Monday, December 08, 2008
The Bookshelf: House of Leaves
HOUSE OF LEAVES is a book I heard about in figurative whispers, which is the inevitable result of not following book chatter very closely (probably not a good idea for an aspiring writer), but it had the effect of making the work more tantalizing. This is a horror book, of sorts, but it’s also a dense and metatextual and deconstructive assembly of a story that witnesses madness, and so it has an appeal as a real-world version of the Necronomicon (that isn’t some crappy New Age cash-in.) Appropriately enough it took a while for me to track down a copy, though I’m sure real forbidden books of cosmic horror cannot be found in paperback at Borders. Though Mark J. Danielewski’s debut novel has not had the kind of insidious effect on me that it has on some readers (that altar to Tsathoggua was there when I moved in, honestly), but it’s a beautifully crafted and compelling book with only a few niggling flaws.
The book is a multilayered affair, presenting itself as a manuscript by a man named Johnny Truant, consisting of his footnotes on a text by a man named Zampanò, who died in the apartment that Johnny later leased because L.A. residents can’t afford to shun ominous and foul places when the rent is low enough. Zampanò, in turn, was writing a huge critical work on The Navidson Document, a widely-circulated film purporting to be a documentary on a haunted house. Well, sort of haunted. Instead of having ghosts, the house has a series of rooms that should not exist, reached through a door that should lead outside. This foreign space is barren and offers no clues as to its origins, purpose, or true nature. Needless to say, Will Navidson, father of the household and veteran photographer who’s been in many dangerous situations (and started making this film because he was trying to do a documentary on his family) insists on exploring, and bringing in others to explore, while mother Karen tries to be supportive but is not-so-secretly wondering what the neighborhood is like in Timbuktu.
Zampanò covers the ominous developments in the most scholarly manner possible, though his notes start to show signs of obsession as the mystery deepens. Johnny, in turn, uses his footnotes to detail his story on how working with this text is starting to drive him insane. This is one of those books wherein the arrangement of text, footnotes, etc. is key to the overall effect, and it can be very disorienting and maze-like in itself. That of course is the point- arguably this is a book meant to be re-read and skimmed and looked at piecemeal in addition to (if not instead of) a straight beginning-to-end reading. A number of typographical distinctions become important- as an example the word house is always written in pale blue. (There’s another word that always gets written in red and crossed out, but revealing it may be some kind of spoiler.)
HOUSE OF LEAVES is pretty much at the extreme minimalist end of the horror spectrum- it never even so much as defines the outline of any creeping monster waiting on the other side of the door, and our characters instead face the more existential threat of pure oblivion. Not explaining things and indeed insisting that the reality is inexplicable seems to be a popular trend in the genre, and it definitely has its benefits. At the same time I kind of miss when horror writers would come up with bizarre names and vague shapes for their terrors- something like what Lovecraft does is about my speed, and his work is no less nihilistic for it. In some ways the horror of HOUSE OF LEAVES is one of sensory deprivation- you start to imagine what might be the root of all this, but you receive so little that your imagination is essentially feeding on itself. This doesn’t make it a bad book at all, but you should it know that it’s one that asks more effort than usual on the part of its reader.
If there is really one obstacle to my getting really heavily into this book and its enigmas, it’s Johnny Truant. There are points relatively early in the narrative where his footnotes get longer and closer together as he tells you his story, and I started to outright dread seeing his font pop up. Truant’s story is the kind you’ve probably heard. He lives in Los Angeles, works at a tattoo parlor, drinks, experiments with drugs and has a friend with access to the kinds of pharmaceuticals that would make Hunter S. Thompson turn in early because he’s really got a lot to do tomorrow, he had a traumatic childhood, he has a lot of casual sex with attractive women but is in a courtly kind of love with a stripper who's named Thumper because she’s got a bunny tattooed near the entrance to what she calls “The Happiest Place on Earth”, there are late night car rides with people who should not be driving, etc. It’s very much a hardboiled L.A. narrative of the kind you get in indie films and one-man-shows and comic books, and though Johnny freely admits he’s adopting a “tough guy” voice it gets to be a little much anyway.
Having such a consciously “colorful” element to the book gets in the way of the pure existential horror, as do frequent attempts to tie the madness of the house and its alien hallways to specific psychological issues on the part of the people who explore it. Is this a true cosmic trap for the unwary or just an extension of individual drama? Strangely, Zampanò’s scholarly tone does not intrude on the same level, though it’s arguably just as deliberate a voice and it has the kind of dryness that you would imagine is not conducive to spine-tingling suspense. That Danielewski pulls this off is actually pretty damn remarkable.
The book’s presentation as a found object continues to the inclusion of pictures, a half-finished index, and various appendices, and the narrative itself becomes increasingly uncertain as one expects from postmodernist fiction. How effective this is for you, I suppose depends on how much stock you put in Derrida. It’s worth noting, though, that some cheaper printings apparently leave out some key textual distinctions (coloration mostly); I think I’ve got the right version linked up above, but you may want to double-check.
So HOUSE OF LEAVES has yet to haunt my dreams, though those of a geekish persuasion may simply conclude that I made my SAN roll. Still it’s quite cool and though the text takes some work, it’s worth the effort for the dedicated reader. It’s obviously more effective if your tastes run towards existentialist minimalism (or minimalist existentialism), but from any philosophical perspective this is a wonderfully intricate book with many, many surprises.