Tuesday, August 25, 2020

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

 House of Leaves is exactly in my wheelhouse, so I had high hopes going in and they were in large part met. I love fractured narratives; books that use multiple unreliable narrators and narratives that interact with each other. Examples would include Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov, City or Saints and Madmen and Shreik: an Afterward by Jeff Vandermeer, Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe, 2666 by Roberto Bolano, or any number of David Mitchell novels. I like books in which the structure mirrors the action or state of mind of the characters, a recent favorite example being The Drowning Girl by Caitlin Kiernan in which the prose gets closer to stream-of-consciousness as the narrator loses track of reality. I’ve become a horror fan over the past few years, especially the ones that lean towards mainstream literary techniques. And I’m not put off by huge novels with reputations for difficulty. The aforementioned 2666 is a favorite. I loved Underworld by Delillo, Infinite Jest by fellow footnote addict David Foster Wallace, and despite having mixed feelings about it earlier this year, Dhalgren by Samuel Delany has really stuck with me. House of Leaves fits all those bills. I’ve had a copy on the shelf for possibly a decade, possibly longer and I’ve been putting it off for some reason. I’m glad I finally got around to it. After I got my footing with the book I enjoyed it thoroughly.

It is definitely a gimmick, but one that I think works for the material. Here’s what I mean. It has at least three levels of abstraction. The main body of the text is a recap/academic treatise on a documentary that even other parts of the text say doesn’t exist. That documentary concerns the family of a Pulitzer winning photojournalist slowly discovering their house is bigger on the inside and that a shifting labyrinth of sorts opens in its depths. Like a horror version of the Tardis from Dr. Who. This includes copious footnotes, some to actual existing texts but most made up. Zapano, the man who wrote this treatise is dead. The prologue and footnotes contain a secondary novel written by Johnny Truant, who has pieced together the main narrative and the appendices from a trunk found in the dead man’s apartment containing chapters, notes and ephemera. This is written in a Gen-X bohemian mode often verging into stream of consciousness. The descent into madness of the subjects of the documentary  is paralleled by Truant’s and Zapono’s. The printed version is ostensibly the second edition of the book, the first having been released on the nascent internet. An unnamed editor has added additional material written by Truant after the book has already gained a cult following. The epilogues contain a poetry cycle,a dozen or so standalone poems and poem fragments, a complete epistolary novella written by Truant’s mother from an asylum (a heartbreaking work in its own right), prose fragments, pictures and an extensive list of quotes from widely varied sources. There are textual tricks in which the words are placed oddly on pages, sometimes one word per page, and with a complex series of “footnotes” that send the reader back and forth in the text. The reason this works and is not just academic wankery is threefold: One, it pulls off the trick of taking a joke to the point of not being funny anymore then back multiple times. Two, just when it’s lulled the reader into thinking it’s just a joke it suddenly becomes horrifying and emotional. And three, those portions of the text disorient the reader at the same moment that the characters are disoriented in the maze.

It wears its influences on its sleeve. Several footnotes are just lists of things that it could be compared to. Famous people, including Stephen King, are “interviewed” about the documentary. My favorite is that Danielewski says that Katherine Dunn, author of the excellent Geek Love, has written a fictional version of a journal that is talked about in the critical literature that has built up around the documentary but never seen. All this meta commentary and textual gimmickry is undoubtedly pretentious. But the book undercuts its pretension (or in its words, its "literary onanism") by constantly pointing out how pretentious it's being. By providing all the literary analysis one could want in its own pages it allows the reader to focus on the horror and sadness which are so entwined as to be indistinguishable.

Because ultimately this is a horror novel. One with a lot of postmodern distancing and textual tricks built in, but it is horrifying to see the protagonist of the documentary go through his harrowing experience even as Johnny Truant is experiencing his own descent into madness as he studies it. One could get completely lost in this book teasing out every little reference and code (including Morse Code!) that’s built in. Because so many possible interpretations are put out even in the text, a lot of the horror is left to the reader’s speculation, an incredibly effective approach. While I certainly plan to reread this as one reading is really not enough, I hope to avoid that madness. House of Leaves nearly completely worked for me. As a weird tale, as horror, as drug novel, as poetry collection and so on. The poem fragment that contains the phrase “house of leaves” is alone worth the price of entry. Truant’s voice, especially in the early going, can be a little grating, and I wouldn’t begrudge someone bailing because of that. But as his past comes into frame that becomes much more understandable. And, for all its textual shenanigans, once I got my footing with the book it zipped along at a very good pace. I am not quite as over the moon about it as its staunchest defenders, but it really deserves its reputation. In other words, I won’t be the guy at the party who corners you so he can discourse on it, but if you’ve also read it and want to discuss, I’d be very game.

Canon Worthy

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 62/75

On a personal note, a good friend died this past week and our last interaction was him asking, in a repy to a Facebook post, if this book paid off as he'd abandoned it. I wish I’d been able to discuss it with him, and the fact that as my next book I was finally getting around to Thomas Ligotti, on whom he had mixed feelings if I remember correctly, but as a horror fan would have been amenable to discussing. You will be missed, Will.

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