As I’m writing this opening paragraph, I’m sitting on an unused dryer (the back of which actually provides excellent lumbar support) while I wait for the first rinse cycle to begin on my washing machine, so I can add a half cup of white vinegar to my load, which contains my shower curtains. This is the second step of the washing process; the first step included making sure to put a few towels in the washer as a buffer so the agitator didn’t totally shred my shower curtains and adding a half cup of baking soda to the machine.
Are you bored yet? Have I overused the phrase “shower curtains” to the point where it sounds to you like gibberish syllables? My laundry routine is a total drag — I’m not interested in it, and you’re certainly not — but so is most of the daily business life (commuting, going to the bank, paying bills).
In order to deal with the terrible dullness of being alive, man invented fantasy novels. Sometimes these great works arrive as slivers of a text, barely bigger than a novella. Sometimes, they manifest as thick tomes like The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. And sometimes, they are given unto us in the form of fake Ikea catalogues like Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix.
Both novels are ruled by their form. In Horrorstör, the form comes from Hendrix’s collaboration with designer Andie Reid, and the quality of the object dominates the reading experience. The book emulates one of Ikea’s thick catalogues, with enough of a creepy factor thrown in to stand your hair on end before even opening it. Check out the front cover that advertises the Brooka sofa ($299, see page 8) and the Kjërring cabinets ($89, see page 78); they live inside an image of a stylishly designed living room accented with a few photographs… of a mouthless woman screaming, her hands pushing outward against the frame’s glass as if trying to escape. Besides giving you the creeps, the cover is accurate — page 8 features a list for the Brooka, and on page 78 there’s a page devoted to the Kjërring. That kind of attention to detail really gets my motor running.
The attention to form extends into the narrative, with the employees of an off-brand-Ikea store called Orsk trapped in their store and tortured by a mad doctor using the furniture they sell. The built-on-the-site-of-an-insane-asylum backstory worked for me, a lover of contemporary horror films, and the gruesome details followed me into my nightmares, but Hendrix drew his characters only as well as the canon fodder in movies like Ouija and Freddie vs. Jason. With such flat characters, it’s hard to develop fear for their fate — I didn’t care about the characters’ plight because the nasty, creative torture devices Hendrix devised thrilled me. By the end of the novel, I felt I’d been deprived of something, like eating a beautiful salad with tasteless lettuce. I wanted to be as thrilled by the story as I was by the cover.
Amidst the inexpensive home furnishings and twisted nightmare secrets, Hendrix also dropped in a not-so-subtle critique of the current American work ethic (that hard work, no matter how demoralizing, is its own value). Horrorstör, then, is an excellent appetizer to David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules, a horror novel in its own right.
Like Horrorstör, David Mitchell’s latest, The Bone Clocks, is ruled by its format: a story told through shifting narrators, stretching from 1984 to 2043. An awesome teen character, Holly Sykes, a spitfire, delightful mind to sink into, narrates the opening section. All too soon, though, Mitchell whisks us away from Holly, onto the next one. Hugo Lamb, my second favorite character in the book, takes over in the second section; my affection for Hugo helped absorb the blow of leaving Holly, but I was hoping that by the end of his first section, I’d get to go back to my number one gal. Perhaps predictably, Mitchell introduces a third voice in the third section, and a fourth in the fourth. Holly appears in each section of the novel, an exquisite torture — I could see her but not enter her mind. I wasn’t reunited with my beloved Holly until in the final section, and while I’m glad we circled back to her, the length of our separation chafed.
That criticism aside, The Bone Clocks is a luminous, memorable novel. Other reviewers have complained that the fantasy elements of The Bone Clocks were not prominent enough, but my favorite part of the novel was the subtlety. I loved the mind-feel of reading a book with mystical occurrence woven gently into everyday life, rather than dominating the characters’ existence.
I loved, too, that the book never laid out the definition of a “bone clock,” allowing the reader to realize slowly that the title refers to a mortal body, much like the one I have, that we are all inside now. And with this book comes a calm acceptance that while we sit on dryers, waiting for our laundry, we are all ticking away towards the end.