Thursday, October 14, 2004

House of leaves – some comments

I just finished reading House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. I think it was great, although I’m still not 100% sure... it certainly was very impressive.

The first thing that draws you in is the self-reflexive post-modern construction of the narrative – the main, almost academic, part of the story is written by Zampano as an exploration of a documentary film called The Navidson Record, while around the edges exists the story of Johnny Truant who has discovers Zampano’s stuff and sets about recreating his book. Johnny puts in several interludes and numerous footnotes, and frequently insults the main text or points out that none of the references cited seem to exist. For Johnny the story is fiction, but so dense and scholarly (and affecting) that it must be true, it must be him that is at fault. Naturally the reader falls into the role of Johnny, or at least takes Johnny to be a guide. In this way the fiction becomes reality, to believe in Johnny is to believe in Zampano, even though Johnny can’t quite work out how much of this is true. It’s not dissimilar from something like Paul Auster’s use of himself as a character in his books, it adds a fake element of reality that brings credence to the parts of the story that are outright fiction and makes the world presented eminently believable.

This is all very smart. Despite the academic passages often being deliberately obtuse (how many of us would sit down and choose to read a 500 page work on a film we’d never heard of?) the story contained within, and around, keeps the reader captivated, as does trying to spot the join between genuine scholarship and fiction (for example, Pierre Menard, Jorge Louis Borge’s fictional writer of Don Quixote is quoted at one point, while other fictional quotes are attributed to real people).

The Navidson Record itself is the story of Will Navidson and his family. A prize-winning photographer, he has finally decided to quit the travelling and dangers of photojournalism for a quiet, domestic life with his family. They move into an old house in Virginia and all seems well, until a doorway to a seemingly endless labyrinth opens in their lounge. Navidson takes it upon himself to explore this place and try to work out what it is.

Cleverer still is the use made of typography and layout in conjunction with content to give the story a visual element. The chapter where we’re lost in the house is incredibly dense with footnotes and more footnotes that refer back to other footnotes, and lists that continue over several pages and form three-dimensional structures thanks to their placement over these pages (doors, corridors, windows). The text takes shape to reflect the labyrinth it is describing, slows the pace of reading and makes reading into the exploration as the reader has to flick back and forth between passages and rotate the book to correctly orientate different sections of the text. This is hard work, but ultimately very rewarding. (I’ve been learning about visual poetry recently from visualizing poetics, I would certainly describe much of this typographic experimentation as extended visual poetry.)

In a latter section the pace speeds up and there are only a few words per page, again arranged to reflect the objects in the story and again, thanks to the speed of page turning, imbuing the reader with a real, visceral feeling of the way the events are unfolding.

So where’s the problem? Well, although this stuff is often very good there are times when the idea is better than the execution, times when you just want to say: OK, I get the point! It is a long book. But then again, without the length I’d probably complain that it didn’t explore these ideas to the fullest or that it wasn’t immersive enough to work as intended. I think it’s probably fairer to say that it is one of those books that you have to be in the right frame of mind for, it is not something you can read a couple of pages of before bed. It’s probably the times I tried to do this that have sold it short.

In sum, well worth a look but be prepared to put effort in. Only then will you be able to sit back and enjoy a creation which, at its best, moves beyond literature (post-modern, avant-garde, new, unusual, visual, textured, dense, layered, clever but, most importantly, not pretentious... unlike my use of "self-reflexive" above!).


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