House Of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000) 709 p.

This book is “different,” a description that can result in an experimental masterpiece or an ambitious failure. People have described it in various ways, but this is my take: House of Leaves is an onion. It has a lot of layers, stories wrapped up inside other stories. And it doesn’t taste very good (HARLEM GLOBETROTTER SLAM DUNK).

The core story is that of Will Navidson, a prize-winning photojournalist who moves into house in the Virginia countryside in an effort to strengthen his relationship with his girlfriend Karen and their two children. Their developing domestic happiness is shattered when the house begins to demonstrate bizarre characteristics: a passageway suddenly appears between two bedrooms where there was none before, close inspection reveals that the dimensions of the house are bigger on the inside than the outside, and – most terrifying of all – a hallway appears in the living room wall that leads into a vast, dark and constantly shifting labyrinth. Determined to investigate this labyrinth, Navidson recruits his brother Tom, his friend Billy and a trio of professional wilderness explorers. Multiple explorations have various effects on the characters, ranging from claustrophobia and paranoia, to insanity and murder. Navidson, being a photojournalist, records it all and later releases it as a film entitled “The Navidson Record.”

And the story itself – the book you are reading – is in the form of an academic treatise on the Navidson Record, complete with ridiculously extensive footnotes and laughably thin allusions and comparisons. You know the kind: verbose professors seizing on the tiniest pieces of dialogue and extrapolating entire useless theories from them, waffling on about symbolism and the self and darkness and meaning. I squandered three years of my life away on a university course entirely comprised of that kind of bullshit, and while Danielewski obviously intends to satirise it, the joke runs its course after about 100 pages and you’re left reading something that is, for all intents and purposes, exactly as frustrating as the pseudo-intellectual drivel he seeks to mock.

This fictional treatise was written by a man named Zampano, who dies at the beginning of the book. His notes are discovered and punished by California deadbeat Johnny Truant, who regularly interrupts the text with is own footnotes about his life of sex, drugs and a slow descent into insanity.

The problem with this novel is that only the first story is any good. The parts of the narrative that focus on Navidson’s exploration of his house are excellent. It’s an original, bizarre, unsettling and sometimes downright scary tale. But Zampano’s analysation is as tedious as one would expect, and Johnny Truant is little more than a Hunter S. Thompson wannabe regularly treating us to annoying, extensive ramblings as his obsession with the treatise sends him insane (in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever read a fictional account of paranoia and descent into madness that wasn’t repetitive and tedious.* The human mind is not an interesting landscape). By the time I reached the appendices and was reading letters JT’s mother sent him from her room in the mental asylum, I just didn’t care anymore.

This book is gimmicky. I’ve heard it described as the popcorn lit of post-modern literature, which seems about right (and is not exactly an insult – at least House of Leaves is somewhat entertaining, as opposed to anything written by DeLillo or Pynchon). There’s a good story here. Just be prepared to wade through plenty of junk to find it.

(*Actually, scratch that – The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins is quite good, maybe due to its brevity.)

Advertisements