Saturday, October 31, 2009

House of Leaves

by Mark Z. Danielewski

I first read this when it first came out in 2000, or maybe shortly before. At the time I was working at Barnes & Noble and the buzz on this was intense. My reaction then was that it was a great scary story imbedded in too much gimmick, the author needed to get over himself and the editors needed to focus on the story of the house. But over the years this story has stuck with me long after I have forgotten most of the other books that I read. And the house in this story is the scary house by which I measure all scary houses and so far they all come up short. So for Carl V’s RIP IV I wanted to reread this book and see what my reaction would be, especially since in the past nine years my appreciation for books with labels like postmodern, meta fiction and experimental has grown. So my question to myself was this: Is this still the scariest house I have ever encountered and if so does it work in spite of the unique format used or because of it?

At the heart of this story is a house. It is your ordinary suburban house but then a hallway appears where none was the day before. The house is measured and the interior dimensions are greater than the exterior. Then another hallway appears that leads to a labyrinth of hallways and rooms and a spiral stairway that leads down for miles. The walls of the labyrinth are featureless, the temperature is steady and there is no movement of air. Any article left in the labyrinth will gradually just disintegrate and disappear - including dead bodies. And it is not just the immensity of the labyrinth which is somehow inside a suburban house that is terrifying but its lay out changes continually. One minute you can see the bottom of the spiral staircase the next it takes seven days to walk down it. You walk into a room and a moment later the door you just entered is gone. Yes - this is still by far the scariest house ever. But if you just put the parts of this book about what happened in the house together you would only have a short story and House of Leaves is 709 pages which includes extensive footnotes, exhibits and appendices.

The introduction to the book is written by a character named Johnny Truant who claims that he rescued what will be presented from the trunk of a deceased recluse named Zampano. Zampano’s work, which Johnny reconstructs, is an academic scholarly examination of the allegedly famous documentary film, the Navidson Record. The documentary was allegedly made by a famous award winning photo journalist, Will Navidson, about his house on Ash Tree Lane into which he recently moved with his wife Karen, a former high fashion model, and their two children to reconnect as a family. As the house starts changing Will Navidson, his brother, a friend and a professional explorer and his team try to explore the labyrinth with disastrous results. It is only through this scholarly examination of the documentary film that the story of the house is revealed. Zampano’s work is not only written in a dry academic style with exhaustive footnotes and citations to authorities but does not focus on the plot of the Navidson Record or what is happening with the house but assumes that you are familiar with the plot. I often found myself wanting to skip ahead to find out what was happening with the explorers instead of wading through lengthy dissertations on architecture, the meaning of home or the nature of labyrinths. Not only is it written in an academic style but as the explorers are in the labyrinth the very text changes so that parts of the text are written upside down, sideways, backwards. The footnotes become even more difficult to follow as the footnotes have footnotes with footnotes and I know that some I simply could not find. This style really makes the reader feel the frustration of being inside of a labyrinth. And then the text shifts from being very dense and chaotic to only having a few words on an otherwise blank page. This is not your typical straightforward narrative.

Included in the footnotes are notes from Johnny Truant. Some of the foot notes comment on Zampano’s text, for example explaining that he has been unable to confirm the existence of the Navidson Record documentary, the existence of any of the people from the documentary such as Will Navidson, or the existence of the house. The bulk of the footnotes by Johnny however deal with Johnny’s life. As Johnny’s story is laid out in the footnotes we see him slowly descend into madness as he becomes obsessed with the text found in Zampano’s trunk and loses contact with the outside world. The appendices to the book include numerous letters from Johnny’s mother from a psychiatric ward further rounding out his story.

Reading House of Leaves reminded me of the August article in the Wall Street Journal by Lev Grossman entitled “Good Books Don’t Have to be Hard” which caused such a stir. See Mumpsimus or Conversational Reading. Mr. Grossman explains:
The Modernists introduced us to the idea that reading could be work, and not common labor but the work of an intellectual elite, a highly trained coterie of professional aesthetic interpreters. The motto of Ezra Pound's "Little Review," which published the first chapters of Joyce's "Ulysses," was "Making no compromise with the public taste." Imagine what it felt like the first time somebody opened up "The Waste Land" and saw that it came with footnotes. Amateur hour was over.
And House of Leaves takes the difficulty of the Waste Land to the next level. Does the difficulty of reading this text simply feed our ego so we can read a straight-out horror story of a creepy house while feeling superior to the “amateur[s]” or does the difficult text add to the experience? I think when I first read this book I wanted to just read it for the plot (which is a great one) but this time around I enjoyed the journey as much as the plot. And for the record I don’t usually like poetry but I love the Waste Land and have not yet been able to get through Ulysses.

House of Leaves is not the type of book you can read quickly but if you take the time I found it very rewarding. One of the things I loved about this book is its homage to Jorge Luis Borges, one of my favorite authors. Of course the labyrinth of the house as well as the lengthy discussion of labyrinths, and fiction portrayed as criticism made me think of Borges but the author even includes one of Borges characters. In the chapter about the significance of echos the footnote discusses the echo of Don Quixote by Pierre Menard, a character from Borges wonderful story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”. In that piece Borges reviews the work of fictional Pierre Menard who through total identification with Cervantes wrote Don Quixote (which is word for word identical to the original) in a manner that was more subtle and infinitely richer than the original. Zampono comments that Menard’s “nuances are so fine as to be nearly undetectable, though ... haunted ... by sorrow, accusation and sarcasm.” p. 42. Johnny Truant in a footnote to that foot note comments “Exactly. How the fuck do you write about exquisite variation when both passages are exactly the same?” I really enjoyed the interplay of Zampano’s serious scholarly work with Johnny’s honest gut reaction. I thought this was a very interesting way for the author (Danielewski) to make his commentary on literary criticism in a fun way.

I also thought that the format of House of Leaves (a story about a guy who finds a manuscript about a documentary about the exploration of scary house) works really well in exploring the distances between the characters. The most terrifying aspect of the house was the fact that the labyrinth was of infinite and changing distance. In one particularly horrifying scene Navidson is at the bottom of the spiral stair case when it moves so that he no longer is within sight of his friends at the top but is trapped at the bottom of the stairway many many miles away from anyone and his situation goes from being almost home to being without hope in a second. Most of the characters are struggling with distances in their relationships and interactions with others as well. The Navidson family specifically move to the house to try and reconnect and eliminate the distances that have been growing between them. Johnny Truant, struggles through out his life trying to make some type of connection with anyone, first his mother, then through numerous one night stands and ultimately ends up totally isolated, alone with Zampano’s manuscript. And the format of the book also places a great distance between the reader and the characters and main plot making you feel the frustration of that distance which I thought worked well.

Just like the Waste Land you could spend years examining the text and indeed, many articles, blogs and websites have done just that. The answer to my question is that I enjoyed the format and difficult text of the book and while it is still the scariest house I have ever encountered it is also a rewarding reading experience. Read it for the plot itself or read it more closely but in any case I highly recommend it.

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