crap i have read recently #14

creepy houseWelcome to the Bold Surrealism edition!  I would warn about SPOILERS here but with this book I’m not actually sure that’s possible.

House of Leaves (Mark Z. Danielewski, 2000):  I doubt that any attempt to describe the plot of this book will in any way do it justice.  But I’ll try.   Johnny Truant needs a place to live and his friend Lude shows him an apartment recently vacated following the death of its inhabitant, the elderly, blind, and probably not entirely lucid Zampano.  Scattered about the apartment Johnny finds a monograph written on whatever odd scraps of paper Zampano had to hand and he begins to compile it into a book he eventually publishes as The House of Leaves.  The manuscript, entitled The Navidson Record, describes in excruciating academic detail a supposedly well-known award winning film of the same name, which documents the supernatural events surrounding a Virginia farmhouse and the family that moves into it.    Filmmaker Bruce Navidson, his partner Karen Green, and their two young children soon find the house has an unsettling tendency to bend reality and Navidson sets out to document the strange occurrences with film and videotape.   The deeper Navidson explores the anomalies the weirder and more dangerous they become, until his life and the lives of his family are at risk.  As Johnny follows the story his annotations grow increasingly bizarre and hallucinatory.  It is not clear if anything he describes actually occurs or if it is delirium brought on by the strange narrative, his extensive drug use, or mental illness inherited from his mother.  What is clear though is that as the house gets stranger so does whatever is happening to Johnny.

At this point I should probably tell you that there are essentially three narrators of this tale (although they may all be the same person) and that none of them is entirely reliable and that they occasionally talk to each other.   First is Zampano, who researched and compiled a monograph on The Navidson Record although, as Johnny and the Editor note, apparently no such film ever existed and many of the people he cites as sources vehemently deny ever talking to him.  The old man is basically a cypher; his relation to the events is unknown but the manuscript by all evidence consumed a significant portion of his life.   His contribution consists mostly of the narratives of Navidson, his brother Tom, Karen, and some others invited to assist in the documentary.  Johnny is an aspiring tattoo artist with low self esteem and a crush on an exotic dancer.  He’s not really satisfied with anything in his life but he’s content to drift through it, mooning after Thumper and getting high with Lude.  He flat out tells us he is a liar.  His story is the tale of a man losing his grip as his obsession with the manuscript drives him to paranoid derangement.   The last narrator may actually be a bunch of people (or perhaps Danielewski); I call him/her/them the Editor because throughout Zampano’s tale and Johnny’s annotations there are scattered occasional additional notes, annotations, and footnotes attributed to “Editor”.   The Editor reminds us several times that Navidson and his family and his film do not exist, the house itself is not real, most of the sources are false, and many of the events are not what they appear to be.

This is the sort of book that engages you physically and intellectually; physically because it is so damn heavy and requires so much manipulation (and there is no Kindle version) and intellectually because a certain amount of mental dexterity is necessary to keep everything straight.   This, on the whole, is a good thing.  I enjoy books that require some effort on my part other than swanning about on the sofa and letting words stream past my eyes.  If, however, you are the sort of person who likes to know exactly what is going on at all times, you are warned.

The book is 700+ pages of dense, claustrophobic surrealism, compacted with enough symbolism to choke a horse (starting with the self-referential title).  The fluid nature of reality is a definite theme.  Danielewski’s book refers to Truant’s book which refers to Zampano’s book which refers to Navidson’s film which chronicles adventures in a house that never existed.   The book disorients with false references to real events (Navidson, for example, is supposedly the photographer who took this picture), people, and places.  It mimics, mocks, and does homage to the academic obsession with minute textual and contextual analysis.  Names are interesting:  “Lievre” is hare in French but also close to the word for book (“livre”), Lude is Johnny’s drug buddy, “Navidson” sounds suspiciously like “navel gazing” (well ,it does to me); Holloway is a hollow man.  Chunks of foreign texts, translated and not, are scattered about to the obvious frustration of both Johnny and the Editor.  Commonly referenced appendices are blank.   Aside from all the paging back and forth the format of the book forces on the reader, I found myself re-reading sections of it to make sure I had a grasp on events and persons.  Even so, questions remained.  What happened to Zampano’s cats?   Who was Thumper?   What really happened to Lude?  Is Zampano Johnny’s real father?    Is the house a metaphor or an entity?  Is it evil is or is it the path to redemption?   Nearly every character in the book is damaged in some way and the house is clearly the place where their fears coalesce.   Was their buying the house a coincidence or did they find the house because they needed it?   Did Johnny create the story of the Navidsons’ house and their experiences there to come to terms with his mother’s attempt to kill him?   Is any of this real or is it all just the figments of a mad woman’s imagination?

Character development in the novel is absolutely masterful.  In shorter books, in lazier books (these are not the same thing) authors must use economy to tell us the sorts of people we will travel with.  So we get set pieces (say a really crappy detective waking up from a bender) that jell the character for us.  In House of Leaves every character is revealed slowly, often in the words of others who knew them or have written about them, and as they flesh out, as their failings and their strengths manifest, we come to like them and to fear for them.   Every single character that gets more than a few mentions changes profoundly from the time they are introduced to the time their fate is revealed.  Although some seem symbolic none come across as stock characters.  No one is wholly good or evil.  Supporting characters (Navidson’s children and his brother in particular) are treated with obvious respect and developed as fully fledged individuals.  They aren’t just props in someone else’s story.  Holloway Roberts, the closest thing to a villain in the book, is a pitiable human being, a victim of his own weakness.   Even the Editor gets his/her due, growing increasingly exasperated with Johnny’s and Zampano’s liberties with the truth.  It is the characters of Johnny Truant and Karen Green, however, who stand out.  Despite all the focus on Navidson and his film, on the house and its odd dimensions and endless passages, on Zampano’s opaque compulsions, the story is about these two and their journeys through and out of almost impenetrable darkness.   Johnny tells his own story but Karen is mostly silent.   We learn about her from friends and family, from articles in fashion magazines and the art press, from academic dissertations, and from Navidson’s film of her.  She suffers from claustrophobia and fear of commitment, yet she loves Navidson and her children fiercely.  She is terrified of her own house but in the end, when she could walk away, she turns and faces it like a lion.  If anyone finds a way to make a movie of this book the casting of these two characters would be absolutely critical.

There are some things that I don’t think work as intended.   Much has been made of the flamboyant use of textual artistry in the novel, but to be honest, it didn’t do all that much for me.  At first it was interesting but even the minor things rapidly became annoying.   For example, every occurrence of the word “house” is printed in blue.  I’m a child of the internet.  “Blue” means something I should click on.  It started driving me nuts about halfway through the book.  There are extensive chunks of text that have been struck out and printed in red text to indicate passages (usually involving minotaurs) that Zampano intended to delete.  Of course, one must read them all.  Footnotes are numbered out of sequence and are occasionally self-referential.  There are footnotes inside of footnotes.  Sometimes there is a footnote number in the text but no corresponding note or it is pages and pages away.  Of course, one must look for and find all footnotes.  Blocks of words are reprinted in mirror image from one page to the next.  Sentences flow in different directions on the page, requiring one to physically turn the book in different directions to read them.  Words fall down pages like leaves.   Vertical “footnotes” including lists of source documents run on for pages and pages; many of the sources do not actually exist.  Separate narrations (Zampano, Johnny, the Editor) are indicated by different fonts and many pages are just jumbles of different story lines overlapping with a myriad of text types and sizes.  I’ll be frank.  I can only assume that all this typographical tomfoolery was meant to evoke the surreal atmosphere of the house (or perhaps just the weird vagaries of life itself) but it mostly just got in the way of the story.

And there is a damn good story in this book if you have the patience to find it.  It may start a bit slow and it may be mind-warpingly confusing for much of its length but eventually you will find yourself drawn into the house and its mysteries and into the stories of these people.   It starts as a horror story but it ends as a love story and it is full of tenderness, forgiveness, and sacrifice.    Every book is essentially a house built of leaves but this one is also an elaborate house of cards, each one laid so carefully on the next that you hold your breath in anticipation and awe.  The entire structure is built on the thinnest of air and it is amazing.

Also…it’s bigger on the inside.

Score: Meh.   (But do read the TV Tropes article on this book.  It is fun as hell.)


~ by gun street girl on June 25, 2013.

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