Saturday, October 26, 2013

House of Leaves

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of House of Leaves (Pantheon, 2000).

The first time that I read House of Leaves, it scared me senseless. I had every light in the house on, desperate to dispel the darkness.

Seven years and a couple of rereads later, it's not as suffocating anymore, but it retains its remarkable power to get under my skin. Have you heard of this book? It's the living definition of unnerving, but man alive, is it ever fun. It's a collaboration between at least four very unreliable narrators, each telling a story one on top of another. One told it in a documentary film, and one wrote a quasi-academic, detail-packed paper about the film, and one found the paper and annotated it and told his own story in the footnotes, and one seems to have the name Mark Z. Danielewski and functions as "the editors." They're all liars. That's important. The devil's in the details and some of them are throwaway details. If your attempt to analyze the events doesn't come to crashing halt when the original character, several layers of narrative away from you, pulls out the very book that you're reading, House of Leaves, and sets fire to it, one page at a time, then you may not have been paying attention.

I love the clash of the narrators. At one point, Johnny Truant, who claims to have found the lengthy paper, points out a geographic flaw in it, and at other points, he admits that he tells lies and can't be trusted. All of these layers collide, and here's how it plays out for me: the original event was unsettling enough, and might have made a chilling and deeply weird ghost story on its own. By forcing readers to dig through the bizarre and original way that Danielewski has told this story, it becomes much more effective. The logical side of your brain will be working so hard to follow the competing and clashing narratives that the creepiness has a much easier path into your head.

The book even tells contradictory stories about how the documentary film ends. Within each layer, it contradicts itself. These narrators are not merely unreliable, they're out to get you.

House of Leaves has had such an impact that, if you go to YouTube, you'll see several amateur attempts to recreate the strange "found footage" short films that are described in the academic paper. Reading this book, three layers removed from the documentary movie (actually four levels, if you count all the magazine pieces, late night TV discussions, and academic journal stories that followed the release of the movie and informed the text of the paper as a level of their own), you'll be desperate to actually watch this documentary on your own. But doing so would spoil the effect of the book's presentation, and I'm not just talking about Danielewski's celebrated fun with the layout, the footnotes, the reverse text, the use of the color blue whenever the word house appears. At one point, the paper presents excerpts from a decaying centuries-old journal that tells the story of a lost trio of colonists in the Virginia wilderness where the house at the center of this story would later be built. See, there is just so darn much going on in this story that I completely forgot about the three-page digression into these characters' story. The book is so precisely laid out that readers will turn the page to read the final, five-word entry from their journal. My blood ran cold and I had to put the book down.

House of Leaves is full of tricks like that. Sure, it functions as a horror story and a love story and it's a playful yet mean-spirited game that satirizes the conventions of academic writing, but it's just so darn fun. What's it about? Well, it depends on which of the levels you're reading at the moment. It could be about academia, or it could be about a sex-charged apprentice at a tattoo parlor having his life turned upside down and losing his grip on reality, or it could be about a photographer's badly damaged relationship with his girlfriend and their children, or it could be about a house that grows extra rooms and corridors, from which people vanish, never to be seen again.

One request, though, and it's an unusual one... while I do recommend this book very highly, I recommend that you resist that unconscious temptation to thumb ahead in the book to count pages or whatever it is that compels us to just glance forward a little at the text yet to come. Maybe you're not even aware that you do this. Maybe mentioning it will make you hyper-cognizant that you might do it and create an irresistible urge to do something you'd never normally do, but seriously, don't do it. Start with page one. Don't look ahead. That way lies minotaurs.

No comments: