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Whalestoe Letters Paperback – October 10, 2000
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“From the madhouse, Johnny Truant’s mother writes some of the most tender, chilling, faux-psychotic writing I’ve ever read. This dangerous, lucid, confused but very eloquent lady . . . is playful, apologetic, crazed, paranoid, self-abasing, cunning—a tigress with a gift for gab.”
—Robert Kelly, The New York Times Book Review
“The Whalestoe Letters are dazzling.”
—Steven Moore, The Washington Post
“Danielewski has a songwriter’s heart.”
—John Freeman, Time Out New York
From the Inside Flap
Originally contained within the monumental House of Leaves, this collection stands alone as a stunning portrait of mother and child. It is presented here along with a foreword by Walden D. Wyhrta and eleven previously unavailable letters.
Top Customer Reviews
Danielewski does a brilliant job of portraying a woman on, and over, the edge. The first person authoress of the letters comprising Whalestoe's text is a mother in a madhouse, writing to her estranged son, John. She seems a nice enough woman to begin with, if a bit dramatic and given to airs - what is she doing locked up in a loony-bin?
That, of course, is the story. As the letters progress, the institutionalized woman's state of mind becomes more apparent, as does her history. Eventually, it all spills out - and quite memorably, at that.
I'm especially impressed with this book for a personal reason, which is that I knew a woman with a near-identical history in what was then our local mental hospital, over thirty years ago. Like the woman narrating Danilewski's book in her epistles, you wouldn't have had any idea there was anything wrong with her upon first meeting. Once you got to know why she was locked up, it chilled you. I was less than ten years old, and it made the blood drain from my face, even then. But I couldn't help liking her and feeling sorry for her, at the same time.
And that is the real beauty of Danielewski's character portrayal: the writer of the letters remains sympathetic, despite her past. The reader feels genuine pity, once the reason for her incarceration is understood and its effects on her become evident. She's a sometimes frightening woman, but very sad at the same time. Her life has been spent in a sort of penance, and her letters to her son are sometimes heartwrenching. In a number of words amounting only to a glorified novella, Danielewski convincingly tells an entire life story, and makes you feel it with surprising depth.
I haven't read the author's House of Leaves, but will now that I've read this remarkable tour de force of minimalist writing and psychological portraiture.
But is it worth getting the novella, if the original book already has the "Whalestoe Letters"? Yes, frankly -- Mark Z. Danielewski did a brilliant job expanding the letters and characters in the original appendix, where a mother's devotion turns out to be the tip of the iceberg.
The book compiles the letters from Pelafina H. Lièvre to her son Johnny Truant. Pelafina is in the Whalestoe psychiatric clinic, although at first it isn't clear why. She sends doting, poetic, adoring letters to her young son, who is being raised by an abusive foster father.
But when Pelafina stops taking her medication, her mental state deteriorates. She becomes paranoid, hallucinates, and sends bizarre nonsensical letters and limericks to Johnny (including a jumbled one that is made up almost entirely of "forgive me"). But even when the doctors manage to pull her back from the brink, Pelafina's desperation consumes her.
"Letters" books are usually disasters, because the authors cannot put enough feeling and energy into the letters. Mark Z. Danielewski is definitely the exception. This one-sided correspondence is enough to inspire plenty of pity and horror -- all the worse because this sort of thing happens in real life.
Danielewski plots the story almost like a mystery, dropping little hints during Pelafina's more sane moments. At first she seems normal if a bit overdevoted. But as she spirals into madness, we see just how mad she is, the things she has done before her institutionalization, and the terrible event which caused Johnny's father to have her locked up.
This edition is somewhat different from the original "Whalestoe Letters," since Danielewski added in some new letters. These flesh out both Johnny and Pelafina, and give background to her mental illness.
Danielewski is brilliant not only with plots, but characters as well -- Pelafina is the proof. She seems normal at first, but her chilling insanity comes out in little spurts until we find out what she did. And yet, you can't help feeling sorry for her, no matter how disturbing her manic love for Johnny is.
Disturbing and bittersweet, the "Whalestoe Letters" are a good accompaniment to "House of Leaves," and a good illustration of just what a great writer Danielewski is.
The major difference is that, where II-E shows a fairly linear descent from sanity to insanity, WL provides a more complex story, showing that Pelafina had earlier episodes of madness than II-E lets on.
In and of itself, WL doesn't really do much, but it does flush out the story of House of Leaves a bit.