Wednesday, January 07, 2015

[Books] Book Look: House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski

It's hard to describe House of Leaves without making it sound like a gimmicky mess. And it is to no small extent, but it is not so gimmicky that it hides the well-told story at its core. Let me give you an idea of the structure.

The subject of the book is a reality style film (one suspects it is in the "found footage" style) in which a Pulitzer prize-winning photographer and his family discover that their recently purchased house is bigger on the inside than on the outside. A closet appears where there was none and it leads to an immense, blank, dungeon-like realm where space seems to shift and distance expand and contract to some unknown end.

The core of the book is found manuscript -- a critique of this film and its cultural influences, written by a somewhat eccentric, old, academic. We learn the contents of the film through this extended critique. This academic critique was found in the apartment of its author upon his death of either natural or unnatural causes.

The finder of this critique is one of the neighbors of the deceased academic. He is something of a low life, but he feels compelled to investigate the validity of the critique and peppers it with footnotes of his discoveries and interpretations.

Got it so far? The book is an academic critique of the film with extended footnotes by the third party low life. Except...

The low life may be crazy to the point of delusion. At first he hints that it is the manuscript itself that is driving him insane, but as his footnotes get more deeply autobiographical, we realize it may be a pre-existing condition or simply a grave emotional crisis brought on by confrontations of childhood trauma.

And there is considerable evidence that the film being critiqued doesn't actually exist. All of the cultural references in the critique appear to be made up. Also, the author of it was blind and there is no way he could have describe the film in such vivid visual detail from spoken descriptions.

As a result we are left with two somewhat parallel narrative both of questionable literary authenticity: the low life's footnotes and the description of a film that may not exist. The good news is, although this sounds like it must be some sort of mad jumble, it actually is not difficult to keep track of both narratives. The other good news is that the narratives, whether they are intended to be real or not, are excellent.

The better of the two is the narrative of the film. It is a standard haunted house story wherein the house is a metaphor for familial and marital troubles that ends with lovers joined and wiser, but it is remarkably delicately handled and the characters are drawn so well and sympathetically it transcends the cliche. The framework of describing it as part of an extended academic critique allows for interpretive commentary and perfectly timed digressions to heighten the suspense. Really, it's just exceptionally well done. Just the narrative of the film would have a made a great stand-alone horror novella.

The gimmicky parts got a little long in the tooth however. Since this was supposedly a presentation of the "actual manuscript" all sort of gymnastics were done with the text from missing and misspelled words to entire pages with a single word or sentence fragment, to mirror text, to extended list of items that had little relevance to the story. The hope was to emphasize the weirdness of both the story and the storyteller (the old, blind academic) but to me it was unnecessary. The words were enough to convey the correct tone and atmosphere. The gimmicks just got in the way.

The second narrative, the low life's story, had less of an impact on me. Probably because I don't share pop culture's fascination with low lifes, and the grueling descriptions of sexual encounters were, well, grueling. Still, the progression of the madness and the slow exposition of it's (probable) source were expertly handled -- perfectly structured and timed.

Danielewski is a writer of enormous gifts of craft. Whether either of the narratives touch you or you react positively or negatively to what I have called the gimmicks, there is no denying the astounding level of creativity that went into the formulating this book. Should you read House of Leaves? If you are attracted to unconventional fictional structure (or if you are at least not repelled by it) then yes. It's a very entertaining story (or stories) any way you approach it. If you are a very casual reader and struggle with anything that isn't a straightforward and fully resolved, or if you are just uncomfortable with uncertainty, then no. That is a key point that elevates this book above the crowd, the uncertainty is deeply integrated with every aspect of the story and becomes part of the experience for the characters and for the reader. It's a real stand out in contemporary fiction.