House of Leaves

By Mark Z. Danielewski

House of Leaves is a book – a house of leaves – that presents itself in a series of layers. In the first place it is the story of Will Navidson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who moves with his family into a haunted house in Virginia. The house has the odd quality of being larger – much, much larger – on the inside than it is on the outside. Whole expeditions go spelunking through the house for weeks, exploring its cavernous hallways and oceanic rooms while being chased by the resident beast.

Navidson captures most of this on film, compiling a documentary later released by Miramax as “The Navidson Record.” The movie is then commented on in a collection of notes written by an old man named Zampano. Zampano dies in the first few pages, so the notes as we have them, which make up the core of the book, have been edited by a tattooist’s apprentice who lives in Los Angeles named Johnny Truant. At the same time, Truant tells the story of his own life, which involves a lot of drug abuse and casual sex.

Or maybe it just involves a lot of talking about drug abuse and casual sex. It’s hard to tell.

If you think all of this sounds weird, you should see how it looks. House of Leaves is a virtual encyclopedia of typographical gimmicks and stunts. Every time the word “house” appears it is printed in blue, jumping off the page like a hypertext link. The index is filled with long entries for common little words like “with,” “just” and “for,” as well as others marked “DNE” for words that don’t appear in the text. Some pages have only a few words on them (one is left completely blank), while others contain writing that goes in four different directions. Extensive passages appear with a line through them, or are crossed out to indicate Zampano’s efforts to burn or obliterate the text.

The whole thing begs for interpretation, and is probably best read as a satire on the academic industry (to call it by its proper name). The countless annotations – footnotes, endnotes, extracts and appendixes – keyed both to numbers and symbols, printed horizontally and vertically, crossed out and superimposed, appearing upside-down and reversed as in a mirror, finally overwhelm the story itself. Whole chapters are nothing but commentary and exegesis. What we are left with is a massive construction of critical scaffolding that surrounds the void of the house/text like some kind of scholarly cocoon. The countless references to journals, lectures, conference papers and unpublished dissertations, some of it real, some made up, represents the nadir of “academic onanism.”

Looked at from this angle, the hero of the story is Johnny Truant. His commentary on the commentary is filled with deflationary asides that cut Zampano’s “cool pseudo-academic hogwash” down to size. And looking over Johnny’s shoulder are the mysterious “Editors,” who remind us that although “Mr. Truant’s asides may often seem impenetrable, they are not without rhyme or reason.” Small comfort, that.

Most recent experimental fiction is characterized by obsessive inwardness and irony. And insofar as House of Leaves is the most self-regarding and maybe the most self-deprecating book ever written, it fits into the pattern. But it might indicate a small progression too.

If “postmodernism” was about shifting focus from the work of art to the process of its production, then whatever comes post-post will probably take place at a further remove. After all, it’s only fair that the meta-novel – that is, a novel about itself – should provide its own explication. Indeed, to be truly postmodern it should provide as many different explications as possible. If you want to call it a type of play, that’s fine. But it’s an aggressive, nihilistic play directed squarely at the players.

My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that Danielewski isn’t trying to say much more than this. Writers today, and especially serious writers, are aware that they only exist by sufferance in what is a critical age. In an appendix filled with various quotations we find the following from Chekhov: “A professor’s view: It’s the commentaries on Shakespeare that matter, not Shakespeare.” The death of the author, as Saul Bellow pointed out over thirty years ago, was a hit arranged by the faculty.

The revenge of the writer is to turn things inside out and expose the production of analysis to ridicule. In a way, Danielewski is performing his own autopsy, dissecting his creation in order to show cause of death. And while House of Leaves probably takes the joke too far, becoming unreadable as often as it approaches brilliance, it is still a compelling expression of the author’s – that is, the contemporary author’s – anxiety and frustration.

Review first published online May 13, 2000. The text that creates and then explores its own analysis is, of course, nothing new (especially to academics, who are supposed to get the joke), but Danielewski pushes it to a weird extreme.

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