Friday, March 06, 2009

House of Leaves - Mark Z Danielewski

Hum, well, where to begin? This is a horror tale masquerading as an academic treatise, with so many layers that even a cursory summation will be complicated to write. The simplest way I can describe the plot is as follows:
Will Navidson, a photo-journalist, moves into a house where the angles and dimensions don't seem quite right, the inside seems inexplicably larger than the outside, and eventually a door opens up to a cold and impossible labyrinth. He films his explorations in a groundbreaking documentary called "The Navidson Report", which garners reams of analysis by film critics, philosophers, psychologists and anyone else with an opinion. We see none of this directly, however, as it is all presented via the work of old man Zampanò, who has written his own scholarly text collating the stories of and reactions to the Navidson Report. But Zampanò is no more; he died in Mysterious Circumstances, found unmarked but face-down between two long gouges in the floorboards, in a house that was once surrounded by feral cats, before they all started disappearing. His writings, scrawled on napkins, notepaper or anything he could find, are collected and annotated by Johnny Truant, the itinerant tattoo artist who found the body; in between telling us about his own troubled past, Johnny finds out that the Navidson Report apparently never existed outside Zampanò's imagination... but soon his days start to fill up with paranoia and nightmares...

The horror is all the more effective for being understated, as most of the eerie uneasiness comes from the characters' reactions to unseen (or imaginary?) terrors, or even just the subtle discomfort of alien geometry. The passages describing the Navidson tapes, as well as Johnny Truant's descriptions of his own fears, make for a chilling read - however, the actual story content of the book is all too sparse, and a whole lot of other space is taken up with stylistic experiments. Footnotes mutate and multiply, squeezing the regular text off the page. The theme of echoes and reflections is mirrored in backwards and reflected text; the warped space of Navidson's labyrinth is emphasized by the skewing and scattering of the layout as we go deeper into the maze. Unfortunately, this is a lot less interesting in practice than it is in theory. The line between Daring Literary Experiment and Pointless Pretentious Wankiness is a narrow one, and this book crosses it a few too many times for my liking. I'm all in favour of the concept, the style reflecting the contents - for example, my favourite Shakespeare is Troilus and Cressida, where the breakdown in social order is really cleverly illustrated by the decaying structure of the acts - but I do have to question the wisdom of, for example, satirising academic footnoting conventions by filling three whole pages with a random list of names, or constantly interrupting an otherwise decent horror story with pages of dry analyses of the cultural meanings of echoes.

One result of this is the enormous size and weight of the book, which is frankly a real disadvantage when it comes to my reading habits. I mean, I don't sit at home in my green baize reading room with my Tiffany lamp and glass of port; I have to carry this bastard thing to work and back every day, so it's less than amusing to find so many pages containing only one paragraph, or one line, or one word, or one letter... think of the trees, not to mention my aching shoulders! It was also somewhat annoying to find the last 150 pages or so taken up with appendices, only some of which were really relevant to the story, including a good 50 pages of an index that listed pretty much every word in the book, including (for example) every instance of the words "for" and "can". In the end, the actual substance would have fit nicely into a novella (or even a short story), and the rest was just the trimmings. This may well work for some people, but I found that the extraneous nonsense detracted from the story rather than adding to it; in the end, the effort outweighed the reward. I probably wouldn't read anything else by Danielewski.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice, fair review. Tell me you at least went ahead and decoded the Whalestoe Letters? That sent some nasty chills down my spine. This is a book I always want to go back and reread by due to the craziness of the text never do.

7:47 pm  
Blogger Erik said...

Thanks for the review, I've been wondering whether to buy this one for a while. I guess I'll just borrow it from the library now.

8:01 pm  
Blogger Fee Dickson said...

Good review, Alice.

Still unsure about whether to buy this or not..I might, just 'cause I feel I should read it, and some things intrigue me ( the house measurements, I am an architect after all!) but I think I'll have the same problems with it you do.

11:52 am  
Blogger Alice said...

The book is pretty expensive (probably due to its size) - you could always get it out of the library and then skip the boring bits...

12:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am in the process of reading this book and find it to be very intrigueing...It captures my imagination as well as my analitical has given me nightmares for the past few nights I dare say that I enjoy them

10:54 am  
Anonymous Sean191 said...

I read this book some time ago - I disagree with the review a bit.

First, for the length - it was initially distributed as an online novel which eventually was picked up by a publisher. I suppose in that case, it probably heightened the anticipation since readers needed to wait for installments.

Second - the footnotes, or pages where there's only a sentence or a word all serve a purpose. In places where the suspense is meant to increase, things slow down...footnotes bog things down...longer paragraphs etc. In spots where action is occurring pages blur by. In this way, the book not only uses words to advance the story, but the physical make-up of the book moves things along.

Anyway, it's one of my top 5 favorite books.

7:13 pm  

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