Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves (Random House, 2000)
[originally posted 16Apr2001]
I loved House of Leaves, though I’m not sure it was for the reasons everyone else did. As in so many other cases, I read review after review of the book that talked about its originality, and after I picked it up, I saw that what was being praised as “original” isn’t. That doesn’t make it a bad book by any means, it just makes it not original. The metafictive aspects of the book (well, it’s not metafiction to be precise, it being fiction about a film—kind of) have been present, and in some cases prevalent, in modern literary and social criticism since World War II; I was reminded most strongly of Stephen Pfohl’s wonderful Death at the Parasite Cafe, in particular, at least once every few pages. The physical layout of the book, with its skewed lines and pages containing only a few words, is a combination of modern avant-garde poetry (a book by any contemporary author published by Exact Change Press will give insight; I highly recommend the work of Elizabeth Willis as an example) and medieval illuminated manuscripts. The parallel to medieval texts is carried on through the extensive footnoting Danielewski uses to tell Johnny Truant’s story; early medieval texts were often printed (by hand, no less) with a small amount of text per page and extremely wide margins in order to allow the owners of the books, usually abbots, to pen their own notes. As the books would pass from abbot to abbot, successive generations of notes would find their ways into the books, and the end result came out looking like, well, House of Leaves. To sum, there’s nothing new about the form and style of the book itself; the newness therein comes from the combination of forms and their transference to the modern horror novel.
House of Leaves is one of the finest works I’ve seen in the genre I’m coming to call antihorror—that fear that when you open the door the monster WON’T be there (so beautifully advanced in the past decade by Kathe Koja and Lucious Shepard, among others). And that’s exactly what Will Navidson, his common-law wife and two kids, and an increasing number of outsiders come to fear in the innermost tale in this novel—nothingness. It seems their house has a habit of acquiring rooms, hallways, and other empty spaces that may not actually be there. Navidson, a Pulitzer prizewinning photojournalist, wires the house with cameras and films it obsessively; after the house has wreaked havoc on everyone around it, he takes all the material and turns it into a film called The Navidson Record. The film is the kernel of the book.
Or so it seems at first. Actually, the kernel of the book is commentary on the film by a man known only as Zampano (it is a beautifully ironic turn that Zampano is blind). Zampano lives in a slum building, and one night he dies under mysterious circumstances. One of his neighbors, known to us only as Lude, discovers him and immediately calls his (Lude’s) best friend, Johnny Truant. Johnny’s story is the second layer in the narrative. He takes possession of Zampano’s copious notes in The Navidson Record and begins to put them into publishable form, only to find that no one he knows has ever even heard of the film. Johnny becomes obsessed with tracking down all of Zampano’s sources, and eventually with the house itself. (Note: another example of not-quite-original there. The idea that a book, or the information contained therein, can drive people mad goes back as far as biblical times, but it most well-known today in the work of H. P. Lovecraft.) There are hints of a third narrative that encompasses everything else—every once in a while, a footnote is attributed to a nameless, faceless editor (in Lovecraft’s mythos, it’d no doubt be one of the old gods!) who whipped Truant’s manuscript into shape.
This is a perfect example of the multilayered novel; the stories of Will Navidson and Johnny Truant on their surfaces are more than enough to satisfy the average reader, while someone who wants to probe deeper, e.g. into the parallels between Navidson and Truant (and, if you read between the lines a little, Zampano as well) will find more than enough there to give the book years of close-up scrutiny. It’s big, it’s delicious, and it’s quite highly recommended. (Oh, wait, strike that “delicious” bit, that’s the ham and turkey sandwich I had for lunch.) ****