Book Review

House of Leaves

Mark Z. Danielewski
Pantheon Books, 2000.
709 Pages.
ISBN 0-375-42052-5; Hardcover $40.00 [
ISBN 0-375-70376-4; Paperback $19.95 [

Review by Allen B. Ruch

The book and the labyrinth were one and the same....

There's a funhouse along the Ocean City Boardwalk called "The Pirate's Cove." I'm not sure how old it is -- it certainly looks ancient. The second I step past the faded chests of gold and shabby parrots and enter its haunted interior, I feel as if I've stepped into another world, some timeless place where my childhood fears share a queasy coexistence with my adult sense of irony. Here is a labyrinth of illusions and frights familiar to myself and probably my grandfather's grandfather -- mirrors of warped glass, hallways that rotate disorientingly, unstable floors that rock and tilt. And of course the dread dioramas; frozen tableaus of horror that seem all the more evil for their dusty seediness, as if the adult in me senses the intent behind the hands that crafted their black-light bones and bloodspattered walls, nameless hands, surely by now long dead, hands disturbed by the desire to introduce children to a world of torture and cannibalism. Halfway through the funhouse the lights go from merely dim to completely extinguished, leaving you at the beginning of a dark corridor. The first time I visited The Pirate's Cove was during the off-season, and I was alone. Thinking that the corridor would quickly lead to illumination, and perhaps another cheap thrill, I entered it without hesitation. But after a few tricky turns, I found myself in total blackness, and suddenly there was no corridor, no walls -- just a curving iron rail, slightly too low for comfort. I discovered that I was in the center of a spiraling maze. Truth be told, I was suddenly terrified. I couldn't believe they were still allowed to do this -- someone could panic, maybe get hurt. Nervously I moved ahead, blindly following the twisting rail. What if they had placed another tilting floor ahead of me? What if the rail suddenly vanished and I were left in empty space? And, of course: What if I were not alone? The thought of a masked carny lurking at the end of the maze, or even some punk kid who had it in his head to stay behind and mess with people...or you know, maybe something worse...? I mean, this is a Boardwalk carnival; it doesn't exactly radiate a sense of wholesomeness. Finally I made it out of the maze, but for just a few moments, for a few exhilarating moments, I was close to actual panic. And you know what? It was worth every penny of my two-dollar ticket.
I don't know much about Mark Z. Danielewski, but it wouldn't surprise me if he kept collection of tickets from his favorite funhouses. Or, more to the point, if he were that masked carny I was so sure was lurking in the maze, biding his time to snatch at my ankle. Or maybe he would just jump up and thrust a copy of his debut novel into my hands, laughing like Zampanò as he slipped back into the dark.
Which brings me, finally, to House of Leaves. Imagine, if you will, The Blair Witch Project as a book, written by this masked carny -- a very erudite masked carny -- after bingeing on Borges' Ficciones and Nabokov's Pale Fire. And imagine if the "witch" haunting the work were really a materialization of dread, a disorientation slowly blooming from the 3 a.m. spaces at the edges of your bedroom, feeding on your doubts and fears during the insomniac hours before dawn. All the carefully constructed meanings you've created in your life seem under invasion by an encroaching emptiness, winding its way closer to your center as you wonder, increasingly nearer to panic, "Is this just me?" There is a lurker at the threshold, and whether it's your own personal emptiness, a shared void common to all, or Lovecraft's Yog Sothoth himself, is perhaps just a matter of perspective.
That a review of House of Leaves should start off with metaphors and comparisons is not to take away from its breathless sense of invention. Big, bold, beautiful and arrogant, a near-reckless energy hums from every page -- in short, the exact kind of book destined to become an instant cult classic. This is a book that invites comparisons, a vast bibliovore swallowing up its predecessors and digesting them in its rumbling bowels, using influence as fuel, reference as bloodstream, and textuality itself as a skeletal system. It is insufferably postmodern, maddeningly hip, and utterly in love with itself; and like a Boardwalk funhouse, it's filled with shameless tricks, distorted mirrors, and not a few genuine shocks. Oh yes, Mark Z. Danielewski has produced one hell of an ambitious first novel; and one that succeeds on a surprising number of levels.
Any account of House of Leaves must certainly deal with the unique structure of the book -- indeed, part of the pleasure of reviewing the novel lies in the simple desire to describe it. House of Leaves has many layers, and like the film The Blair Witch Project, or Borges' Encyclopedia of Tlön, it comes pre-packaged in the middle of its own fictional mythology. The book purports to be the revised "second edition" of an earlier version, originally loosely bound and passed along an Internet-savvy counterculture. The edition you are now reading has been "professionally edited," binding together the work of two "authors," the late Zampanò and his accidental protégé, Johnny Truant.
The bulk of the novel is Zampanò's critical explication of a fictional documentary film. Called The Navidson Record, the film was made by Will Navidson, who one day discovers that his house has more space on the inside than it does on the outside. His curiosity engaged, he begins to probe this impossibility deeper, but the more tools he brings to his exploration, the more willfully impossible the house becomes. Finally a new door appears, behind which likes a black corridor into another dimension. Calling upon the help of some friends and relations, he begins documenting his explorations using film, video, and audio tape; and as the corridor expands into an entire labyrinth, his life is changed forever. The Navidson Record is the final product of his explorations, a professionally edited chronicle of the house and its effects on himself and his family.
Like Danielewski's novel, Zampanò's book about The Navidson Record is also called House of Leaves, and is a masterpiece of inflated academic pomposity, riddled with personal observations, obscure reference material, and countless footnotes. Most, but not all, of these footnotes are apocryphal, reminiscent of David Foster Wallace and of course Borges. In fact, Zampanò himself may be a thinly veiled Borges figure, like Umberto Eco's Jorge of Burgos (The Name of the Rose) or Gabriel García Márquez' Melquíades (One Hundred Years of Solitude). The old writer is blind, writes lonely poetry, has a penchant for languages, and, like the fictional Borges of "El Alef," counts a "Béatrice" among the great loves of his life. Also like Borges, he is fond of mixing real sources and fictional sources in order to provide an academic veneer to his work. (Or is that Danielewski and not Zampanò? Oh, my....) The notations occasionally veer into the realm of the surreal and the encyclopedic. In the chapter known (informally) as "The Labyrinth," certain footnotes wind their way around and through the text like twisting worms of pure data, catalogues so comprehensive as to approach an unreadable Joycean Gigantism. The text itself often mirrors the narrative events, looping into spirals, crossing up and down pages, or unfolding word by word across a dozen near-blank pages. Wordplay and textual games abound -- even the word
house appears consistently in blue type, as if to evoke the multi-dimensional topography of a hyperlink. Again Borges comes to mind, with a line from "The Garden of Forking Paths": "No one realized that the book and the labyrinth were one and the same." Danielewski, however, puts it right out in front: the book is the labyrinth, a textual reflection of the warped interior of the Navidson House, which itself may reflect the subterranean twists of our (collective?) unconscious.
As Zampanò relates the events occurring in The Navidson Record -- which is apparently a world-wide phenomenon, generating nearly as much scholarship and populist commentary as a Finnegans Wake by Stephen King -- we as readers are allowed access to the primary story, that of the Navidsons and their eerie home. Herein lies the basic narrative tension of the book. Frame by frame, Zampanò leads us through the film as if we were watching it, and the Navidson family becomes quite real. Despite the constant chatter of (often-conflicting) secondary commentary, Will and Karen Navidson emerge as very well-drawn characters who easily gain our sympathy. Will, a photojournalist accustomed to the suffering hot-zones of the world, becomes obsessed with the labyrinth folded into his own home. His urge to explore and document this dark abyss is directly counter to his wife's wishes -- Karen has the safety of their children and the very well-being of their relationship in mind. Her choice is simple: get the hell out of there. As a reader, we are pulled between these two equally compelling poles, and as Danielewski starts moving them further apart, the stresses on the Navidsons and their circle of friends become as dark, scary, and consuming as the house below -- or perhaps, as dark, scary and consuming as the widening spaces between any relationship. It is here that Danielewski produces his best characterizations, moving his tortured characters through complex emotional states that ring true -- this, one feels, is how real people may very well react to such an extraordinary situation. Though reconciliation is just as a powerful theme as alienation, and our attention is constantly beggared away by Zampanò's commentary, Danielewski does a credible job of keeping a sense of suspense building through the textual chaos. The ending of the film will reveal the fate of the Navidsons, and that desire keeps us frantically turning the pages.
Zampanò's work was left uncompleted at his mysterious death, however, which is an ingenious device for bringing in a third level of narration, that of Johnny Truant. Brought to Zampanò's death-room by a friend, Truant is amazed at the hermit's collection of weird antiques, his mania for isolation, and especially his final end: Zampanò was discovered on the floor, with deep claw marks gouged into the surrounding wood. Also of interest is a large trunk, where Truant finds the manuscript fragments of House of Leaves scrawled across reams of paper, napkins, envelopes, matchbooks, and anything else Zampanò could find. Intrigued, Truant quickly becomes obsessed with the project, and begins the tedious process of assembling the fragments into a coherent work. As he does so, he adds his own layer of footnotes; perhaps better described as intensely personal digressions. These long passages tell Truant's story, a parallel tale of alienation, of creeping madness, and even the doubt he feels regarding the Zampanò manuscript -- in Truant's universe, as in ours, there has never been a film called The Navidson Record! Through his reflections on Zampanò's work, questions begin emerging about the old man, the project, and Truant himself. Why did Zampanò, a blind man, invent of all things a film? And why write a book about an imaginary documentary? If the house a metaphor for his own hollow darkness, why vicariously project that metaphor onto the "Navidsons?" And of course: What happened to him, and will the same thing happen to Johnny Truant?
Whereas Zampanò remains something of an enigma, Truant's story provides a second serious narrative thread. Quite different from Danielewski's other, "internal" characters, Truant has more of an semi-autobiographical feel, or at least comes closest to being the kind of guy who might be found reading Danielewski's book on the subway. Apprenticed to a tattoo artist in LA, he is a hip yet pathetic figure, moving through an unfocused world of sex, drugs, and the emptiness these pursuits often bring. The only child of a marriage filled with tragedy, his overbearing mother languishes in an insane asylum, alternating between periods of madness and hyper-lucidity. (Her story -- told in a series of letters from the asylum -- is one of the highlights of the novel.) Though world-traveled, Truant seems stricken by a basic disenchantment with life, but is too ironically self-aware to fall into a clinical depression.
Oddly, despite Truant's "realism," some of his earlier sections feel a bit labored -- Danielewski seems at times unsure how to balance Truant's intelligence and erudition with his street persona. But when Truant begins probing deeper into his own fears and anxieties, not to mention hallucinations, his words start acquiring a believable urgency, conjuring a chilling image of a young man descending into his own dark labyrinth. Fueled by his obsession with Zampanò and the house, Truant is heading for a crisis in every sphere of his life -- moral, intellectual, social; even his health is in danger. And yet the fact that Truant is aware of this is not enough to halt the downward spiral; there is also the fact that he may not be able to control his descent. Whether he is afraid of responsibility, or genetically predestined for madness, or just more sensitive to a primal existential dread shared by us all, is a question left unresolved, and this central ambiguity denies the reader any easy answers.
When all is said and done, House of Leaves is essentially a horror novel, but less about things that go bump in the night, and more about the empty spaces in our awareness, the tension between certainty and uncertainty, and the ambiguities in our apprehension of ourselves, others, and the world. Like Lovecraft with alien creatures abstracted even further into modernist anxieties, the overall feeling one gets from reading House of Leaves is simply that there is more out there than we know. All our efforts to catalogue and quantify the universe may be simple parlor tricks played by the anxious mind, fabrications to distract us from the void at the heart of our being, from the simple chaos that lies at the borders of our consciousness. It is a bleak message; and yet Danielewski manages to relate it with great style, delicious humor, and remarkable inventiveness. It is worth every penny of the ticket.

--Allen B. Ruch
24 October 2000

Additional Information

House of Leaves Web page -- The sparse official homepage is still "under construction."

Interview with Danielewski -- FlakMagazine talks to Mark Z. Danielewski.

House of Leaves: Points of Issue -- This useful page gets to the bottom of the House of Leaves multi-edition mythos.

TW Books Danielewski Page -- A small page on the author.

House of Leaves - Borgesian Influence -- From the Libyrinth's "Garden of Forking Paths" site, this entry looks at the influence of Borges on the novel.

House of Leaves - Joycean Influence -- From the Libyrinth's "Brazen Head" site, this entry looks at the influence of Joyce on the novel.


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Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.