Life achievement unlocked: After 4 months of wading through a few pages every night, I have finally finished Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves.
You might wonder why someone who claims to love books would describe reading one as a slog, or indeed, why one would spend even a minute of precious time inside ebook that doesn’t thrill them. And that’s a fair question. But the truth is, sometimes there are book. I felt the same way while working through Gormengast, and while shuffling through Prout’s Swann’s Way.
House of Leaves is about a house on Ash Tree Lane, Virginia, that is larger on the inside than it is on the outside. This is an awesome concept for a book, and under the pen of Stephen King or Dean Koontz would have resulted in a classic horror frolic. Under Audrey Niffeneger or Emma Bull it would have become a rich tapestry of magic realism. And under Mark Z. Danielewski it is something different entirely.
House of Leaves fits into a genre called ergodic literature, although both the genre as a whole and the term aren’t well defined. The term was first coined by Espen J. Aarseth in his book Cybertext—Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, and is derived from the Green words ergon, meaning “work”, and hodos, meaning “path”.
Essentially, what marks a book as “ergodic” is the fact that the act of reading it is in itself a challenge, and that challenging act confers something of the essence of the text. Aarseth says, “in ergodic literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text.” Examples of ergotic literature include Raymond Queneau’s One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, a selection of 10 sonnets, each line of which has the same structure and sounds. The individual lines are printed on separate cards and to “read” the peoms you must arrange them in the order you wish. There are 100,000,000,000,000 different possible combinations. I knew someone at university who had a copy of this and I spent some time arranging lines myself. It’s actually quite fun.
Another example is S, by Doug Dorst and JJ Abrams (yes, THAT JJ Abrams). The book is a story within a story. It’s presented as a standalone library book called The Ship of Theseus. In the margins of the book, and notes and postcards left inside the book’s pages, is a conversation/love story between two students trying to solve the mystery of the novel. I am seriously debating getting a copy of this as it sounds awesome.
Danielewski’s own contribution to the genre reads as a faux-academic gothic treatise on a non-existant film that circulated only in small, underground circles. Called the Navidson Record, the film consists of footage shot by famous photographer Will Davidson and his girlfriend Karen Green as they buy a house and start to move things in and make a life. It’s while doing some mundane work on the house one day that Navidson (called Navy by those who love him in the book) discovers the house is larger on the inside by three quarters of an inch. At first this is nothing but a puzzling curiosity, but then between two rooms there suddenly appears a hallway where none had existed before. A hallway that is 10-foot long, despite the space between the rooms being only the breadth of a single wall wide. And then, another hallway appears in their living room. A strange, inhuman growl emits from deep within the house.
Navy calls in the help of a team of adventurers he knew from his travels. Together they try to navigate through the mysterious hallways and rooms that rearrange themselves at will. Their explorations descend into horror as the house works against them, and the spaces get so large and complex they no longer function within the realms of reality.
However, there is no real POV character in the novel. The text is written as an academic study by the author, a blind old man named Zampanò, who has become obsessed with the film after it was released to the public. Zampanò gathers together an impressive array of deconstructivist, Freudian, Jungian, feminist, post-structuralist and avant-garde writings on the house, and adds to them interviews and texts from the people who were in the house while the film was being shot. All this serves to separate the reader from the visceral journey of the adventurers deeper into the house. The distance actually adds to the intensity. Because Navidson or Karen are not themselves the narrators, you have no idea what has happened to them. The context of the writing of the book is very clearly established from the beginning, and the separation of reader and character it creates is actually at the heart of the horror of the book.
The one character you feel you should know the best, Zampanò, is utterly invisible to you.
The book is a clever satire of academic criticism. Practically every mythological, structuralist, post-colonial, post-post-post-modern, post-anything interpretation of the house is explored. There are footnotes upon footnotes upon footnotes.
Danielewski also uses text in a fascinating way. When Navidson and the other explorers are moving through the intense, cavernous spaces of the house, he spaces the text wide across blank pages, giving this sense of the message being lost in an abyss of nothing. As they squeeze through small spaces the text is smashed into a box, growing smaller and smaller. At times text is mirrored, or written in different fonts, or contains hidden messages and complex riddles. To me, the labyrinthine text mirrors the shaky, otherworldly topography of the House itself. Whatever the purpose, it makes for fun reading, much more so than Swann’s Way, and no less rewarding.
One might argue that House of Leaves is a book of literary tricks that disguise a story that isn’t really all that interesting, and that Danielewski is impressed by his own cleverness. I believe the latter is probably true, but I disagree about the former. But then, I am impressed with literary tricks. If you took all the footnotes and the weird fonts and Johnny’s story away, you have a gothic tale of love and redemption that manages to evoke both true horror and intense longing.
There is one aspect of House of Leaves I felt fell flat, and that was the story of Johnny Truant, the young man who discovered Zampanò’s unfinished treatise after the man died, and was in the process of collating it into a cohesive volume when he began to lose his mind. Personally, I wasn’t as captivated by Johnny’s story, but I understand from a technical point-of-view why Danielewski included it. He is the narrator we’re closest to, and he provides the bridge through which Zampanò’s work reaches our world. He is the filter, and we need to understand his mind to understand what and how his filtering has impacted the story.
Is the mystery of Ash Tree Lane actually solved? Is it more than just a diabolic reincarnation of Borges universal library? I actually like how open-ended House of Leaves is. People have their own ideas about what the house is, and how Zampanò is connected to it. The book is still debated heavily in online forums and reader groups. If anything, it’s almost an extension of the academic satire of the book, the fact that many have spent so much time dissecting it.
(If anyone who has read it wants to discuss theories, then I’d be very happy to discuss mine. Message me on Facebook).
House of Leaves is not the relaxing beach read you want over summer, but it is a boundlessly imaginative and engrossing read.
Buy House of Leaves on Amazon, or keep up with Mark Z. Danielewski’s recent series, The Familiar, through his website.