House of Leaves
Mark Z. Danielewski
by Doug Nufer
Things aren't what they seem to be in this "second printing" of a novel that originally appeared in a different form on the Net. Proportions shift through and through, so that even the length of this 700+ page book seems impossibly dense, with an inner narrative layered by footnotes in different styles and fonts (one of which constitutes a major outer narrative), or practically weightless, as portions skim along with one word per page. At times, the dazzling array of book design elements threatens to overtake the writing, but what may seem frivolous or random is deliberate and well-conceived, while matters of the deadliest seriousness find their resolution in pure artifice. One's supernaturally bad architecture is another's fictionally viable malarkey texture.
Essentially or ostensibly, the narrative at the core is the story of a Pulitzer prize-winning photographer, Navidson, and his ex-model girlfriend Karen, who move with their kids into the ultimate house of mystery. Simple measurement glitches widen to become seemingly infinite interior chasms that open and close at the will of some sinister inner universe. Navidson mounts various explorations of the interior, and makes The Navidson Record, a movie documentary of these adventures--a documentary which, only in the context of the next layer of the book, enjoys the celebrity of a household name.
Packed with narrative drive and giddy wonders, this interior story comes via a rather impeachable source. An old blind man named Zampanò has supposedly compiled a rambling annotated manuscript that shares the movie's name as it describes the movie and supplies essays, notes, and commentary from real and apocryphal sources (as well as real sources given phony quotes). When the old man dies, a young hedonist stumbles into the project and becomes the manuscript's editor and, thanks to long and often irritating footnotes, its co-author and de facto subject.
From his ribald Pynchonian sailor-style rambles around L.A. to endless appendices filled with his poetry and letters to him from his mother in an insane asylum, Johnny Truant makes Mark Z. Danielewski's book his book (or vice-versa). Truant, product of the proverbial broken home, seems to have thrown himself into this project as a way to find himself, or, more articulately, a way to find a place for himself. In one respect, this is a daring risk Danielewski takes: Truant is a lot less interesting than the core story about the house, which discusses the nature of space as it's defined by architectural perspective and the physical universe, and disgorges a brilliant range of references to art, science, philosophy, and semiotics. In another way, though, Danielewski's employment of Truant as his protagonist is the kind of pandering to cultural stereotypes you might expect from a book that was a cult hit on the Internet: he works in a tattoo parlor, gets high and/or laid a lot, has a friend named 'Lude.' But then, nowhere does the phrase "the benefit of the doubt" seem more applicable than to the world of House of Leaves. Doubt rules.
Although it's tempting to define this novel by retaliating in kind, i.e., trotting out the references until the cows come home, this can be deluding. Rather than take it for a Lost in the Fun Infinite Jest House Leaves Gravity at the End of the Rainbow kind of thing, you could run with the footnotes and compare it to Pale Fire, but rather than pursue Nabokov's interplay between characters, Danielewski stakes out a different territory. From Derrida to Camille Paglia, Einstein to Leonard Maltin, the notes celebrate wild and often irresponsible connections to the outside world as they delve into a quintessentially hermetic environment. Then there's the book design angle. As in Richard Grossman's The Book of Lazarus (FC2), the publisher (in this case, Pantheon) displays a heroic integrity to follow the author's or designer's practical and effective (if unorthodox) formatting directions. Thanks to the personal computer and the Internet, some authors have found inventive ways to deliver their works and have exploited elements of paratext as well as fundamental design in ways which, paradoxically perhaps, seems to compliment the kind of care that goes into hand-crafted letter press book making.
And yet, people wonder. There lingers a conservative prejudice against experimentation, against audacity, particularly if the prose comes packaged in what many regard as gimmicks (manipulations of font, leading, title page, copyright page, index, contents, etc.), as if these basic decisions of what goes into a book must be taken for granted rather than put to work by the author intent on making art. But through all of the doubt, delusion, and disorientation of House of Leaves, there emerges a fully realized work, and if it is all the figment of one obnoxious character's imagination, so much the better.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000