Book Review: Houdini Heart, by Ki Longfellow
Posted on October 17, 2013
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This was a fun piece of fiction + meta fiction, and stories-within-stories, but overall, it did not thrill me. Also, unlike many of the works which the narrator discusses, and which the author evokes within the book, it did not scare me. I could see every nail as the author hammered it into the board, and much of it felt contrived and overworked. I felt outside the story, consistently, except when the narrator spoke of her family and her life prior to her tenancy at River House.
The main story is about a novelist and screenwriter whose name we never learn, who returns to the town of her childhood and takes up residence in the once-grand-now-dilapidated River House, to live out what we are told from the start will be her final days. The book is told in first person, and we are never allowed out of the narrator’s head, which can become tedious and claustrophobic at times. We enter the narrator’s life at a crisis point, as she is immersed in a tragedy and is not out of danger. Also, we learn pretty quickly, she herself has the potential to be dangerous: she is on the run, hiding from the public, drinking heavily, experiencing time-loss and black-outs, rapidly losing her sense of reality, and has nothing left to lose (or, so she believes). Her experiences in River House are either a result of encroaching madness, or they are really happening. Reality is a slippery concept in this book.
All of this presents, initially, an intriguing set-up. I expected to enjoy the ride much more than I did. Come to think of it, a carnival ride through a tunnel of horror is a rather apt metaphor for this book — darkness; speed-and-stillness-and-speed; things lurking around corners so that we brush up against them as we pass. Unfortunately, I think that the author over-played her hand in regard to the allusions to (and illusions of) characters, scenes, and dialogue from classic works of literature and film by Alfred Hitchcock, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, Roman Polanski, et al. I believe that it is a mistake to borrow so heavily from writers and artists whose talent is so formidable, as it can only evoke a comparison to the writer who does so. In this case, I began to feel as if I were reading fan fiction — and I loathe fan fiction and the sort of books which inspire it. (My only exception to this, so far, is if one considers Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea fan fiction; which, in a way, it is.)
Also, it takes considerable skill and sophistication to invoke the spirits of real people from the past and breathe life into them. Some writers are masterful at this; for instance: The Master, Poe: A Life Cut Short, Imperial Woman. I felt that Longfellow was not up to the task. Her invocations of Louise Brooks, Harry Houdini, et al. are awkward and flat, and seem phony even within the constantly-shifting, uncertain reality of the narrative.
Okay now, having said all of that … Longfellow has moments of great beauty in her writing, and she has tried to accomplish something very complex here with her nested-box narrative. I respect her for that. Also, while I found her major narrative concept unwieldy — and I cannot speak in any depth about that without spoiling the plot — I found her use of folklore and fairy tale very powerful. She wrote a gorgeous fairy tale that is one of the stories-within-the-story, which she tells us is part of her book The Windigo’s Daughter. It would make a wonderful inclusion in a book of modern fairy tales or folklore, and she uses it to great effect. In this way, she invites comparisons to Angela Carter, most especially Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, in that her female is a strong, bloody-minded, self-possessed, unstoppable life force.
The second-best story-within-the-story is the unfolding revelation of the narrator’s recent and distant past, bringing us tensely ever-closer to her present predicament. This part is well written and emotionally enthralling. Longfellow builds the dramatic tension with flair, and even though I knew what was coming, it did not lessen the impact of its arrival. With this part of the story, I got the denouement I expected. After all, the narrator had warned me time and again … But the how still had an impact. The devil is always in the details, right?
Of the three narrative strands (1. the narrator’s present life at River House, 2. her recent and distant past, and 3. her tale of the Windigo’s Daughter), the weakest of these is also the most crucial: the macabre and distorted unreality of existence at River House. Even her over-arching metaphor, the Houdini Heart of the title, does not work. As applied to the main character, the only thing Houdini-like is how the author contorts herself to make the idea fit. Comparing a person, or her heart, to Houdini, is a hackneyed cliché, implying that the Houdini-like individual can escape any situation, however difficult, and that she can fool others whilst carrying out the deed.
Even as a cliché, it never does fit. Our narrator may be a cunning and shrewd survivor, who is at times able to fool others just long enough to carry out her aims; but, by the time we enter her life, she is a mess of a human being who can barely hold herself together long enough to carry on a conversation that doesn’t seem edged with crazy. In fact, she constantly worries about the crazy seeping through, because others noticing how unhinged she is could disrupt her plans. There is no amazing escapist trickery going on here, only someone living moment-to-moment, willing to do whatever it takes to be the master of her final destiny, rather than its victim. The Houdini metaphor fits her like some gawky, shapeless set of garments borrowed from someone else’s closet. As a writing problem, this is similar to the one I mentioned before about Longfellow’s awkward use of borrowed characters and dialogue from artists whose work she admires, and to whom she intends to pay tribute.
I will read something else of Ki Longfellow’s though. I liked many things about her writing. She uses dark humour to good effect, and she interests me as a writer, the way her mind works. I very much enjoyed her meta-fictional perspective on writing and writers and her bleak, funny, and apt reflections about artists who suicide. This book is experimental fiction, and likely to fall flat in places. I expected that once I began reading. I thought the book too flawed in its execution to be worth more than three stars (which, for me, means I liked it well enough to finish reading, but that’s all).
Strangely, I kept expecting to like it more, so I broke my own 100-page rule (which is that, if a book hasn’t fully captivated my by page 100, it goes into the rubbish bin or off to the Salvation Army). Reflecting on this, I believe my continuing faith in it was solely due to the strength of the stories that were not focused on River House or Little Sokoki (the town). In the end, though — and let’s not talk about the end — I felt that it did not hold together as a structurally integrated work, but stumbled up the down staircase like some wild, galumphing monster from Sendak.