Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves. 2000.
An excessively postmodern and wonderfully overdesigned haunted house novel.
Excuse me, I really wanted to find another way to say "postmodern" but I am drawing a blank. The design of the book is more complicated than any I have seen since Federman's Double or Nothing, and blue ink is used for every occurrence of the word "house." Texts compete with one another on denser pages, and sparser pages have just a handful of words, sometimes not oriented horizontally. In all, the publisher Pantheon was generous with its resources in enabling the innovative design. In this respect, the book seems like a breakthrougha hint of how fiction might make the belated transition away from Gutenberg-style formatting to explore the possibilities desktop publishing technology enables.
I emphasize that this is a horror novel at its core, because the page-turning suspense of the haunted house story is in balance with the book's more difficult-to-read aspects, and the author seems conscious of this. When I find a page-turningly addictive book, I try to delay the ending anyway I can, sometimes interspersing less enjoyable books with the one I can't stop reading, rewarding myself for the tedious reading with bites of the enjoyable read. In the case of House of Leaves, some of the most suspenseful moments happen during the parts where the multiple threads or challenging formatting make the book difficult and even tedious. In this manner, the familiar genre story manages to keep me oriented and interested while other aspects of the book try to confuse and bore me.
The book has two major narratives (and lots of minor digressions). One of these main narratives is the body text, the other happens in the footnotes. What I am referring to as the horror novel takes place in the body text, but takes the form of a scholarly essay about a film made by the owner of a haunted house. For this reason (and others), calling it a "horror novel" is a bit misleading: the haunted house story is buried beneath a film, a scholarly essay about the film, and the footnote-laden edition of the essay the overall book claims to be. The second narrative, in the footnotes, is about the LA youth Johnny Truant (great name) who is the editor of the scholarly paper (sort of), having found the essay's manuscript in the apartment of its deceased author. Amid lots of almost-overwritten sex and drugs, the horror contained within the film contained within the essay catches up with him. Sort of. The scholarly essay (called "The Navidson Record") contains, in addition to the footnotes describing the story of Johnny Truant, many fictitious citations of other scholarly works about the film. The author has a keen and deadpan grasp of scholarship, but this film would appear to outrival Citizen Kane in the amount of scholarly attention it has received. I wonder whether this excess is intentional. The result is surreal: the story universe is a world overflowing with semioticians and culture theorists obsessed with a particular film, when it would seem that it is not the film, but the house the film is about, that would merit so much academic interest.
It is the events in the film that the scholarly essay is about that make the book a great read for me, and not necessarily a more compelling read than The Amytiville Horror, though doubtless far more intelligent.
Beyond demonstrating many possible alternatives to conventional paragraph format, does the elaborate layout alter or improve the reading of the story? In some passages it does. The book moves like a symphony through its dense and sparse passages, and the ways these movements synch up with the action in the story are usually effective. In the passage I referred to above (119-143) the density of the layout creates a frenetic mood that enhances the suspenseful action of the story (I actually experienced something like panic when confronted with all those superfluous, excessive footnotes, and the way they go on and on is like the expanding hallways of the house itself). Still, it is the indirectly and intermittently-told page-turning story of the haunted house that keeps me tunneling through the 700 pages of intentionally difficult and fragmented texts, not the other way around. The question of whether this form serves the content is an open one, but certainly the design as well as the author's magnificent ability to fake a scholarly tone makes this literary fiction, rather than a genre novel, even if the genre novel at its core is irresistible. Unfortunately, when the story of the house ends on 528, one is left with almost 200 pages of superfluous and incoherent appendices: facsimiles of illegible handwritten pages, forgettable polaroids, inexplicable poetry, and letters to Johnny Truant from his mother (the only parts of the appendices that have any potential to enhance the story, but the story of Johnny Truant is too confusing for this additional development to add any insight). While I tried to read every footnote up until the end of "The Navidson Record," I was unwilling to punish myself further, and I skimmed the appendices. The pelican poems would be worthwhile in a separate volume, but crammed into this book as a nonsequitur in microscopic type, they are just a point of aggravation. One function the layers and digressions serve, for better or for worse, is to prevent too close a scrutiny of the haunted house tale. I have read the book only once, and there was much to miss, including, I suspect, encoded messages and acrostics, but as far as I could tell, no explanation, scientific or parasychological, was offered for why the house is larger than itself and predates the solar system.
Get this book because it is good, and buy it soon while it still has blue ink, in case the publisher is tempted to cut expenses for subsequent printings.