I have a friend who faints in art museums. This particular affliction is so bizarre, so Victorian, that I’ve babbled to many people I know about it, and they always express skepticism. “Come on. Like, is it the temperature? Something about the atmosphere?” No, I always say, because I’ve been with this particular friend in a natural history museum and I have seen them get swoony. It’s something like being overwhelmed by potential and beauty. There’s just too much, and their body shuts down. It’s got to take a break.
Though I’ve seen this in action, I’d yet to feel anything like it myself. Until yesterday, when Miles and I took a detour on our way back from Scotty’s wedding in Milwaukee and stopped at the House on the Rock.
I will assume, if you’re reading this, that you’ve also read American Gods. Indeed, that’s where I myself encountered it, and it was so incredible, what Neil Gaiman kept saying, that I didn’t believe it existed. Especially not in Wisconsin, the land of beer and cheese. Come on, could there really be a home that’s the gateway to a hidden Wunderkammer of assorted delights, among them a two-story carousel, a valley of dollhouses, a Street of Yesteryear? I insisted while reading that it was too much, it had to be fiction. It couldn’t really be that overwhelming.
I’d been there once before. A road trip from Iowa City, two hours with four friends and a whole cooler of sandwiches; but we’d made too many preparations, arrived too late, and were not allowed to see the entire thing, as the museum shuts down, like an old person, promptly at 5 each day. We’d only made it through the house itself, the sixties-swinger pad with its Tiffany lamps and infinity room poking out over the valley. The rest of it, the Wunderkammer, remained shut to us. We ended up taking ourselves resignedly to the koi pond in the middle, where we spent the last twenty minutes of museum-opening time staring at a cat that was trying in vain to snag a fish.
I was determined, this time, that we would see it all, and that Miles would be dazzled by it also, and that we would be able to watch next season of HBO’s version of American Gods filled with smugness that we ourselves had been there to that two-story carousel ridden by demigods. And so we ventured. And perhaps it’s a mark of my growing maturity, but we definitely made it there in time. The old people sold us our thirty-dollar tickets and told us to have a nice trip.
“I feel like I’m high,” whispered Miles as we ducked around outcroppings and were tripped up by benches in the house itself. “But we aren’t, are we?”
In the infinity room, we eased our way to the tip of it and looked through the glass portion into the trees below. Miles charged his phone in a stray wall outlet. (Which, why was it there?) I joked that his iPhone would get used to House on the Rock juice and demand no other sustenance from now on, and he shivered. “They shouldn’t charge thirty dollars to get in,” he said. “They should charge it to get out…”
I didn’t expect that a trip I’d craved could be so overwhelming. But it is: to be there is to be seated firmly in the branch of Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar fig tree, dazzled by so many options that there’s no way you can look at them all.
The House on the Rock smells. I hate to say it, but it’s true. Every room is carpeted; though they must try their best to dust the thousands of dolls, to keep the whaling ships in a condition as shiny as when they were built, there’s likely no way to keep it entirely entropy-free. Afterward, when we made a brief stop at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin (only four miles from the House; how on earth can it be that there are two incredible homes in this tiny place?), we breathed in relief, ran our hands over the modest wood, enjoyed the windows unsullied by eerie blue Plexiglas.
My petty review: the House is simultaneously awful for the claustrophobic, the agoraphobic and the afraid-of-heights. If you aren’t ducking around shin-jarring furniture and random rock bits, you’re standing on a precipice with a 180-degree view of the valley, or you’re leaving a modest passageway to find yourself suddenly in a four-story warehouse filled with tiny houses, balloons, and a neon clown. We spent our entire trip shuddering and amazed.
I asked Miles later what his favorite room had been, and he said, after giving it some thought, “Well, my favorite experience was walking into the room where the three-hundred-foot whale is fighting an equally large octopus.”
He’s an artist; he’s thinking about this in the right way, in the impression rather than the thing itself. And it’s true, I saw it in him when we entered. “What the HELL?” he gasped, and stumbled backward. It was the same reaction I remembered from a dream I’d had as a little kid, where I was standing in front of a red square that towered over me, hundreds of feet in the air, the top invisible from the bottom of it. I had the same feeling of submission then. The thing I was seeing was just too incredibly big. We were both of us plunged, in the House, into a dreamlike space.
And for that, I guess, I am grateful. Yes, that was worth the price of admission: to be humbled. Not in the sense of the word as people use it now, meaning the opposite – “I am so humbled to accept this award!” (No you AREN’T) – but in the true, Biblical sense – to recognize oneself as a mere visitor through a thing that’s much bigger than you are, that’s seen thousands of other transients come and go and that is, against all odds, still standing.
While we sat, watching the fairly boring video about the House’s creator Alex Jordan, I swore I could feel the ghost of Neil Gaiman breathing down my neck. He’d sat here too, and now, since he’d written about it, the House was his. It wasn’t mine. There was no fiction I could write about it that could do it justice.
Come to think of it, though, his didn’t either. The House is too big to be summed up. It’s only got to be experienced. The best you can write is an intense study of one small part of it, and in that way it is, I guess, a satisfying fictional experience, even if it looms, standing there, in Spring Green still, ready and waiting to make you faint.*
*(I almost did, but didn’t quite.)