House of Leaves , by Mark Z. Danielewski. Pantheon, 709 pages, $19.95.
Read too many book reviews and you begin to think of critics as slightly cracked genetic engineers working with clumsy grafting techniques to construct the ideal author–Franz Kafka crossed with Emily Dickinson and endowed with James Joyce’s libido. I mention the Frankenstein fallacy because I’ve been trying to stifle the impulse to call Mark Z. Danielewski a creature cloned from scraps of Stephen King, Vladimir Nabokov, Bret Easton Ellis, Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace. And now I’ve gone and done it. What I really should have said is that Mr. Danielewski’s book, a first novel called House of Leaves , is a ragged cut-and-paste job, with scattered original bits.
Normally, a not-very-good first novel should be mercifully ignored. But this one has attracted attention all out of scale with its merit (a rave in The New York Times Book Review , an unlikely puff piece in The Wall Street Journal , a full-page valentine in Newsweek ), and it’s 709 pages long, so as part of our reader-protection policy, bye-bye, mercy.
House of Leaves is a horror story burdened with a scholarly apparatus that weaves in other stories. The horror story is about a photojournalist named Will Navidson who moves with his girlfriend Karen and their two kids to semirural Virginia, where they discover a terrifying dimension to their new house. The scholarly apparatus is a heavily footnoted essay written by an elderly blind man named Zampanò about The Navidson Record , a documentary film Will Navidson makes about his house of horrors. The longest of the many footnotes are tacked on by an unhappy young man named Johnny Truant, who finds the manuscript of the essay after Zampanò’s death.
A haunted house is always also a hidden past, a troubled conscience; it’s the bricks-and-mortar manifestation of something ugly and intangible that’s bothering someone. In this case, the problem is even more psychologically suggestive than usual: The Navidson house is bigger on the inside than on the outside. At first, it seems that the discrepancy is just a fraction of an inch, but soon enough abysmal depths–cold, dark, mazelike and shifting–are discovered and even explored by Will and others, much to the dismay of the beautiful but sensible Karen. Does a beast lurk in the maze? Some of the horror passages are genuinely frightening, but Mr. Danielewski’s artistic and intellectual pretensions get in the way. (Nothing squashes suspense like a footnoted reference to Gaston Bachelard or Jacques Derrida.)
Johnny Truant is deeply disturbed by Zampanò’s essay–haunted, you might say; soon he’s suffering from dreadful panic attacks, complete with lurking beast waiting to pounce. Naturally, he has a hidden past. His story, punctuated by the early death of his father, the death of his psychotic mother and the obligatory battering by a foster parent, unfolds in the footnotes (as in Nabokov’s Pale Fire ) and then grows extensions–like the Navidson house–in an appendix. When we first meet him, he’s an apprentice at a tattoo parlor and seems to have patterned his shallow (skin deep!) existence on Bret Easton Ellis’ disaffected, sexually promiscuous antiheroes. His present is soft porn, his past sentimental muck.
A blind man’s obsession with a film about a dark, empty place is an engaging premise, and yet the reader (reading, as it were, over Johnny’s shoulder) finds it difficult to believe that Zampanò’s manuscript could trigger an intense reaction. A scholarly text that’s supposed to disturb and fascinate should at least sound intelligent, but the stuff Mr. Danielewski foists on us is both awkward and phony. Is he trying to parody academic prose or mimic it? Or is he trying to suggest that close study of bad expository writing can bring on panic attacks?
One section of Zampanò’s essay begins: “It is impossible to appreciate the importance of space in The Navidson Record without first taking into account the significance of echoes.” Then come the citations: first Ovid, then Cervantes (in a footnote), then John Hollander, then John Milton. After a pause for word play (“the hallowed always seems to abide in the province of the hollow”), we’re launched into scientific mode (“synaptic interpretation of Doppler shifts”) and at last presented with a daunting mathematical formula (remember Gravity’s Rainbow ?) for determining “resonance frequencies.” Elsewhere, we get snippets of Old English and a long passage from Heidegger (in German) about the word unheimlich (“uncanny”)–an O.K. idea if you’re writing about a haunted house, but only if you have something stimulating to say about Heidegger’s ideas; otherwise you’re better off cooking up unheimlich effects. You know: creaking floorboards, nervous pets, a superabundance of power tools.
The best part of the book is neither scholarly nor spooky–it’s a clever little postmodern frolic. Karen shows 13 minutes of footage from The Navidson Record to a bunch of people, most of them “real” and well known, and asks for their comments. “Pretty darn scary,” says Stephen King. “My dear girl,” begins Harold Bloom. Camille Paglia invokes “The feminine void.” “Dark,” says Anne Rice. Stanley Kubrick weighs in: “‘What is it?’ you ask. And I answer, ‘It’s a film.’” Hunter S. Thompson’s riff builds from this: “one thing in two words: fucked up … very fucked up. Okay three words.” All inadvertant self-parodies, beautifully imagined by Mr. Danielewski.
Graphic design is the gimmick that has drawn attention to House of Leaves : Mr. Danielewski plays typographical tricks with his text. At certain points, the sentences as laid out on the page ape the accordion expansions and contractions of the Navidsons’ haunted house. Elsewhere, to follow the narrative you must wend your way through a maze of print. When Will Navidson, hopelessly lost in the depths of his house, gets all turned around, the reader is forced to spin the book, and grows dizzy in sympathy.
Some of the tricks that evoke and induce spatial disorientation work well. Others, like footnotes that strain to achieve three dimensions, are mildly amusing. But what can you say about the cute tic of always printing the word “house” in blue?
A kaleidoscope of shapes and colors won’t save a weak sentence, and Mr. Danielewski’s sentences, lots of them long and lyrical, are too often rickety. Here’s a fairly typical example, from one of Johnny Truant’s footnotes: “As I strain now to see past The Navidson Record , beyond this strange filigree of imperfection, the murmur of Zampanò’s thoughts, endlessly searching, reaching, but never quite concluding, barely even pausing, a ruin of pieces, gestures and quests, a compulsion brought on by–well, that’s precisely it, when I look past it all I only get an inkling of what tormented him.” Talk about “filigree of imperfection”!
House of Leaves has been compared to Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius ; in most respects the comparison is unfair to the talented Mr. Eggers, but there is at least one similarity: Both Mr. Eggers and Mr. Danielewski are careful to insulate themselves against criticism by rushing to confess flaws. So in this case we have Johnny referring to Zampanò’s “wandering passages” and “oddly canted phrases,” and someone else complaining that the old man is “writing like a freshman.”
My advice? If you want to read a long, densely footnoted experimental novel about a mysterious film, try David Foster Wallace’s rich, maddening and delightful Infinite Jest . Mr. Wallace does things with sentences that will make your head spin–and you won’t even have to rotate the book.