifacts, and Letters from his mentally ill Mother.

House of Leaves is dense and complicated and not for the staid reader. Despite its unusual demeanor, the book is not impenetrable once one gets the hang of it. And really Danielewski builds the work in such away that the reader is eased into stories and format before attempting to further disorient. That is important to a good work of Horror, isn’t it? To disorient the reader. Danielewski uses word images and visual formatting quite brilliantly this way. Horror seeks a visceral response.

The House on Ash Tree Lane was built 1720 and “quite a few people have slept and suffered within those walls” (21). Some may have even suffered before (413-4).

House of Leaves employs most every trope any and all Horror novels and films could employ and even some they wouldn’t. Conspirators of fear are sprinkled throughout so if one kind of terror doesn’t grip you, be patient, another will.

There are the creepy children. This is one ingredient that is sure to give me chills. Chad and Daisy have their own unhealthy obsessive responses to the dark and endless corridors that haunt the house.  You are at times both terrified for them and of them. Then there is another kind of horror. The children are quite neglected by their parents, Will and Karen, who are caught up in their own neurosis (fast becoming psychosis). As you learn about some of the adult character’s pasts, they appear to foreshadow the children’s own outcomes; which would be terrible.

One of the more prevalent elements is the Monster. It stalks, it lurks, it imbibes. It shape-shifts, in transforms, it infiltrates. In googling “Elements of Horror,” I came across a discussion of “Monster” at DarkCloudPress.com and a reference to a Noel Carroll text:  “The monster must be regarded as both: 1) threatening, and 2) impure. If only threatening, then the emotion is fear. If only impure, the emotion is disgust. But, if both, the emotion is horror.”*** At turns characters and settings in House of Leaves do incited fear and disgust, but Danielewski does create a few characters that excite horror. And they are differentiated exactly as noted. They combine threat and impurity.

The House is bigger on the inside as it is on the outside. (Which wouldn’t initially be a terrifying idea for Doctor Who fans) “The horror was atypical. […] what took place amounts to a strange spatial violation” (24). The engineer Reston would later use the words spatial rape. It is an insidious source of anxiety in the house that only increases as time passes. This is even before The Explorations (#1-5) which take the reader/viewer into the supernatural and interminably black depths of the house. Perceptions and Realities shift. There is a growl. Is it a creature hunting or the walls moving (123)? Senses of direction are lost and rendered useless. Claustrophobia is explored and employed (in visual textual format, ie 443-58).

“Of course real horror does not depend upon the melodrama of shadows or even the conspiracies of night” (415).

There is the increased deterioration and disorientation of the characters, their perceptions, and even the text itself. The reader’s disorientation involves footnotes, occasional references to appendices, extensive notes by Truant, then the labyrinthine text (in the chapter about labyrinths), the oddly placed text, missing letters and words, to missing pages of manuscript, all the while questioning the veracity of what you are being told and by whom.

Which brings us to the Framing and the Unreliable narrator.

“I live at the end of some interminable corridor which the lucky damned can call hell but which the much unluckier atheists—and your mother heads up that bunch—must simply get used to calling home.” Pelafina Lievre.****

Despite our knowledge as the reader that The Navidson Record (the film) never existed (nor the treastise for that matter), the reader is suspended in the grasp of the stories being told. The Navidson parts are compelling. And for many others, so are Johnny Truants. Then there are Zampano’s notes and the Whalestone Letters in the back.  And the poems…

There can be no more unreliable a narrator than Zampano until we come to Johnny Truant: copious amounts of drug  and alcohol consumption; education?; mother in an Asylum; admitted storyteller and liar; manipulates the manuscript at whim; suffers memory loss; deteriorates physically and mentally…And yet his susceptibility to The Navidson Record is reliable. His parallels seem to manifest the creation of the Record and/or vice versa. “We all create stories to protect ourselves,” Johnny writes (20). He would direct our attention to Zampano and the swathes of text concerning the Minotaur Myth the enigmatic author would strike-out, but the saying applies to himself as well.

There is also the issue with the multiple frames. The contents of the film are revealed through multiple perspectives. The Navidson Record , the treatise, cannot simply narrate the events of the film it is analyzing without alerting the reader that the film does not, in fact, even exist and thus detract from the engrossing action/dialogue.  The necessity of the first frame, the concept of a treatise, is evident. Upon this layer Zampano employs many more, i.e. page 398: a summary of a paper analyzing a dream retold on film by Will Navidson; four transcriptions from “a dream” to Zampano’s work which is published by Truant and then Pantheon. Every layer interrogates the veracity of the initial event and its subsequent representations. To what purpose?

In the analysis of the Navidson documentary, representation and the veracity of events is ever in question. Note this footnote on page (346):

“[Navidson] subtly draws attention once again to the question of inadequacies in representation, no matter the medium, no matter how flawless […] mockingly emphasizes the fallen nature of any history by purposefully concocting an absurd number of generations. […]Representation does not replace. It only offers distance and in rare cases perspective.”*****

[Danielewski] not-so-subtly draws attention once again to the question of inadequacies in representation, mockingly emphasizing the fallen nature, purposefully concocting an absurd number of generations… Why is distance required? Is the necessity similar to that in the anxiety producing memory loss of various characters, most importantly Truant’s?

“He [the Director] quoted Emily Dickinson saying that I cover the abyss with a trance so my memories can manage a way around it—this “pain so utter.””.******

The horror cannot be directly looked upon, thus creating a greater fear in the unknown quantity that lies covered by the trance. What exists and what does not, what is Real and what is not, merely imagined or perceived incorrectly?

In a particular case concerning Johnny (the late Gdansk man encounter), the suspension of information, the lack of memory, and supposed action (his “intentions”) are more horrifying than what actually occurs in a later recollection.

In the case of the aforementioned “dream” analyzed on page 398, what is so threatening and impure about the dream that the horror must be distanced? Is the impact of what occurs in the dream lessened? Has it been replaced? Or is the offering merely perspective and this is not intended to be a creepy section of the book (which is entirely possible).

The film, the treatise, the notes…all create fear, and then systematically dismantles it; then rebuilds it, or did it ever really leave?, and then moves away from it again. Movement throughout House of Leaves creeps from one scare to the next and circles back or turns or drops or alludes to or explicitly tells to where you wish you hadn’t read that.

When all is said and done, House of Leaves is essentially a horror novel, but less about things that go bump in the night, and more about the empty spaces in our awareness, the tension between certainty and uncertainty, and the ambiguities in our apprehension of ourselves, others, and the world. ~Alan B Ruch (see)

While I agree with Ruch, there are plenty of bumps in the night for those reading for less the psychological-thriller and more the spine-tingler. Danielewski is looking at fear; its causes and manifestations. And while the effort of reading through the numerous facets of fear (its conceptions, projections, reproductions, etc.) seems like a lot of work for a good creepy novel, the moments of adrenal highs may still be worth it. (did that sound indecisive?) By book’s end, Hope far outscales Fear and little is left to linger but perhaps Grief.


I enjoyed House of Leaves even though at times it frustrated me. I would highly recommend it for the scare, for the mysteries, for the intellectual frippery, for the love stories. I’ve been thinking to whom I would recommend it. I started a list (with an understanding combinations would have to be made): cinephiles, readers of non-fiction, fiction, academic journals, and dangerous writing; modernists, post-modernists, structuralists, post-structuralists, readers of Borges, Baudrillard, Barthes, Plath, Dickinson, Palahniuk…, architects, engineers (maybe), graphic designers, those not struggling with pornography, followers of psychological fiction, historical fiction, violence, distortion,…the more adventurous literati,…people who know how footnotes work,…

Eric Wittermaus, in his book review for Flak Magazine, recommends House of Leaves this way (though I think there is plenty of scare in Truant’s storyline):

“Danielewski has created a book that’s something for everyone. For those seeking a truly frightening book, there’s The Navidson Record. For those looking for a well-crafted tale of an aimless, wandering drifter, there’s the story of Johnny Truant. Fans of clever, pomo annotation have the author’s glee club of footnotes and occasional pokes at academia, and typographers will doubtless spend hours scanning the book’s pages for clever ideas. There’s even a mother-son drama and a love story that both play larger roles in the book than many critics have acknowledged. And Area 51 maniacs and ex-CIA men alike will relish the task of decoding all Danilewski’s messages.”

If you fit the “older generation” designation that Danielewski goes on to illuminate, best avoid House of Leaves. Danielewski, in an interview with Sophie Cottrell at <boldtype>, recognizes that House of Leaves may irritate older generations:

Really the only thing challenging about my book is the idea of a book itself. Older generations–despite the fact that they’re multi-processing their morning breakfast, a train wreck in India and thoughts of an ailing friend–will find House of Leaves difficult because they’re prejudiced. They’ve been taught what a book should look like and how it should be read. Ruler-wielding didacts have instilled in them the notion that a book must start here, move along like this, and finish over there.

But books don’t have to be so limited. They can intensify informational content and experience. Multiple stories can lie side by side on the page. Search engines–in the case of House of Leaves a word index–will allow for easy cross-referencing. Passages may be found, studied, revisited, or even skimmed. And that’s just the beginning. Words can also be colored and those colors can have meaning. How quickly pages are turned or not turned can be addressed. Hell pages can be tilted, turned upside down, even read backwards.

Put your dictionary at your elbow, do not be daunted by the massive footnotes or the malevolent creature stalking the pages, find your reading chair and open the door leading to the labyrinthine corridor in the inferno of the human mind; and perhaps mind these symptoms: “obsessive behavior; weight loss; night terrors; vivid dreaming accompanied by increased mutism.”

*November 27, 1998 letter to her son Johnny Truant (637). Victoria Lucas a pseudonym of Sylvia Plath’s invention. “In the midst of her early success, [Sylvia] Plath experienced her first breakdown and famous disappearance. She was subsequently hospitalized and treated with shock therapy. Plath described the hospitalization as "[a] time of darkness, despair, and disillusion--so black only as the inferno of the human mind can be--symbolic death, and numb shock--then the painful agony of slow rebirth and psychic regeneration." This was followed by a suicide attempt in 1953 and six months of intensive therapy, paid for by a benefactress." [emphasis mine] Marie Griffin, Guest Contributor at About.com (link).  Note the similarities of Pelafina’s own breakdown and disappearance and her subsequent actions.
**when you've noticed I've failed in my attempt, you can follow the link to Powell's books and a link to wiki.
***link to “Elements of Horror” via DarkCloudPress.com’s Blog Files.  Reference to Noel Carroll's “The Nature of Horror, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 1987. p ?
****July 31, 1987 letter to Johnny (624).
***** I would cite the source, but it was made-up anyway and I am exhausted with the effort of documentation.~L
****** November 27, 1988 letter to Johnny from his mother, Pelafina Lievre(637). There is a Pain—So Utter by Emily Dickinson

There is a pain—so utter—
It swallows substance up—
Then covers the Abyss with Trance—
So Memory can step
Around—across—upon it—
As one within a Swoon—
Goes safely—where an open eye—
Would drop Him—Bone by Bone.

"review" · fiction · Lit · poet-related · recommend · wondermous

doors and daydreams, or daydreams as doors

You may actually want to have read the The Way Through Doors first this time.

But I wouldn’t mind a read through my, er, notes, ramblings, take..?


The Way Through Doors by Jesse Ball

Vintage Contemporaries, Random House, 2009

240 pages.

With his debut novel, Samedi the Deafness, Jesse Ball emerged as one of our most extraordinary new writers. Now, Ball returns with this haunting tale of love and storytelling, hope and identity.

When Selah Morse sees a young woman get hit by a speeding taxicab, he rushes her to the hospital. The girl has lost her memory; she is delirious and has no identification, so Selah poses as her boyfriend. She is released into his care, but the doctor charges him to keep her awake, and to help her remember her past. Through the long night, he tells her stories, inventing and inventing, trying to get closer to what might be true, and hoping she will recognize herself in one of his tales. Offering up moments of pure insight and unexpected, exuberant humor, The Way Through Doors demonstrates Jesse Ball’s great artistry and gift for narrative. ~Publisher’s Comments

It was great! A quick, captivating sort of read. Exactly like being in a daydream. I loved it, and wish I could experience it anew time after time. ~ My friend Katherine’s comments at goodreads.com

I am going to have to read this book again; partly because I enjoyed it and partly because it is like reading a daydream. And then there is the pace that ever propels you forward. Jesse Ball’s The Way Through Doors is a fluid continuous movement of a nearly flawless narrator. The narrator’s words keep coming, though Selah Morse’s voice must surely be tired, as the character Ilsa Marionette asks him, “Are you not tired from speaking so long?” (paragraph 1854 (out of 1905)).

The premise of a young man rescuing a stranger, a girl, whom he then claims a relationship reminded me of IMDb’s Trivia on While You Were Sleeping (1995). Apparently the original story for the film was of a man rescuing a woman instead of the now known Lucy (Sandra Bullock) claiming engagement to Peter (Peter Gallagher). The original was nixed because “many studio executives thought this to be too predatory.” I felt a little the same with the idea of the synopsis of The Way Through Doors. Near book’s end you may be disturbed in other ways; and depending on the angle, the idea of the synopsis is still yet troublesome.

The book reads with a liquid ease of intermingling abstract and concrete. In fact, Ball creates a solution that makes separating the two near impossible. Ball is a Poet and in this work that evident is an understatement. He moves through stories with fairly short sentences and the imagery necessary to each piece is fully illustrated with the simultaneity (complexity) of the straight-forward and the both elusive and illusive subtexts.

Ball includes songs and riddles and tales reminiscent of the folk and fairy. Our narrator moves through dreams and memories and stories (both fact and fiction); we are read articles, and excerpts from pamphlets (written by our narrator), letters and messages; and we are given hand-drawn sketches. Despite the variety of these devices (or modes) used, the reader is taken along rather seamlessly. Really, I would encourage the person picking up the book to have long hours to spend with little interruption. It is “quick and captivating.” It finds its capture in its lack of seams and the reader’s good memory and attention to detail—or possibly not. You could read and enjoy and not understand a flipping thing, or care as to how you got to the end page.

The absurd could be overly distracting but for the humor it brings, and the fact that the writer makes the absurd normal. And upon considering the bazaar interactions, and missed interactions, the absurd is actually fairly commonplace. That said, the characterization of our narrator, Selah Morse, and really, all the characters in the book would be grounded but for the fact I kept visually Terry Gilliam directing the cinematic version, or Wes Anderson and his clever wit (I would put the guess artist in the corduroy suit and cast Jason Schwartzman as Selah Morse). The characters would be grounded but for the absolute surreal quality from the very start of the novel; okay, not very start, but close, paragraph 31, but perhaps feeling a strangeness about everything settling in about paragraph 35? The sense of the surreal and the fusion of any defined concrete and abstract in the novel may contribute to the categorization of “psychological fiction” (as noted with the copyright and shelving information). Everything feels Real and yet Not. And it could be Real, and yet perhaps not? I suppose you could say that it is as Real and Fictional as anything truly is, and what a lovely venue to explore ideas; and just tell really excellent stories.

–And all the while, said the count, someone murmuring, Who can say therefore where a certain person is, for what is that anchors a person? Is it their place in the story to which you are a part? Many stories hereabouts run side by side, and you cannot be at pains to unpin them, for they are sharp, and you will only sting the tips of your fingers. (966)

The book is not strung together by merely a narrator who guides (speaks) the entirety, with his singularly styled voice (despite the shifting dialogue and perspectives and modes). There are images like the needle and sewing; the craft of embroidering. The idea of the pains it would take to dissolute the fluidity and motion of Real and Not is like the “pains to unpin” stories running side by side; or even within one another. Though each moment might say something as itself and for itself, it also contributes to the whole; in this case the resemblance and text that is The Way Through Doors. Each moment interwoven also illustrates an idea that the makings of a story, or character, (or person) are complex, and the arrival at some semblance of a product is layered, or better, saturated.

But what to take seriously, or how to take the pieces (if you choose to breathe while reading this liquid novel)?

–Such a wide and never-ending stair, said the guess artist, is in danger of ceasing to be a stair to become instead a metaphor of some kind of even an allegory.

–I shouldn’t like that, said Morris.

–Let us not think of it again, said Selah. (1408-10)

The narrative is self-conscious.

The context is Count M. telling Kolya about a dream: (enjoy, and please remember that Selah Morse is telling a series of stories to head trauma girl aka Mora Klein):

He began to speak to me on some subject, and I responded. Someone shouted something from across the field, and then I realized what had been lurking just beyond the edges of my comprehension: the things that people were saying to one another, the way that one action blended into another, the shifting times of day, and the pleasures of companionship, but most of all the dialogue: we were in a novel. There was no other explanation. No one spoke like this in ordinary life, picking up every inch of what had been said, and delivering it back with a twist and a nuance. It had not happened just once. I felt that each remark somehow carried within it the implication of all other previous. One felt very clearly a comprehending intelligence strung through the air, setting each new moment into motion. I wrested myself out of the necessity to do and say without decision, the leash that had accompanied my passage hitherto through the book that was all about me, and a further though occurred to me: how could a person wander into a  novel. It must be a dream. Then realizing that I was in a dream, all became possible.

I said to my friend, This is a dream. And he looked at me blankly.

–That is ridiculous, he said. But funny. Imagine that! You, Robert, saying that this is all a dream with that dead serious expression on your face. (979-81)

The story anticipates the listener: as it should. One of the complaints and difficulties ascribed the written story is that the oral tradition allows for the gauging of the listener; the storyteller sees and hears and senses the audience. [And perhaps, if the pacing of self-conscious remarks throughout this story are off pace, the sympathy is dependent upon how close you read to the writer (and/or editor/collaborator).] At paragraph 1565, Selah (who is searching through Through Doors for Mora Klein) has yet another set-back. A message he and the guess artist reads tells them:



Both men [Selah and the guess artist] looked at each other. Selah’s face looked a little strained. He was desperately unhappy, but trying not to show it. The search for Mora Klein had become long and involved, and he wanted very much for her to be found, and soon. (1565).

By the one thousand five hundred and sixty fifth paragraph you are well ready for Selah to finally meet up with Mora Klein. However, he does not meet up with her until paragraph — I’m not going to say, but it is a while longer. And since the story acknowledges its length and frustrations and eagerness, too, to find the outcome of this adventure, you settle in a bit more comfortably back into the rhythms (i.e. oddities) of the dreamscaped story. Bring on the dog that plays the fiddle’s submission to the World’s Fair 7 June 1978, with his “a Treatise on Fiddle Playing as a Tool for Governance of Happenstance.”


The format of the book.

The Way Through Doors is lovely and clever. It would also be a challenge to audio-book creators.

The visual aids the reader contributing heavily to the shifts of narrative countenance and the seamless transitions in the novel as we are guided through doors.

The dialogue is set apart with an introductory dash, and/or continues from written cues. You fall into this easily and I find it quite refreshing. (And I think I shall try this with my own narrative attempts.) More, the effect on the page is a sense of the uncluttered, an uninterrupted gazing.

The use of font size guides the reader into a shift in scene; a prolonged dissolve, a very slow fade that bridges into and through the next “door.” The book only uses two fonts sizes really, and some all-capped moments. When the text shifts to the smaller print, it will shift back to the regular fairly soon after, when its purpose is served.

The narrative voice is consistent throughout. Sure, the dialogue has character, but consciousness of the narrative device never fully dissipates (whether intended or not). It is like a body telling you a story and can make reflexive changes of voice or expression or sketch out a variety of scenarios and scenery and you are still conscious of the body before you, even as you are led to imagine and picture else. I like this. The trick, however, is to move a reader into a sense of a differentiated space. The font, among written visual cues help, like a gesture of a character, a movement to separate themselves within the presented space: “Gustav [the apprenticed guess artist] made little fists and hunched over. He growled a little bit like a dog and then straightened up. His eyes had gotten very big” (881).

Gustav is asked to guess a man’s thoughts, and proceeds to launch into the story that lies therein. Between the man telling Gustav, “Go on” (880), and his physical movements and the subsequent storytelling mind-reading, there is no font change, but there is the placement of paragraph 881 onto the next page. This may be incidental as there is also a large solid black circle below paragraph 880 before we turn our eyes to the next page. There are no “chapter” breaks in The Way Through Doors. The solid black dot is a visual break and a mental breath. You move away from letter forms to this visual change and then back. The story remains fluid but a dramatic pause has been created; not unlike an oral storyteller taking a sip from a glass. There are five, I think: I flipped through the pages three times. Three are toward the front, fairly close together and two nearer the back.

There are no page numbers, only paragraph markers for every five indentions, like marking poems, but for paragraph (obviously). There is no intended break between “stories.” Though there are doors and stairs, movement doesn’t require them; and their symbolic natures, though still useful, can become, just as easily, useless in the perspective of the whole. Portals vary in form, and their interpretations create even greater variance.


Ball does have a “gift for narrative.” I wonder that he must be an auditory writer. He has a fantastic vocabulary. It is always a joy and triumph to see the word “oubliette” on a page (928). “Lincoln gestured that the many strange and impetuous avatars and incarnations that accompanied him in the form of bespectacled clerks should be off for a moment about some putative business. They left Lincoln and Lefferts in a pronounced globe of quiet” (1496). “Pronounced globe of quiet.” There is a term Natalya’s class uses for words that you will not find Ball using, label words: the everyday and overused, and belonging to 3rd grade reading levels.

A reader can bask in the lexicon provided. And they should.

I mentioned repetitive images: the sewing, there are shears as well (a terrible moment 588+). There are the stairs and doors and windows, of course. There is the going up and the descending; atmospheric conditions (lighting, weather, etc). There are also other threads pulled, by way of characters moving in and out via their story told, or referenced, or remembered; conjured via diverse methods. There is a drawing that reappears over and again, and places revisited in various ways. The book feels a bit random; and even vague; but these repetitions (through whatever means they are brought fore) create a sense of purpose to the whole (the novel).

The Publisher’s comments remark upon themes such as: “love and storytelling, hope and identity.” Yes. And as the storytelling is self-conscious, one is not left completely trying to grasp what the hell is actually going on with all these stories and memories and guesses. For example: We are given an idea as to how Selah reads morals, “This is how all morals work” (1775-6). We are told by the narrator Selah Morse whom the character Sif Aloud actually is (paragraphs 1880+). We are reassured that Rita is quite real (1883).

I am going to have to re-read to see who Mora Klein might be. The Publisher’s comments say that “through the long night, he tells her stories, inventing and inventing, trying to get closer to what might be true, and hoping she will recognize herself in one of his tales.” Selah invents Sif as an ideal; while also casting her somewhat as an avatar of Mora Klein and who, in the end, Mora decides to take cues from in order to please Selah; and possibly because Sif is an interesting and developed character (where Mora is created and yet not). Selah is trying to find her, but I cannot find the “hoping she will recognize herself part;” unless recognition has more to do with who you desire to be than how you or another might have known yourself to be yesterday, or a minute before.

In the end, Selah finds Mora in the story he tells to keep Mora awake. And in the end Selah keeps the Mora he has found and helped redefine or craft. The girl hit by the taxi was strangely unblemished but for the head trauma which itself yielded no obvious exterior flaws. Her insides were left unwritten, and Selah has provided both her, and the reader, with her (new) identity. When ‘Mora’ is seen at the end to be as entrancing a center to the world about her as she’s ever been, and capable of drawing that impossible drawing, don’t we believe that Selah has guessed the amnesiac’s identity correctly? Through the Dreaming and the Real (which may just be another level of the former) Selah has found clues and signifiers of who she is. “She [Mora] felt certain of him. –He was right about me, she said to herself” (1903-04).

Mora sits alone on the beach, taking her turn at dictating the terms of the story she and Selah might now play; “Let us agree to say when you return without breakfast that you have been gone a month…” (1889). Regardless of where the relationship is going, we are all sent forward, “Everyone came to stand near, and each one held his breath to see what would happen next” (the end, 1905). Forget the pesky detail of to whom was the girl waving when hit by the taxi. Forget that she might have been something or someone or someone else’s. And never wonder if Mora Klein isn’t just another Sif… There is always enough improbability to support the surface of a dream “where all becomes possible.” Yet, Selah Morse heads off up the boardwalk and we are left with Mora and her thoughts; the narrator separating himself for the first time in the novel. Mora emerges from a series of stories, an invention of Selah, as her own.

[Selah is Federico Fellini and this novel is 8 ½ (1963) (minus the clowns)? One could make a study of the women in this novel alone, and how they revolve around Selah and other characters (invented by Selah). Alas, perhaps some other time.]


I woke from the novel somewhat wistful. I like the idea of wit and absurdity and the ease of transitions from the concrete and abstract. I am entertained by the tales and seeming randomness (artfully crafted) in The Way Through Doors. Like a good daydream I was swept off and along, and then I close the book and set it down, and “that quick and captivating” is a sentimental smile that recalls not much at all. The book is in the return pile to the library with a stick note somewhere saying, “Read this one again.” It is only the effort of desiring conversation and contemplation that I thought I should have sipped, and now flip through pages and memory.

The format stuck, as I am fascinated by the ideas of supporting the text with the lay of it. A few of the stories stuck, whether I uncovered any relevance for their existence. There were moments I was unsure of error or cleverness. “They ran away back down the staircase”(1665). I thought I was well enough oriented (Ball can situate a room) to think they were on the first floor, so what staircase taking them “out the door into the street?” Am I being reminded, disoriented in a dream? 1575-80 has Selah Morse and the guess artist exchanging dialogue I thought, but the text reads Selah, then the municipal inspector (who is Selah), Selah, and then the municipal inspector again. Is this use of one of the many ways Selah Morse is referred to (a municipal inspector, pamphleteer, young man, S.) as a way to illustrate Selah conversing with himself? Curious.

The Way Through Doors is for lovers of words, and wit, and absurdity; those who love tales, tilted perspectives, psychological fiction, and verse; for zine readers and writers.

The Way Through Doors reminded me of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, though not similarly formatted. The ease of transition to the first thought of a man to his revealed image as a fox who is like a man is Calvino-like as well. Anything seems possible and natural; though with Calvino I am so absorbed as to believe a cloven viscount could ride upon his horse before me and his innards stay in, or the non-existent knight may have actually battled. With both, Real is made dreamlike in reverie and the imaginative mind and the dream is made to be as Real as anything could be. I am more conscious of the playing and the clever with Ball than Calvino. Perhaps it is a difference in scope, purpose. Regardless one should not really compare the two. However, I should say that if you enjoyed this book, read Calvino. If you didn’t enjoy this book, read Calvino anyway; I recommend Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories.

If I were to have a book club, I would choose The Way Through Doors (this is in no way meant as an insult). I think Ball leaves us so many fascinating things to talk about, and perhaps after another read I will find connections and flesh out those themes. Or I could just daydream, as another might; find the entertainment in the experience and lay it back on the shelf for next year’s uninterrupted afternoon.