The House of Journalists (the place, not the novel) is a London haven for exiled writers. Led by Chairperson and celebrated author Julian Snowman, the House provides a place of rest, safety, and structure where its refugees are encouraged to write about their past struggles while waiting for their hearings in front of the asylum tribunal.
The House of Journalists (the novel, not the place) is a frustrating fluctuation between “Wow, can this guy write” and “Is this ever going to GO anywhere?”
Here’s the problem: you have to get through almost three-fourths of the book before it starts to pick up. The early chapters are expository, full of characters’ backgrounds and all the shifts in political regimes in their homelands. If this had been a library book, I would have returned it without finishing it. Guaranteed. At first I felt bad about that, and I wondered if maybe it was because the book is so about politics, and I’m not really a political person. But I didn’t dislike this book because it’s not my usual subject matter; Blood Meridian isn’t my usual subject matter, either, but Cormac McCarthy’s style and storytelling kept me engaged. I disliked this book because the asides seemed unnecessarily lengthy and caused the plot to move along too haltingly. (I also disliked this book because the plot was so hard to find, and not in a good, experimental sort of way.)
All that being said, the book does have its strengths. The first-person-plural narrative of the fellows is detached and eerie, sort of like Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides or Aimee Bender’s “Appleless” (though not as compelling as those examples, it’s in the same vein). The Ted Crumb chapters are undoubtedly the best in the book; I’d love to see a Crumb novel one day. He has a sort of Bukowski feel to him that I just love. And Julian’s parts are fascinating in that train-wreck way because he is far, far off the deep end and it’s intriguing to watch his mind sort of crumple in on itself.
The most interesting aspect of this book by far is the questions that it raises. Who “owns” a story? Is it the person who had the experience or the listener? What is the purpose of storytelling? Is it financial gain? Personal growth? Entertainment? Art? But these are questions you can think about without struggling through this book, and that’s what I would recommend.
All in all: If you don’t mind slogging through all the political and historical asides, this novel can at times be an excellent study in voice. I wouldn’t recommend it, though.