Thursday, June 24, 2010

Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves

I very rarely read anymore, partly because my job has me reading undergraduate essays all the time, so that when I get free time I prefer TV, movies and music. The last thing I read was maybe more than a year ago, when I read Cormac McCarthy's The Road and No Country for Old Men. House of Leaves was recommended to me by more than one person I knew so I tried it out.

The House of Leaves is a difficult book to describe. Jonny Truant, who does a lot of drugs and works at a tattoo shop, comes into possession of a trunk of papers after a blind old man named Zampano dies. Zampano's papers are his elaborate academic treatise on a documentary called The Navidson Record. Truant edits the papers, including long digressive footnotes about his sexual adventures and increasing madness, and sends them to the publisher, and the book you hold in your hand is the result. The Navidson Record is a movie by Pulitzer-prize winning photographer named Navidson who begins by documenting his family's move into a new house in Virginia, but the movie goes off the rails when he discovers his house is bigger on the outside than on the inside, and that there is a door than opens up into cavernous lightless ice-cold hallways that go on for miles and miles with virtually no variation. The Navidson Record ultimately becomes a project detailing various explorations of the space and the effect it has on the family. Zampano, in part through his huge number of footnotes, makes it clear that the movie is quite famous -- he cites numerous academic studies of it. At at one point Zampano describes an auxiliary film in which Navidson's wife Karen interviews Harold Bloom, Camille Paglia, and Jacques Derrida about the Navidson Record. Strangely, Truant is in the same position we are -- there is no such movie, no such studies. And of course Zampano is a blind man describing a movie.

Formally the book is crazy looking: Truant and Zampano get different fonts, the word house is always in blue (even on the copyright page when it refers to Random House), when Truant restores something Zampano strikes out it appears in red text with a strikethrough, there are long lists, pages where text is upside-down, or backwards, or sideways, or in a box in the middle of the page surrounded by other text, at a 45 degree angle, smashed on top of itself at odd angles, and there are e.e. cummings-style effects where there are only a few words on each page mirroring what is happening (when part of the Navidson Record is lit with camera flashes we only get a few spaced out words per page for instance). There is an index where some words, instead of pages numbers, simply have "DNE" (does not exist?). There are poems, music, and codes where occasionally the first word of each sentence spells something. As a result of many of the formal experiments the book is deceptively large. At 700 pages it feels like 350.

The book is, like Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, a revision of Moby Dick. Like Moby Dick the narrator is deeply unreliable. "Call me Ishmael" is very different from "My name is Ishmael" and the first story Truant tells us is how he and a buddy tried to pick up girls at a bar though an elaborate improvised story he made up. Truant admits to making up other stories he at first presents as fact in his footnotes, which makes everything he says suspect. Like Moby Dick there is a deep mystery at the center of things. Each book tries to get at the mystery through exhaustive use of literature, theology and science, and ultimately fails because the mystery at the center of things is beyond human knowledge.

The story of Navidson has elements that are absolutely terrifying, especially at first as the house is only incrementally larger on the outside than in. The best scene in the book is when the men in the house are trying to figure out how their measurement must be wrong, Karen makes a bookshelf whose edges are flush with the walls. Just as the mystery appears to be solved, someone grabs a book to prop a door open and the books fall off, because the walls have grown by about a foot and no longer act as bookends. Karen starts screaming. It is the very definition of uncanny -- this familiar place being just slightly strange, suggesting it is deeply WRONG. Like Lost, tension is built wonderfully around the mysteries of the house as the narrative keeps getting interrupted by things like Zampano's academic study of the mythological history of Echo, as well as its scientific explanation, for example (then interrupted again by one of Truants stories of sexual conquest). The horror is the best thing about the book, no question.

But much of the academic parts of the book, and there are many, are so divergent tonally, I was bothered by them. A story that is one part horror, one part satire of academic investigation is very strange, and the satire is often weirdly broad, as when both Paglia and Bloom, among others, hit on Karen during their recorded interviews; I don't deny they might hit on Karen, who is an ex-model, but the way they do it is just absurd.

Then there is the e.e. cummings stuff. As Navidson, on his exploration of the house, finds smaller and smaller rooms the margins of the page allow fewer and fewer words on the page. Alexander Pope said that sound should echo sense, and as a person who reads a lot of poetry I obviously agree. In his Essay on Criticism he writes

Soft is the strain when zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse rough verse should like the torrent roar.
When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw,
The line too labours, and the words move slow:
Not so when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o'er th' unbending corn, and skims along the main.

This is the most famous example of sound echoing sense: if you say it out loud, enunciating clearly, you will experience Ajax's labor (because the consonant clusters make it hard to say "rock's vast weight") and the wind in the first few lines (because of all the s's and f's).

House of Leaves does stuff like this and does it really well. When Zampano describes an early film of the hallway the "one continuous shot" of the camera man is echoed in the single long sentence used to describe it.

In one continuous shot, Navidson, whom we never actually see, momentarily focuses on a doorway on the north wall of his living room before climbing outside of the house through a window to the east of that door, where he trips slightly in the flower bed, redirects the camera from the ground to the exterior white clapboard, then moves right, crawling back inside the house through a second window, this time to the west of that door, where we hear him grunt slightly as he knocks his head on the sill, eliciting light laughter from those in the room, presumably Karen, his brother Tom, and his friend Billy Reston -- though like Navidson, they too never appear on camera -- before finally returning us to the starting point, thus completely circling the doorway and so proving, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that insulation or siding is the only possible thing this doorway could lead to, which is when all laughter stops, as Navidson's hand appears in frame and pulls open the door, revealing a narrow black hallway at least ten feet long, prompting Navidson to re-investigate, once again leading us on another circumambulation of this strange passageway, climbing in and out of the windows, pointing the camera to where the hallway should extend but finding nothing more than his own backyard -- no ten foot protuberance, just rose bushes, a muddy dart gun, and the translucent summer air -- in essence an exercise in disbelief which despite his best intentions still takes Navidson back inside that impossible hallway, until as the camera begins to move closer, threatening this time to actually enter it, Karen snaps, "Don't you dare go in there again, Navy," to which Tom adds, "Yeah, not such a hot idea," thus arresting Navidson at the threshold, though he still puts his hand inside, finally retracting and inspecting it, as if by seeing alone there might be something more to feel, Reston wanting to know if his friend does sense something different, and Navidson providing the matter-of-fact answer which also serves as the conclusion, however abrupt, to this bizarre short: "It's freezing in there."

But when the house begins to expand suddenly and hugely when someone is hanging by a rope, and the expansion causes the rope to snap "sn-" appears on its own page at the bottom, then the "-a-" appears on its own page at a 45 degree angle upside-down in the middle, and "-ps" is at the top of the next, this starts to feel a little silly. The thing is I am not quite sure why this feels silly. Sound echoing sense is good -- this just feels like taking it too far. It should maybe be subtler, I think. The one long sentence is less mannered. It works because it does not call attention to itself so much.

And like a lot of books with a narrator distinct from the author, it is up for debate who you want to blame for any problems you have: does Danielewski think the effect is dumb but he wants Zampano to be like this because he is making fun of him (as part of the satire part of the book), or we are to consider this a corruption that Truant has introduced into Zampano's text, pointing to his unreliability. Anything you like about the book gets attributed to Danielewski of course. It is a very smart device.

Finally, House of Leaves is a lot like Lost. There is this really simple human story at the center of it (a love story in House of Leaves), a story acted out by some broad but identifiable types whose goofy melodrama (I am thinking here of the reveal of the identity of the strange woman Navidson mentions in his sleep) is often obscured by some very smart tricks. There is a very intriguing mystery with lots of god-damned fascinating clues throughout (including suggestions that The House of Leaves may only have one in-story narrator who invents the others, and some very intriguing hints as to what the house might ultimately be, some of which I simply cannot stop thinking about). In the end the emotional story has a pretty good if not perfect end, the mystery remains mysterious, and there is a lot of variation both in form and content, not all of which is perfect either, but which overall is pretty good, and is sometimes truly, uniquely, awesome.


jennifer said...

oh damn! it's good to have geoff klock talking literature!
great review. agreed. bravo!
what i wouldn't give to have you review a few of my favorite novels.
or... lost and literature... that's a book you could sell!

ba said...

Hmmmm....the rope SNAPS? or it SPANS backwards? Better check the index on that one ;)


Anyway, I think it's better not to view the book as a love story, horror, and satire, but rather as a love story, horror, OR satire, depending on which author you believe actually wrote the story, and whether they are faithfully reporting the story, or making up the other authors for whatever reason.

shlomo said...

that book scared the shit out of me.

I stopped reading all the side parts, and only the main story, but i still liked it as a whole, even though there are parts i never finished.

Geoff Klock said...

Ba: Don't forget that you don't really get the full "options" of authors till the end of the book, so on your first read through you are forced into AND just because you have no idea what the hell is going on. But for your second time through I agree.