The Gray House, Week 1

sneakers by neko-gato.deviantartdotcomRed sneakers drawing by neko-gato.deviantart.com.
This is the artist gallery.

Welcome to the first week discussion of The Gray House.

I want to thank all of you who bought the book, who are willing to read along, and to even participate.

On an impulse, I knew I wanted to read this book, and driving on that impulse, I proposed all of you who wanted, to read along with me. Now I realize I’ve asked you to do something I myself don’t know if I’m going to enjoy, and for that I thank you. ❤

The book was not what I was expecting in a Russian novel. To me, Russian novels are denser and heavy loaded with lots of names, philosophical, political, and theological conversations, and elaborated descriptions of the outside and the inner world, of events and people. A challenge (even though some are amazingly engaging). Yet the more I listen to it (I chose an audio for it), the more it is growing on me.

I read about a group of bloggers and readers in Spanish, who, a few years ago, were trying to do the same we are, -reading along-. Most of the participants quit reading, though the one or two who finished the book got to appreciate it much in the end. I’m not sure why, but some complained about the length, and about not understanding it, –since the book drifts into the magical, and doesn’t have a simple linear structure-. It’s possible they were readers of lighter/shorter books. My crowd (all of you, guys), has some great reading muscle. I don’t envision any of you being bogged down by this book extension or format, though maybe, some of you don’t like it. If that’s the case, I apologize to you, and I hope you know that you have permission to quit and move into greener reading pastures.

I can say that the book has wrapped me into the house atmosphere and its inhabitants at once, and I’m not bothered if the stories are left and new ones come up. If that’s the case, I wait. Maybe the author will give them closure, maybe not. I’m enjoying the fact that this is a long book. I’m becoming fond of the characters, and I enjoy what’s being said.

A friend at Goodreads says he doesn’t think books are about plot, that plot is just 2 and a half pages of each book (or could be condensed to that), and the fun of a book is how it’s told. I do agree. I like books like this, books about nothing at all,  because they are also books about everything. This first 7 chapters had some brilliant moments where eternal questions are being presented through the interactions of the characters and their thoughts. The narrative is captivating, it flows and lulls you, and it wakes you up violently.

The book hit me as a YA, and a dystopian book, and, I don’t know about you, but I love a well written YA book.

smokerSmoker shows up in  what I called chapter 2, SMOKER, ON CERTAIN ADVANTAGES OF TRAINING FOOTWEAR, after a very short introductory pages that I called chapter 1, in which we get a mysterious and poetic description of the House.

Smoker defies the system by wearing his red sneakers and smoking (even if he only smokes a cigarette every five days). He lives in the Gray House, a place the people who live in the surrounding area hate. A House with rules that are not true yet they are not full lies. There’s a pretense of harmony, happy living, but the inhabitants of the house are all crippled, and there’s gangs, and bullies, and twisted dynamics among the members of the six sections who seem to be grouped by certain traits.

The children are supervised by grown ups. Smoker calls them cockroaches. When they vote him off the first section, where the pheasants live, he goes to the principal’s office. The principal, Shark, is not just a man with a nickname, but, Smoker notices, he’s become a real Shark. I enjoyed that encounter.

Smoke makes a furtive visit to the section 4 headquarters coffee place. He is almost not accepted, but Honest pays for his mysterious drink, and for coffee, and they engage in a talk about the preconceptions those in section 1 have about those in section 4. Smoker realizes that information about his conduct having been brought up into the public assembly, has reached those in section 4. He talks about having been bullied by Larry, (another member of section 4), and about Shark telling him he’d be transferred. He is not sure where to, but Honest thinks it may be to his section, number 4, and he gives Smoker some tips on what to do when he leaves his room in section one. Those rules don’t seem to make sense to Smoker, but he’d remember them nonetheless.

Chapter 3. We leave Smoker now, and we are taken outside of the house, where a handsome boy and his once acknowledged beautiful mom are walking to the house. The boy feels cold. They’ve walked long after the bus dropped them. The boy doesn’t think that the sun reaches the house. He confirms that when he touches the walls. The house is cold. Upon receiving him, there’s an initial confusion by those at the door until they notice he doesn’t have arms under the coat, hence his reason for being taken to the house. His mother leaves, and he starts his life at the strange house.

The Boy is new, and he’s not used to the house. Elk, a grown up, asks Blind, who is the same age than the new boy, to take care of him. Blind does take care of the Boy because Elk asks him. Blind is very taciturn, and the Boy doesn’t like him. Elk asks the Boy to describe what he sees to Blind.

By the end of this chapter the Boy looks at some people in the backyard. They look wonderful. As he gets closer, he flies down the stairs and realizes that the people are glued together, one called Moore looks purple, there’s another one called Skull, Witch the Godmother, Ralph, and they give him a nickname, Grasshopper.

Chapter 4. The House. It’s a short chapter that describes to us Larry and Horse. Larry is the leader of the pack in 4th. Larry is aggravated by Horse. Larry seems to resent the weight of  being a leader, he is lonely in his position. The pack has a mission, which is to bully the Pheasants. Now there’s a Pheasant in their midst, that’s Smoker. The section about Larry’s zits made me laugh.

Chapter 5. This chapter was my favorite from week 1. I listened to it several times. Larry attacks Smoker who was drinking hot coffee. Life for Smoker at the 4th quarters is not that bad. There’s some Big Brother elements in the book that start to surface even more. At the 4th, its members are free to do what they like, but they don’t know how ‘good’ they have it since they have not been to a place like the 1st quarters, (abode of the Pheasants, where Smoker comes from). But life has a difficulty for Smoker, since Larry, to stay in his position, feels the compulsion to attack him. While Smoker is at the bathroom after Larry’s fierce attack, looking at his reflection in the mirror, and crying, Sphinx comes to talk to him. The conversation is revealing. Smoker realizes he doesn’t want to act like a Pheasant, and go to Shark to tell him what Larry has done. Sphinx leads him into a new way of looking at himself, without self pity, out of the ‘box’. Smoker, with Sphinx as a bit of a “Socrates” in his questioning, resolves to act differently (as in attempting to defend himself), and also ‘release’ Larry from his compulsion to attack Pheasants who never retaliate.

Chapter 6. The Pack. This is a different pack. It seems to be the younger’s pack. They are 13 children. Their leader, Sportsman, doesn’t seem to have any apparent disability. They all bully Blind and Grasshopper. Now the two have joined the other children at the House, and the practice of bullying and attacking the newbies for a bit is taking longer because Grasshopper is protected by Blind. Blind loves Grasshopper. He is sure they can turn their fate, no matter they are two, and the pack is 13 of them. Blind thinks that the pack is breaking down somehow. In his zeal to protect Grasshopper, he achieves for him something unheard of. He goes to the one called Ancient, and convinces him to give an amulet to Grasshopper. Ancient tells Grasshopper that his friend is very obstinate, and that it’s the first time he gives an amulet to one of the young ones. The amulet contains Grasshopper power, but he cannot look at the pouch with it in two years, and that power will not come to him immediately. Nonetheless, Grasshopper is elated, and plans to keep his promise of not looking (since opening the necklace pouch will result in loosing the amulet’s special power).

Chapter 7. The Backyard. Interlude. This chapter introduces us to Humpback. It has a poetic beginning. Humpback laughs thinking he becomes a tree. He’s outside in the cold, without a shirt. It’s a self inflicted punishment. He was hurt when he was younger, and he’s overcompensating for that hurt by faking a different self and personality than his own. He is ashamed of his hump, he has a hidden personality, a sensible personality, he covers it with a rough tough facade. When no one is listening, he can play his flute beautifully.

Did you expect anything else? What’s surprised you? What is that you like or don’t like about this book? What do you think so far?

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16 comments on “The Gray House, Week 1

  1. Hi Silvia! I am a (very) occasional poster on the AO forum, so we’ve only interacted a couple times over the years. I was so excited to hear that you wanted to book club The Gray House, and I would love to join you – if I can keep up! Thank you for a great introduction.

    Your comments about Russian Lit are interesting. I’ve read a good amount of Dostoevsky and some Tolstoy, but little else. I have no experience with modern Russian Lit. I actually think I could make an argument for this novel being rather Russian in tone, though definitely postmodern, so not like what I have ever encountered from Russian Lit before. My experience with YA is very limited, but I definitely get that vibe, based on the age of the characters, maybe. (Though I have to keep remembering that many of them in Smoker’s timeline aren’t children, and in fact, I am not sure how old some of them are)! I find the book to be quite populated with characters and while they certainly don’t sit down for long philosophical discussions and tangents as Dostoevsky’s characters are wont to do, I think the story is packed with philosophical questions…..though I’m not totally sure what they are yet! This book is such a puzzle to me, and my brain likes nothing better than to put the pieces of a strange story together. I also think that the mysterious nature of The House could be a reflection of the mysticism so common to the Russian writers. Anyway…..

    I’d love to throw out some observations and question marks from my reading thus far:

    One of the first things that stood out to me was the Kipling references – mostly from The Jungle Books, but someone also mentioned The White Man’s Burden. We even have a Tabaqui! (Does anyone else hear Steve Buscemi in their head when reading his dialogue, or is it just me)? LOL And of course the Bander Log. I’m not certain of the significance of these references yet. Is the House like the jungle? Are we supposed to view the inhabitants as wild and uncivilized? I suppose they are. Is the boy coming in (boys like Grasshopper and Smoker) a Mowgli, abandoned by his parents and left to adopt these wilder ways?

    Another thing I started to notice as we switched between timelines is that there are fewer references to grownups in Smoker’s timeline. Is Shark the only one encountered? I can’t think of others. (And what happened to Elk)? The teacher’s bathroom is deserted and used for smoking. There is mention of classes, but we never see any sign that school is taking place. Even in Grasshopper’s timeline we don’t see many adults, but the lack in Smoker’s world seems striking. I also began to notice that there is no mention (at least to my recollection) of the inhabitants going outside of the House in Smoker’s timeline, while they do in the earlier story. The rules of the House seem to be drawn up by the resident’s themselves and these vary greatly from house to house. There is no overarching code from those in authority, at least that I can see.

    I think it’s significant that the House and residents are described as dilapidated. They are falling apart and pieced together. (And Blind even eats plaster, like he and the House are, if not one, at least deeply connected). The passage you mentioned, Silvia, about viewing the people down below in the yard and how wonderful they looked until Grasshopper got up close and then they were all wrong….that was powerful. He says, “So that’s how they are, he thought bitterly. They are all assembled from little pieces. And I am one of them. I am just like them. Or will be soon. We are in a zoo. And the fence is for keeping us all in.” (Oh, my heart)! There is a lot in this book about what seems to be, and what actually is. Perception v. reality. We get that very clearly in the chapter with Smoker and Sphinx in the bathroom – with the mirror. (That might be my favorite chapter as well, thus far. Though I also loved the last chapter with Humpback).

    Yes, the Humpback chapter probably struck me strongest. I had to go reread it just now. It is a quiet little chapter, and as you said, poetic. Humpback has an artist’s soul. I love that he plays his flute for himself only. That it is beautiful when he makes music privately, but it comes out all wrong in front of others. (I can relate to that)! In this hard life, he soothes himself with his music….and with nature. This rather took my breath away: “The wind whirled the leaves in circles. Then they were caught in the puddles and stopped. Their dance ended. They ended. Now they would turn to mush and dirt. Just like people.” I mean, wow. WOW. Just like people – as though it is almost more natural that people should decompose, rather than leaves. It’s like a backwards Psalm – man is like the grass that flourishes for a day and then withers and is gone. Humpback in this chapter is his true self, as you pointed out Silvia, alone in the backyard, and he is beautiful. He seems to be punishing himself for his fear of the dark, among other things. Actually, as I look at the page, it says the itchy sweater is penance for his “fears in the night.” Maybe different than being afraid of the dark itself? And what/who is this He Who Comes In The Dark?? Childish imaginings? I think it may be something more real that we will encounter later. Rather ominous.

    I’ve also noticed that the color purple is rather prominent. You mentioned the Moor with his purple face. No idea of the color’s overall significance. I am a couple chapters ahead of this week’s stopping point, and I think it is the next chapter where this color really became evident to me.

    Why is there no Fifth house and why does the Fourth not have a title and why are there fewer residents in the fourth? So many questions spinning in my brain!!

    I think some of these characters deserve a lot of consideration and analysis. Some are quite intriguing.

    I can’t wait to hear what others are thinking so far!! This book is quite a trip and I love it! I feel like I could go on and on with my thoughts and questions. But I better leave it here.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Be still my heart, Katie Osborne! You MADE MY DAY! I had no idea you were reading the book. And what a rich comment you have made. I want to meet you over a coffee and talk nonstop about this book with you!

    YES, YES, AND YES. The book has a Russian feel. The author sits in the tradition, no doubt. It’s just more current. It’s light but not, for, as you’ve shown with the quotes, the book has lines, paragraphs, and thoughts, that one can ponder for hours, or write about for pages. Since I’m leading the discussion, I’m re-listening to it, and every time I find more, and more, and I think she will bring it all together.

    I think this far, that there are the children, with Elk, and the Smoker’s mates, who I think are teens (16, 17, or 18 at the most), and, as you say, no grown ups now at the 4th house, only Shark, who Smoker said had turned into a real Shark(?). There’s a 6th mentioned, but not much talk about the 5th.

    Grasshopper mentions how the House looks dilapidated, but there seems to be those who clean it and prepare food. Smoker mentions the cafeteria where they get together to have lunch, and I remember a mentioned about the place being cleaned, etc. In the second week readings, we’ll have more information thanks to Smoker and Grasshopper, but I won’t get ahead of myself. 🙂

    There’s references to Jungle Book, yes, I also thought about they living ‘wild’, abandoned to their own devices, without grown ups in charge, like Lord of the Flies. And right now, the House is making me think about Hotel California, ha ha ha.

    I love how you spotted the Russian elements. I’m no expert or critic, but yes, the philosophical questions are there, the mysticism too. And after the second week’s section, the author goes deeper into another Russian tradition: the forest, legends, basilisks, creatures in the night, and, because the book is modern, she even tosses a vampire in the mix! (though it’s introduced as a ‘joke’, and it’s a mystery).

    I thought about the color purple too. And I have a pressing question, why is Blind with Grasshopper and at Smoker’s group too?

    I am also loving the trip. The House is a great place to go to, a never ending stimulus to the imagination and the mind. To me, the author is a bit like a Russian Ray Bradbury. Both seem to have simple prose, but they achieve such a poetic feel at times, sad and jarring.

    Sarah from the AO forum said she thought Smoker is a non reliable narrator. It could be, he is definitely not informed of all there’s going on at the House. In the second week’s chapters we see him discovering more things about the House and its mates at the 4th.

    I find this book fascinating, and I’m elated to see it’s the same for you.

    Thanks a lot for your beautiful comment. It made my day!

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  3. Silvia, as I was typing my reply yesterday, I couldn’t help but think that this would be so much better over coffee. There is way to much to say and think!

    Did you read this first in Spanish, or is your first time through the book with audio? If you did read it previously, I’m curious whether you’ve found any minor differences in tone and description. Translation fascinates me, and a book like this, it seems like it could be difficult to precisely capture the strangeness of the author’s world. If you only have the audio, are you aware that at the beginning of each part, there is a list of residents, the houses they belong to, and a couple other pertinent notes? These might be really helpful to anyone using the audio. It’s definitely helped me keep people straight and realize just how many residents there are in the House!

    Regarding Blind being in both timelines: I tried to compare the characters in the earlier timeline to the character list, and there are quite a few who are in both, though only a couple who figure prominently. Besides Blind, there is Humpback, Beauty, Elephant, Rabbit, Crook, and Bubble. All but Blind are part of the Pack led by Sportsman. So Blind was an outsider, but it seems that over time, he has gained a position of power in the House. I really want to know how all that happened and what became of Grasshopper. They were inseparable, after all.

    I suppose I could agree that Smoker is an unreliable narrator in so far as he is rather in the dark. We are seeing the House through his eyes and it is disorienting for us because there is a lot that he doesn’t understand. Our narrator himself is disoriented and confused and trying to put the pieces together. I’m getting a chapter ahead here, but Smoker starts believing that the goings on of the House are all an elaborate game. He has this epiphany and is so sure of himself, and it makes me really nervous, because I’m afraid that he is wrong and it will blind him to the truth and lead him into danger. I think that he is rather earnest and honest, so I personally wouldn’t call him unreliable. It’s just that our perception is limited by everything he doesn’t know.

    Is the book being discussed on AO or was this a private conversation with Sarah? I don’t have a lot of time to be online, so I don’t usually know what is going on! Is it best to converse here in the comments?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Katie, yes, how I wish we could discuss this in real time.
    My first intention was to read this in Spanish, but I won’t go to Spain until November, buying the book in Spanish from here was 40 dollars, and I was going to lead the bookclub in English, so I ended up buying the audio.
    Sarah showed me the pages with the names. I agree, that’d be helpful. I’m managing well with the audio because I’m narrating, and listening again and again. This is a nice book, it does absorbs you.
    I 100 percent agree with your comment on Smoker. Don’t worry, I’m on chapter 13, and yes, Smoker had that epiphany in chapter 8, and more to come. He is definitely trying to know these people who have been together since children.
    Thanks for naming those in both groups. The next chapters will give us both narratives, Grasshopper, the juniors, and Smoker and the seniors. They have not converged yet, but I believe they will. This seems a story she had devised overtime, and I’m very optimistic thinking that she’ll wrap it all up somehow.
    I loved week 2 chapters, and I would have continued, but I had to stop reading. I cannot wait to come back for more.
    And no, this is not a private book discussion. I proposed reading along in the blog and at FB, ah, and at Goodreads. Did you find this here, on the blog? (I had no idea you were reading, and from all those who I know they are reading, you are the first one to comment. And I’m very happy to converse with you! (Hopefully, others will join, if not, I’m glad we are doing this).

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    • I heard you were doing a book club on your blog from…..I don’t remember now….someone on IG. I was really wanting to read it, and it’s the perfect book for reading with others. I’m really looking forward to hearing others’ perspectives and insights.

      I’m becoming obsessed with this book. Still trying to wrap up the last couple weeks of school before a six week break. I’m in the middle of several other good books, but this is all I want to read right now! Dreaming of more time in my schedule. Soon.

      Liked by 1 person

      • On IG?, interesting! And you wanted to read it too? (I came to know about it two years ago, when Jeanne from the AO forum, shared a documentary on FB. I wrote about it here, where there’s a link to the documentary, and many different covers, https://silviacachia.wordpress.com/2016/10/27/a-readers-dream/

        We are already on school break, but I’m editing two books and also reading several other great books, but this one has pulled me ever since I read chapter 8.

        We’ll go over your two weeks of school, and those six weeks break, we may, hopefully, have time to enjoy the book and the conversation.

        Like

  5. I have little time to reply, but wanted to say I loved reading Katie’s thoughts. So much to think about. I hadn’t made the link with The Jungle Book. Interesting!

    If this is what Russian YA is like, I want more!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh, Helena, I think you were the IGer who pointed me to Silvia’s book club!

    I collect clues, and some may be useless, but I’ve been noticing how they take food away from the canteen. Normal boy stuff, or is there significance there? This is just such a strange place. I’ve also been wondering about general setting. Despite being a Russian novel, the setting strikes me as definitely not Russia….Mediterranean, maybe? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Maybe the House itself is the only setting that matters.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What makes you think about a Mediterranean setting?, the description of the surroundings?

      I thought about Russia when the forest is mentioned. As for the food (tea, sandwiches, a fritter…) it could be Mediterranean, sure.

      The author was born in the capital of Armenia, her parents were ambassadors (?),she grew up in a house that inspired this House.

      I also like to collect those clues, sometimes they are key elements, others not, but it’s always fun to collect clues and speculate.

      Like

      • It was just an impression that made me imagine Mediterranean. I think it was the description of the outside when Grasshopper and his mother were approaching the House. Everything is very hot and bright and white. The mother and son are wearing white clothes. The sky is “blindingly blue.” It definitely doesn’t sound like Russia, but maybe the Armenian climate is like that in summer? Yes, the Forest is all together different. Russian…or German….in feel.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I admit I haven’t finished the whole section, but WOW! This is so real. That’s what hits me most. I must share a little personal info here: My kids are from Ukraine. Some of this reminds me, obviously, of some things they’ve shared about that time in their lives. I’ve marked several quotes–I’m sure my Commonplace Book will be filled! I’m also reminded of British Public (private boarding) Schools even more than our own high schools. But cliques, labels, put-downs, depreciating humor or self-mocking are all part of it. I also find it hard to believe this is a translation. Amazing writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Oh, Lisa!!!! I am so glad you love it too. I tell you, it is quite a story, with profound observations. What an amazing connection. I have not been to a boarding school, but it has that real depiction of much of what happens to us all in adolescence and even childhood.
    I am truly excited about reading along with you (no matter if you fall “behind”, or if you read ahead, we are all part of it).

    Like

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