Books Are Pretty

Friday, June 23, 2006

House of Leaves.

What lurks inside a great horror novel? The revisiting of our childhood fears? Being forced to examine our phobias right up close? The thought of your children in peril? Having to slog through hundreds of pages of academic wankery? If these are the criteria for a horror novel, then House of Leaves is one of the greatest of all time.

I didn’t actually mean to sound so flip about it – really, I didn’t. It’s just that there’s so much layering in Mark Danielewski’s debut novel that if I peeled all those layers away, it would take almost as long to review it as it took him to write it.

House of Leaves, published in 2000, had been floating around the internet for quite awhile prior, giving it a certain cult status even before it was published, and it still has a strong internet presence, in particular at the official House of Leaves website, where the novel’s myriad riddles are passionately discussed.

At its core is the story of Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Will Navidson and his partner, model Karen Green, who buy a house in Virginia. Navidson, or “Navy,” has agreed to cut back on his work-related travels in order to spend more time with his family. Unable to stop working completely, he sets cameras up all over the house, to turn his settling into family life with Karen and their children, Chad and Daisy, into yet another project.

All is going according to plan until one day, when the family returns from a trip to Seattle to discover a mysterious door that has suddenly appeared in the middle of a previously empty wall. Even curiouser, when Navy opens the door, he discovers that instead of leading to the room behind it, as it should, it opens instead to a long black hallway. Further investigations reveal the startling discovery that the house is larger on the inside than it is on the outside. As Navy’s obsession with the house grows, so does the inky blackness, turning the hallway into a freezing cold, pitch black maze that stretches on for thousands of miles. Eventually, he and a team of explorers disappear into the mysterious blackness, where they are forced to confront their deepest fears.

Except that’s not what the book is about at all.

Navidson’s camera work is released as a documentary called The Navidson Record, which is endlessly opined upon by just about everybody from Hunter S. Thompson to Rosie O’Donnell, and countless academics. Hundreds of pages are devoted to meta-discussions about the plot and What It All Means.

Except it’s not about that, either.

The Navidson Record, it turns out, is actually the fictitious work of an old blind man named Zampano, who scrawled his epic on scraps of paper stuffed in a black trunk in his apartment. The trunk is discovered when Zampano dies a mysterious death, and his life’s work is reconstructed by a tattoo artist’s apprentice named Johnny Truant, who spins out a narrative of his own in the footnotes, chronicling his own growing obsessions with the Navidson house, and his eventually decline into serious mental illness.

Except that may not be true, either, as hinted by coded messages within the text, contradictory information, startling clues, and mysterious illustrations. As overwhelming as this book is, it is often frustrating. The post-modern meta-discussions from fictional academics and the heavily footnoted fictional sources can get a bit tedious in parts, squashing the eerie separate story lines of both Truant and the Navidson family.

And then there’s that layout, designed by Danielewski to force the reader to maintain the same pace as the characters in the book. When the characters are running, there is only one word on each page for 25 pages. If they’re in a cramped part of the house the words are bunched up all in one of the corners. If the characters are disoriented, the words are scattered across the page and have to be scooped up and put back in order.

With the possible exception of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, I can't think of a more challenging or original work, and it's unimaginable to think that a single reading could unlock all the mysteries in House of Leaves.

If you’re ever stranded on a desert island, and you need one book that is different every time you read it, you couldn’t find a better book to have with you.

House of Leaves
by Mark Danielewski
2000 by Pantheon Books
709 pp
ISBN: 3-375-42052-5

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