ANGEL HOUSE is the kind of novel that will mean something different to everyone who reads it, and indeed, will likely mean something different to me if I read it again in a few years, and yet again if I read it a third time somewhere down the line (all distinct possibilities). Because of this, I’ll go ahead and readily admit that all my attempts to describe it here may fall short (and that this first one may have been heavily influenced by the charming, rudimentary maps of the book’s central, inescapably small town provided on the opening pages), but I often found myself thinking of ANGEL HOUSE like a surrealist take on an old school, godview RPG—like if the original Legend of Zelda wandered over into Twin Peaks, Washington—its various, vaguely ominous locales emerging fully formed from the Earth, and rotating around, in and out of existence, only as characters happen upon them screen by screen, page by page.
And boy, do those characters cover a lot of ground for being trapped in such a limited, limiting locale. Some have been there their whole lives. Others left and came back. Some have designs on destroying the town (Professor Squimbop). Others are working to preserve it (the Mayor), immortalize it (James, a filmmaker), and even recreate it (Ben, an architect). But they’re all there, circling one another (and the drain) in their fitful, futile efforts to find meaning in a place that means something different to all of them. Often doubled, and even tripled, via a literary mechanism that dabbles in both time travel and astral projection without ever really copping to being either, author David Leo Rice’s eccentric cast of characters coexist with one another, as well as themselves at different ages, and in different places, all at once, and yet somehow still interact with, and even through their future and past selves, all without ever getting particularly convoluted or even feeling all that hard to visualize. Oh, and there are no women. I’m not really sure why. I could speculate, but it’s one of those things I mentioned earlier that will probably mean something a little different to everyone, including me the next time I read it (a prospect which feels increasingly likely, the further I get into writing this review).
Anyway, Rice uses this ingenious technique (which he may have also invented. I don’t know. I haven’t read all the books. But I’ve definitely never seen it before.) to create a kind of flattened multiverse through which to explore the states of constant flux between youthful ambition and adult compromise, even making room for physical manifestations of the countless roads not taken along that all-too-familiar journey. In this way, ANGEL HOUSE unfolds and expands exponentially, even as its suburban walls seem to be forever closing in, drawing you into its intimate, infinite snare trap world via maps and legends, signs and wonders, memories and dreams, and then all but inviting you to project onto it whatever experience of smalltown life you already hold inside yourself. The sub-weird and the blankheads; the blindspot and the inland sea; the hibernation and the reunion; DUST HOUSE and ANGEL HOUSE; Rice’s mystical matrix of signifiers will feel familiar to anyone who has ever lived anywhere (i.e.—all of us), and through a kind of generous, authorial magic, your particular anywhere will begin to feel like the very place he’s writing about; the very source of the book in your hands.
Warmly, squirmily alive—practically rising up out of the paper like an enchanted pop-up book, and then steadily folding back in on itself the further you go along—this shifty, slippery, and infinitely mutable text can feel, at times, like a chronicle of its own perennial cycle of creation and disintegration—a kind of mobius meditation on the nature of life and art. It’s in a weird font. It’s got hand-drawn illustrations that correspond to its primary characters. There’s a really unusual little hiccup where, for a while at least, the even numbered pages are on the right, and then somewhere along the way they switch back to the left. The whole thing is a little reminiscent of those ancient, wizarding tomes that appear blank at first glance, only for ornate, illuminated text to appear on the page to which they’re opened. You might find yourself wondering “if I flip back fast enough, will the words I just read still be there?” It’s a wild trip. But if you’re like me, you’ll come away with more to ponder and wonder about—laugh and cry about (because, for all this talk of the strange and surreal, it is also really funny in places, and brutally sad in others)—from this mirific work than you can possibly digest in one go-around. And now that we’ve arrived at the end, I think I can say with absolute certainty that I’ll be reading it again in a few years. I already can’t wait to find out what it will mean to me.
ANGEL HOUSE, by David Leo Rice. Hamilton, New York: KERNPUNKT Press, June 2019. 435 pages. $24.99, paper.
Dave Fitzgerald is a writer living and working in Athens, Georgia. He contributes sporadic film criticism to DailyGrindhouse.com and Cinedump.com, and his first novel, Troll, is set to be released early next year. He tweets @DFitzgerraldo.