Tuesday, July 12, 2011

House of Leaves

So over the past several weeks, as we've been moving and starting jobs and looking for jobs and so on, I've had another long-term project: Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves. (Enjoy that blue "House," because I'm only doing it once.) I've been trying this whole time to think of anything to say about it and I'm not sure I've gotten very far at all. I finished the book last week, sitting on our new, old, green couch next to Tracy. Now I'm doing something I don't usually, which is to try to figure out what I should think and say by reading online what others have said. It's not that I'm worried I'll say something stupid -- although it is a little bit of that. It's more that the book seems to have digested itself so thoroughly that even as I feel overwhelmed by the idea of interpreting it usefully, I feel equally that it's already past all interpretation, and not just because of the fora dedicated to such work. What follows, then, is not an attempt at any sort of definitive opinion, but something very much in the mode of "here is a blog post about an interesting subject."

If you haven't heard if House of Leaves by the way, it might be best to start with the Wikipedia page. Basically the book is a comically academic critical exploration of a documentary that doesn't exist, The Navidson Record. This documentary concerns a family (including a photographer, now documentarian) that moves into a new home only to discover that it is larger inside than outside. Indeed, the home grows a hallway, then a labyrinth, perfectly black, constantly changing in layout and scale. This academic critical exploration narrates much of the film in what is basically the style of a novel. This academic exploration is officially authored by a blind and dead man, and was found by a young man who calles himself Johnny Truant, who has become obsessed with the blind man's book to the detriment of his health and sanity. At some point after Truant finishes with the book, it's then further revised and amended by unnamed editors at a publishing house. Where actual author Mark Z. Danielewski fits into all this is an exercise left for the reader. It has a number of significant formal complications that mirror (sometimes) the events in the text and often require an unusually active level of reader participation. It is fairly long and often physically taxing to read (unless full pages of tightly packed Courier are your idea of a good time).

So, to begin with, I hope I won't lose my spot at the cool kids table (that's right, I'm cool now, pass it on) if I say I find the book frustrating, and not always in a good way. You can justify most of the book's more questionable aesthetic decisions by way of a meta-argument, usually something like "well we're supposed to get lost in the book the same way the characters get lost in the house." I want to buy this, and I do think it's more or less the book's goal, but I don't really believe it when I'm honest with myself, primarily because the material we're getting lost in (usually: academic fluff 'n' bullshit) is so much less interesting than the house our protagonists are exploring (an impossible labyrinth as old as the Earth itself wherein strange, mysterious, menacing forces alter time and space according to their own designs or, worse yet, no designs at all).

There's a pattern to the novel: just when things are getting really good in the narrative of The Navidson Record, which basically operates as a horror/love story, they get interrupted by our blind academic for page upon interminable page of interpretation. How are Will and Tom Navidson like the brothers Jacob and Esau, and what do these similarities suggest about the Record itself? Questions like these are interrogated at some length, with frequent reference to outside sources that mostly don't exist. Sometimes this is cute, sometimes it's funny, and occasionally it gets sort of intense, but mostly I felt a real disconnect between the book's ambitions and my own experience. Johnny Truant is reading the same pages I am, ostensibly, and it drives him insane; he hallucinates murders, hallucinates his own death, comes to conclude (correctly) that he may not exist, lets his life collapse around him. But why? I never once felt threatened and only experienced thrills or fears of any kind intermittently, and strictly while I was reading the sections that focus on The Navidson Record. If I'm supposed to feel something like what the characters are feeling, that simply isn't happening, and it won't: not as I wade through what often feels like extraneous self-referential play.

The Navidson Record is an excellent story unto itself and clearly the main draw of House of Leaves, but it would be too much to suggest that it would be as good (or better) without the intervening materials. At the same time, one does wonder. Truant's narrative (which takes place in footnotes and appendices) is more engaging than the faux-academic stuff, but it's also rather a massive shaggy dog story, thick with foreboding and narrative potential on which it rarely delivers. The metafictional qualities of the novel do lend it a certain weight and intensity, even if they sometimes seem misdirected. I wouldn't say, in other words, that I only want the fun part of the book: but it does seem suggestive that I think of it as "the fun part."

The sheer amount of active participation required by House of Leaves and the ways in which it constantly interprets itself suggest that we are meant to plunge into the labyrinth by further interpreting it ourselves, perhaps forever. It is strongly suggested by numerous events in the plot and the form that there is ultimately no center to the novel, no one truth, no secret, and yet it sure has a lot of codes for a text that so adamantly resists being cracked. I don't mean to be dismissive when I say the result is basically a prank: we are constantly enticed to search even as we are promised we will find nothing (or, more likely still, ourselves; whatever we find in the world is ultimately, the text suggests, an encounter with selfhood). I'm not against pranks: fiction is lies. But I do find it difficult to enter into a relationship I'm told in advance will be basically fruitless, or, more optimistically, only offer me what I had to begin with. And the tools of interpretation the book offers itself are, perhaps because I've spent the last three years in academia, rather unappealing. Basically, I have trouble crawling into a book already 50% of the way up its own ass. 

I remain skeptical of fiction obsessed with flaunting its own means of operation: thoughtful readers know that fiction is lies, and one can play on that fact with a lot more subtlety than Danielewski uses here, usually with better results. As I've said, I wouldn't excise the non-Navidson Record materials completely if it were my book, but I would reduce them tremendously and attempt to fold them into a satisfying narrative. A book doesn't have to invite or demand reader participation to receive it, doesn't have to be ostentatious about what it wants us to do with it: we were always already participating, interpreting, deciding.

This is not to say House of Leaves is not worth reading. I've written here before that great novels should fail, and I stand by that claim, and House of Leaves is indeed a great novel, not least because it is a great failure. Readers and writers with an interest in formal experimentation are strongly advised to read the book: Danielewski's greatest contribution is probably his awareness of the page as an object and a resource. I literally laughed with delight on several occasions as Danielewski used the transparency of the page, manipulated common formal elements in uncommon ways, and, at one point, used both sides of each page to show two sides of the same words, as if they were suspended on glass or some other medium. House of Leaves questions everything about the form of printed fiction, which is a valuable service to those of us who enjoy printed fiction.

Reading the book is often very happy work. The sheer amount of effort required to understand the text will turn some off, but generally serves (along with its bestseller status) as a strong argument for trusting one's readers. There are complex calculations necessary, quite frequently, to understanding House of Leaves at even a basic level, and these calculations can be intensely pleasurable.

I'm curious what you'll think of this post. Have you read House of Leaves? Am I totally missing the point? What do you think?


  1. I really enjoyed House of Leaves, but I understand your thoughts and agree with some of them. I think my affinity for it primarily stems from the strength of the plot and characterization. The design is great too.

    But there are plenty of sections I think could be cut and the novel would be better for it. And there are some that I simply don't understand, or at least understand their significance. Even so, I feel the same about every lengthy novel I read. I liked Infinite Jest, but the AA storyline didn't grab me at all.

    Nothing profound here. Been years since I read HoL.

  2. I hear people say that about the AA storyline but for me those were like the best parts, maybe. (It's a tough call.)

    But yeah, thanks for this comment -- makes me feel less like I maybe missed the point or something.

  3. What I appreciate about HOL is how it parallels the existential nature of our own lives, and humanity's need to find an answer or meaning to our existence. We find lots of clues, follow a lot of lines of reasoning, only to find dead ends. And in life, just with reading this book, we find ourselves needing to know what the answer is, and feel great discomfort and frustration with not being able to find it. I think the true greatness of that book is how it so perfectly captures that feeling in the reader- or at least in my experience of reading it.

  4. Sarah: I certainly think that was the goal, and I'm glad it worked for you (as well as many others). I just felt like I didn't experience that so much as know that I was supposed to. It felt excessively... predetermined?