Mark Z. Danielewski: House of Leaves

Mark Z. Danielewski
House of Leaves
Pantheon

 

MARK Z. DANIELEWSKI'S House of Leaves opens with the ominous admonition, "This is not for you." After initially thumbing through the book I was prepared to agree. At first blush Danielewski's novel appeared to be an overdesigned hodgepodge of postmodern pretense. Seven-hundred-odd pages later, I can definitively report that the book is an overdesigned hodgepodge of postmodern pretense--and also a wholly fascinating endeavor.

House of Leaves combines the chills of the stock horror tale with a peek at what lies underneath, the fragility of our lives and our knowledge. Consistent with a philosophical examination of uncertainty, Danielewski uses three narrators: the home's owner, who makes a documentary that explores the house's horrors; a blind old man, who painstakingly dissects the documentary; and a tattoo artist's assistant who stumbles on the old man's research.

At the core of the story lies Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Will Navidson and his companion Karen Green, who move into the Virginia house on Ash Tree Lane with their two children. The couple hopes to frolic in hearth and home after much time apart. Unfortunately, the place is not so much a haven as an Escheresque chamber of horrors with immense, black corridors and rooms that constantly shift and disappear. Navidson offers us his view of the strange happenings through his film documentary The Navidson Record. At this level, House of Leaves is not significantly different from the myriad pulp stories with similar plots.

Filtering our observation of the trials of the couple is the elderly blind man Zampanó, whose pseudo-academic manuscript offers his own analysis of The Navidson Record, backed by meticulously footnoted references to academic and pop authorities.

The story of the house on Ash Tree Lane repeats a third time through the writing of Johnny Truant, who stumbles upon the deceased Zampanó's manuscript and sets out to organize and comment upon it. To the confoundment of the obsessive Truant, Zampanó's thoroughly researched work seems to comment on a film that never existed.

These layered perspectives, like the shifting corridors of the house, offer no certainties. The cues we look for to suggest authenticity become blurred. First the reader is confronted with an impossible house that violates our common-sense experience of the world--much like the bizarre and theoretical particles on the frontiers of modern physics. Second, the reader is presented with Zampanó's work, which speaks of the Navidson film--a popular topic among intellectuals and media commentators, and seemingly an utter fiction. Zampanó must be a madman to write about a nonexistent film. But his sober efforts and supporting detail seem to offer us the solid framework of thorough research. Last, we are left with Truant, whose reliability becomes suspect when he justifies his embellishment as a means of escaping unpleasant truth: "Do I really want to know what happened there? In my experience, most people don't. They usually look away. My stories help them look away. Maybe they even help me look away....We all create stories to protect ourselves."

The disjointed layout of the book, which constantly plays with standard form (omitting characters, turning text upside down, showing one sentence on a page) initially seems gratuitous. But as the reader is drawn into the work, the form begins to mimic the content nicely.

By skillfully combining plot, multiple viewpoints, and form, House of Leaves is ultimately as entertaining as it is epistemologically provocative. The reader's experience might ultimately be just what Truant promises in his introduction: "No matter where you are, in a crowded restaurant or on some desolate street or even in the comforts of your own home, you'll watch yourself dismantle every assurance you ever lived."

 
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