Following a recommendation from a colleague at work, and attracted by his piecemeal summaries as he progressed through the book himself, I recently read House of Leaves, by first-time novelist Mark Z. Danielewski.
The grab-line from the front flap is catchy: “A young family… moves into a small house… where they discover something terribly wrong: their house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.”
But that barely scratches the surface of what the book’s really about. The story is told (with occasional interjections by an unnamed “Editor”) by a twentysomething slacker named Johnny Truant who discovers a shambolic manuscript by a dead man named Zampanò, about a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer named Navidson, head of the aforementioned “young family,” who films the experience of moving into the little house in the country and the subsequent expeditions into its strange spaces, and edits it into an alternately acclaimed and despised cult film. Zampanò discusses and analyses the film with scholarly exactitude, yet his manuscript is a disheveled, incomplete mess; Truant reprints and organises Zampanò’s manuscript, completing his references and finding translators for its foreign-language excerpts. All the while, Truant’s footnotes frequently digress into rambling tales of his life and how working on the manuscript has invaded his mind and taken over his every moment.
The trouble with the manuscript, as Truant comes to discover, is that neither Navidson, his former-model wife, nor the film ever existed. And even if they had existed, Zampanò’s detailed descriptions of the cinematography would be suspect, considering that he was blind.
This nested concept, centered around a lengthy dissertation about a fictitious film that seems to engross the mind of anyone who comes into contact with it, makes a very interesting premise, and the book starts off promisingly, with frightening hints even in Truant’s introduction that things have gone terribly wrong for him as a result of editing Zampanò’s manuscript. After a while, though, despite a decent intertwining of love story and horror story, there’s something about the author’s arch conceits that becomes a distraction rather than an integration.
There are the little inscrutable typographical puzzles, like the fact that every instance of the word “house” throughout the book including the front cover, in any language, or even embedded within longer words, is printed in blue. Much more obvious (if not facile) were the pages that are meant to illustrate the sense of confusion and space-shifting that happens to the occupants of the house, with print that appears upside-down, or sideways, or only at the very top or bottom of the page.
There are the rampant footnotes, which I ordinarily wouldn’t mind, until it became clear that a great many (if not all) of them were citations of fake journals, magazine articles, and books, and simply a part of Zampanò’s elaborate hoax. I got to wondering if Danielewski got tired of making up fake article titles, because I certainly got tired of reading them all.
Then there’s the smugness of its self-reference. In a chapter where the lost expedition taps out S.O.S. in Morse code, Zampanò describes how Navidson’s film echoes the pattern of ••• ––– ••• with its editing: three short takes, followed by three long takes, followed by three more short takes. Meanwhile, the paragraphs describing these takes follow the same pattern. This might have been an ingenious idea—if not for the fact that by the end of the chapter Truant has pointed out the paragraph pattern to us, just in case we have missed it. I still haven’t decided whether Danielewski is being patronising or merely a spoiler by doing this; either way it’s annoying.
Annoying enough that when I got to the chapter about the labyrinth, with its mirror-image pages, and footnotes that tunnel down through page after page, or reverse back, or twist this way and that, with circular references and myriad dead-ends, it was all too easy as a reader to say, “Yes, I get it—the chapter about the labyrinth is itself a labyrinth. Can we move along now?”
I suppose mainly I just didn’t fathom House of Leaves. I wanted to like it, and much of it was interesting and intriguing. Yet its open-ended tendency to leave many of its notions unexplained might be best exemplified in the Ouroboros of self-reference that results when, in the final stages of deconstruction, Navidson burns the pages of the book he’s reading in order to provide the light he needs to read it—a book titled House of Leaves, presumably a copy of the very book we hold in our hands.
It’s only mentioned that one time, a throwaway comment that refuses to address its utter impossibility. It left me feeling much like Navidson must have felt—that I needed to hurry up and finish reading the book. Except that for him, the impetus was that he was swiftly running out of pages to burn before he caught up to the page he was reading; for me the impetus was tinged with the thought of getting it over with so that I could have closure and move on to something—anything—more enjoyable to read.