DANIELEWSKI, Mark Z., House of Leaves, Pantheon Books/Random House Inc., New York NY, 2000.
Octavo; paperback; 709pp., with many colour illustrations. Moderate wear; covers rubbed and curled; hinges scraped; many dog-eared pages. Good.
Funny story: I bought this book because I thought that it might be something I could discuss here on my blog. I began reading it and got so thoroughly bored and annoyed with it that I took it to the second-hand bookshop where I work and put it on the shelf to be sold (perk of the job). Two years later, I’m buying books off a young couple who’re moving house and – whaddaya know? There’s my old copy of this book, a bit worse for wear, but ready to go back into the system again. However, I’ve done a bit of research and had some exposure to other opinions about it, and so the book has come home with me once more. I don’t know: I guess I’m a glutton for punishment.
When the movie “Inception” came out, someone told me that I would be seeing it twice. I was told – to my face – that it was too deep and multi-layered a film for anyone to grasp entire all at one screening. Well, I went and watched it anyway and was less than enthused. I’ve been writing roleplaying scenarios for many years - for conventions; for my home teams - I know twisty plots and plot twists backwards and forwards: I am the Ancient of Days when it comes to multi-layered story outlines and nested plot arcs. I ended up being annoyed and frustrated with “Inception” because it wasn’t anywhere near as difficult to comprehend as I had been led to believe.
This kind of “woo, buddy: you wanna think twice before you go there” attitude surrounds and personifies Danielewski’s exercise. It’s too hard; you wanna think twice; you’d better carb up, mentally. Frankly it’s all crap.
I was talking to a friend (with English as an extra language of necessity) who was complaining about the impenetrability of the works of a particular Welsh horror author – Rhys Hughes - who practises a form of writing called ergodic literature in order to capture a sense of the madness felt by a typical Lovecraftian victim. He belongs to a loose writing fraternity going by the name “OuLiPo”; they specialise in using mathematical and other logic-based transcription formulae to alter their texts in precise ways, forcing the reader to do more than simply go along for the ride. These techniques involve avoiding the use of certain letters (for instance, Georges Perec’s A Void) or replacing verbs or nouns with the word appearing seven entries below (or above) it in the dictionary. Their type of thing ranges from Italo Calvino’s Castle of Crossed Destinies (which is great) to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (which is not).
Early forms of this type of writing last century were fairly mild: the early works of Calvino – and later ones like If On A Winter's Night A Traveller – all have a stated purpose and premise and all make sense, using an internal logic established by the ‘rules’ of the work. The results are beautiful and strange, and very satisfying. William Burroughs’ work also makes partial use of these techniques: The Red Night Trilogy and The Nova Trilogy both have sections which were written, cut up into pieces and randomly re-assembled in order to create strange revelations. This works in places, but never completely satisfactorily and reading these books often feels disconnected and episodic.
The point of all this tinkering is to try, on various levels, to force the reader to engage actively with the text, rather than simply passively turning the pages and scanning the words. Ergodic writers have made the assertion that a stack of the finest novels of human creation are of less value than a disassociated pile of damp and mouldering newspapers, the idea being that you have to put a lot of work into trying to get sense out of something which is basically pâpier maché.
Which brings us to Danielewski. This is essentially a rather trite story about a house that defies the laws of physics and tries to eat those who prowl around inside it. That’s it. That’s all it is. This story is overlain by self-indulgent references to a movie about the house, which doesn’t exist, and an overblown academic analysis of that film which includes swathes of interviews and observations made by real-world members of the intelligentsia – from Anne Rice to Camille Paglia – none of which texts (annoyingly) are real. On top of this is dumped a jumbled memoir of an amateur tattoo artist and drug abuser who becomes obsessed with the academic thesis while trying to get on with his dead-end existence.
When I tried to read this book the first time, it was this layer concerning the junkie inkster which annoyed me the most. His random musings, fantasising about his customers and his morbid self-pity were filled with a host of egregious typing errors which had been adopted by Danielewski to make the character seem ‘real’ but which stridently worked against this very notion. “Alot” is not one word, it’s two; and the phrase is “rather than”, not “rather then”. These slips are distracting and wrong, given the level of literacy that the character exhibits in all other areas of his internal monologue. It’s a cheap non-starter in the characterisation department and it put me off right from the word ‘go’.
The rest of the book follows these sorts of cheap gags: the fonts change when other characters take over the narrative; the margins grow enormously when characters are squeezing through enclosed spaces; single revelatory thoughts are strung out across the page to give them greater impact (in the manner of Tristram Shandy). There are footnotes, and footnotes with footnotes, and footnotes with footnotes with footnotes*: It’s T.S Eliot’s wet dream come true, including quotes in Sanskrit. Essentially it’s a bunch of typographical tomfoolery that is trying to cover up a not-very-good story.
Then there are sections of text that have been crossed out, or which have been printed backwards or sliding partially off the page, and various sections written in code. The author has made every attempt to make the story as obtuse and unclear as possible. He wants to make his readership work for his ideas – which is, actually, his main, probably sole, idea – but these notions are of essentially dubious value. In fact if you pick up this book, flip through it once, then immediately think “I see – his message is ‘obfuscation’” then you’ve done all you can hope to achieve with this ‘work’. There’s no more to be said, and you can safely turn your mind over to other things of greater worth.
Sadly though, there is a breathless faction of readers out there who have taken all of this smoke-and-mirrors to heart and who have established online communities to discuss the ‘mysteries’ of the House of Leaves, when actually there’s nothing to talk about. If you mention to others that you want to read this book, they will tell you – as they told me prior to watching “Inception” – that you won’t understand it, that it will devour your spare time and distract you for months. This is just the self-generating haze of fandom surrounding this piece which amounts to little more than sharing the pain.
And it’s not new. In 1500, Johannes Trithemius wrote his infamous Steganographia (“Secret Writing”) which was a magical text devoted to talking with angels but which had encoded within it many blasphemous magical ideas and systems. It’s where we get the word ‘steganographic’, meaning a type of code which is recorded within the fabric of the book itself, not just the textual component. And Trithemius had a point - he was facing the Inquisition if word about what he was up to got out. In the Nineteenth- and early Twentieth Centuries, authors were compiling picaresque and quirky novels which posed many striking arguments across many interwoven story arcs, a majority of which were frustratingly unresolved. The Comte de Lautreamont’s Lay of Maldoror is a good example, as is Beckford’s Vathek, or even Matthew Lewis’s The Monk. You can get more out Jodorowsky’s “The Holy Mountain” than you can get from Danielewski’s inconsequence.
Time your waste simply will which Celeste Marie literary a it’s. Answers no are there which to questions battling you leave will which fiction genre of hole black a it’s. In you suck to written been has book this, essentially.
The final clue is in the dedication at the beginning of the book, which – again – has been stolen from French literature of one hundred years previous – “This is not for you”. If you’re smart, and you value your limited time spent here on Earth, you will take the author at his word in this one instance and comply.
*Fungal and bacterial conditions – including “athlete's foot” - occur because the feet are usually enclosed in a dark, damp, warm environment. These infections cause redness, blisters, peeling, and itching. If not treated promptly, an infection may become chronic and difficult to cure. To prevent these conditions, keep the feet - especially the area between the toes - clean and dry and expose the feet to air whenever possible. If you are prone to fungal infections, you may want to dust your feet daily with a fungicidal powder.**
**Henriksen Lance en Tatum Bradford, Steenburgen Mary, Goldblum Jeff met, titelrol de in Flanery Patrick Sean met Salva Victor door geregisseerd en geschreven, 1995 van fantasiedrama Amerikaanse een is "Poeder". ***