Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves

House of LeavesHouse of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“The good parts are good; he just keeps not having the good parts.”

Such was the verdict rendered upon House of Leaves and its author by someone I know who left the novel unfinished—a “confirmed ghost story and horror film addict” (quoth Jack Torrance) no less. It was also the verdict I rendered over a decade ago when I too put this cult novel aside after about a hundred pages. But a few things—the novel’s and the author’s undeniable endurance; a nostalgic wish to have a cultural experience from the so-far neglected late 1990s; a desire to read a good horror story—inspired me to pick up Mark Z. Danielewski’s 2000 debut novel and read through to the end despite my misgivings and the book’s longueurs (not that a work of ergodic literature can exactly be “read through” in this way).

If you’re unfamiliar with House of Leaves, here is how it works: at its center is a documentary film directed by the famous photographer Will Navidson. The Navidson family’s new Virginia home contains a dark corridor much bigger than the house itself, a menacing interior that may even be infinite, which changes at will, and which may harbor a growling creature of some sort; the film shows Navidson’s explorations of this frightening space along with his twin brother and other collaborators, even as it traces the development of his troubled marriage. The contents of this documentary are conveyed to the reader via a thick description and critical exegesis of the film by a blind genius named Zampanò, himself dead by the novel’s opening. Zampanò’s papers have been found after his death in his L.A. apartment by the orphan and drifter Johnny Truant, a tattoo-shop apprentice with a tragic past. Truant edits Zampanò’s footnote-rich manuscript—Navidson’s film has become a major cultural object and Zampanò quotes critics from popular magazine columnists to major academics (Harold Bloom, Jacques Derrida, Susan Sontag, and Camille Paglia make cameo appearances) as well as citing many real and made-up authorities to explain the house via mythology, philosophy, psychology, science, history, etc.—and adds a footnoted running commentary of his own, hinting at his doom-laden personal history and narrating his own descent into madness under the influence of Navidson’s story (Truant can find no evidence that Navidson’s film and its cultural influence even exist outside of Zampanò’s manuscript). Adding yet another frame to the main narrative, a mysterious set of editors has put Truant’s own editorial and authorial work in order, and they add their own footnotes.

In short, the novel contains at least five layers of text: Navidson’s film; Zampanò’s description thereof; Zampanò’s footnotes thereto; Truant’s footnotes and editorial comments on Zampanò’s text; the editors’ footnotes on all of the foregoing. In addition, there are appendices and supplements galore, containing poems by Zampanò and Truant, letters from Truant’s asylum-confined mother (these have inexplicably been published as a separate volume); photos, drawings, collages, and more. Finally, some of the texts—Zampanò’s in particular—use a variety of typographical and linguistic tricks (mirrored text, inverted text, text sous rature, acrostics, etc.) to induce in the reader Navidson’s own vertigo as he navigates his infinite house. In a concession to ease of reading, different typefaces distinguish the different authors: Times for Zampanò, Courier for Truant, and Bookman for the editors—Danielewski has predictably stressed the symbolism of these names.[1]

I mentioned “good parts” above—what are they? They belong to Zampanò. The description of Navidson’s film really is chilling and wonderfully evocative of great horror films, at least at the start, before it descends into action-movie cliches. When the novel came out, it was understandably compared to another early Internet sensation, The Blair Witch Project; but at its best, it anticipates one of my favorite films, The Ring, which came out two years after House of Leaves (though perhaps Danielewski was familiar with the Japanese source material).[2]

And Zampanò’s burlesque of academic theorizing is beautifully done, both funny and convincing. I sometimes teach a course meant to introduce literary interpretation to English majors (look for “Textual Analysis” for its iterations on my TEACHING page if you’re curious) and Danielewski superbly mocks just what I do when I demonstrate the commitments of the different theoretical schools by showing how they would account for, say, the eponymous domicile in Wuthering Heights: for a deconstructionist, a house is a necessary and necessarily failed attempt to distinguish the outside from the inside and perforce the self from the other; for a psychoanalyst, a house is what else but the maternal body, the longed-for haven and proscribed love object that inspires all our attraction and repulsion, all our sense of integrity and instability; for a Marxist, a house is nothing other than property, the commodified common representing the exploitative transformation of human need into capital.[3] Danielewski via Zampanò runs through a similar curriculum with his own novel as textbook, mostly in the key of parody, but the kind of parody that can only come from a loving immersion in the discourse parodied (the impersonations of Bloom and Derrida and Paglia are so accurate and well-observed that they lack all malice).

If Danielewski had simply left House of Leaves at Zampanò’s narrative, he would have created a minor postmodern classic without qualification, Stephen King rewritten as a Borgesian parable complicated by mock-academicism in the manner of Pale Fire. Both the frightening narrative and its freight of symbolism and its delirious Derridean textuality would be intact. But, alas, Danielewski got literarily greedy and had to add those other extraneous (and large!) frames around Zampanò’s narrative, not to mention the novel’s other rather redundant bit of insistence on “human interest”: peel back every textual layer and a perfectly conventional love story stands revealed; as Daria said to Quinn, “Sometimes your shallowness is so thorough it’s almost like depth.”

The main problem with House of Leaves is simply that Johnny Truant, an unpersuasive character strung together out of 1990s “alternative”[4] cliches outdated even by the novel’s publication date, is a crushing bore who takes up far too much of the novel. His improbably oversexed tall tales of the L.A. underworld and his endless hallucinations, all narrated in breathless sub-Beatnik prose, make the readerly heart sink at the sight of every thick block of Courier type until one just wishes he would fuck off back to whatever Richard Linklater mockumentary or Mother Love Bone bootleg he wandered out of. To quote yet another cultural critic of the period, one whose level of discourse is about equal to Truant’s own, Truant’s story “speaks less to the heart and more to the sphincter.”

And some of the critical claims made on this novel’s behalf really are extravagant—they echo the wild claims made in the novel for Navidson’s film, as if Danielewski had through the power of suggestion induced the desired critical response in his readers. Comparisons to Borges, Ballard, Pynchon, and Wallace abound. The last blurb on the first page of my edition compares the novel to Moby-Dick, Ulysses, and Pale Fire. But those novels gave us immortal characters, and this one does not; Truant is a period banality, Zampanò a blank, Navidson a dud—no Ahabs, Blooms, or Kinbotes here. And Danielewski is an able ventriloquist, but his prose cannot withstand comparison to Melville, Joyce, or Nabokov. As for Borges: well, he kept it short. The first hundred pages of House of Leaves are, it turns out, about all you need to read. I have always preferred apartments myself.


[1] The word “house” appears throughout the novel in blue—to evoke, many commentators suggest, a hyperlink, that era’s utopian symbol of the textual infinitude for which Navidson’s house and its textual corollary (what is a book but a “house of leaves”?) stands; now of course we know that the Internet is mostly an infinity of garbage.

[2] I don’t quarrel with the recent choice of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive as the present century’s best film. That seems about as incontrovertible as an aesthetic judgment can be, and I’ll never forget the Friday night in the autumn of 2001 (only a month after 9/11 as I recall) when I walked skeptically and smugly into the movie theater (I had thought Lynch a glib quirkmeister at the time, a judgment I mostly stand by with reference to Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks) and walked out 2.5 hours later in that state of dazed excitement you only get from a serious piece of art. A colleague and I recently and only semi-hyperbolically decided over coffee, though, that perhaps the best scene in contemporary cinema is the moment in The Ring when Naomi Watt’s character pulls the fly from the TV screen. (The Ring and Mulholland Drive share a set of thematic concerns—and a lead actress—with each other, which they also share (sans Naomi) in turn with House of Leaves. In this time when the confusion of representation with reality seems nearly epidemic—see here for only one example of the will-to-mimesis run amok—I wish some of those turn-of-the-millennium artistic obsessions with critically probing the difference between the two could return to us.)

[3] As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak notes in the revised edition of A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, “Zampanò and Danielewski are curiously uninterested in a reading attentive to race and empire, and yet at the thematic center of the decentered novel we find a photo of a starving Sudanese child that Navidson took, a photo for which he both won the Pulitzer Prize and provoked accusations of gross exploitation, a photo that haunts him with endless guilt. The interpretation at this point inserts itself into the novel’s cultural script like a compute virus: the house’s dark outsized interior is the return of the global repressed in both psychological and political terms: the revenge of an abjected and finally unrepresentable blackness upon the fictive fiction-wielding and representation-manipulating white subject and the expropriation of the colonizer by the colonized, whose vastness and richness of culture and signification colonialism had confined within its coercively rationalist and exploitative capitalist schemata. But this reading, unlike the others, might challenge Danielewski’s own representational authority, even moreso than the merely Marxist one, which it is easy to aestheticize in the absence of a revolutionary agent. In Navidson’s photo, though, a colonized subject appears, and the disappearance of that appearance from the novel’s embedded autocritque is a glaringly absent presence.” (Sorry, couldn’t help myself. The fun is contagious.)

[4] Speaking of 1990s alternative culture, Danielewski was upon the novel’s release better known as the brother of alt-radio one-hit-wonder Poe, whose double-entendre anthem “Angry Johnny” (“I want to blow you…away”) delighted all of us Catholic schoolboys back in the seventh grade; this song has been intermittently stuck in my head since 1995. I now recognize it as an echo of or perhaps an inspiration for the edgy eroticism of Johnny Truant’s story. Poe appears several times in the novel—an epigraph attributed only to “Poe” comes from one of her songs rather than from the author of “The Raven”—and she released an album based on the novel called Haunted; this unfortunately flopped and effectively sank her career. The title track is good, though, if you ask me.



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