Topic #2: Read a debut novel
Book: House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski
Published by Pantheon Books (2000)
“To get a better idea try this: focus on these words, and whatever you do don’t let your eyes wander past the perimeter of this page. Now imagine just beyond your peripheral vision, maybe behind you, maybe to the side of you, maybe even in front of you, but right where you can’t see it, something is quietly closing in on you, so quiet in fact that you can only hear it as silence. Find those pockets without sound. That’s where it is. Right at this moment. But don’t look. Keep your eyes here.”
Absolute darkness except where the beam of your flashlight illuminates the smooth, black walls. Absolute silence except the sound of your own footsteps echoing back from the many alcoves and rooms you cannot see. A Pulitzer-winning photojournalist and his family find a door to a physically impossible labyrinth in the living room of their house. A blind old man writes an exhaustive essay about a paranormal documentary that does not exist, then dies under mysterious circumstances. An apprentice tattoo artist comes across the old man’s notes, and the more he reads, the more certain he becomes that something savage and hungry is stalking him, waiting for the moment to pounce. With each page they turn, the reader descends deeper into a maze of words twisting across blank white paper, through interview transcripts and footnotes, flipping upside down and sideways in search of an exit, or at least the center of the labyrinth
where, in accordance with old stories, there might just be a monster lurking.
House of Leaves is a dense meta-novel packed with footnotes, appendices, and experiments in formatting, fascinating readers with its strange and winding passages. Danielewski’s obsession with meandering footnotes is reminiscent of other works of contemporary metafiction, but it is uniquely appropriate for a novel so concerned with the idea of what it’s like to be lost in a maze. Whenever the reader finishes a footnote and scans the page to find where they left off, it’s as though they’re retracing their steps after reaching a dead end. There are other interesting formatting choices, most of them successful in setting the mood or expressing an idea. The fact that “house” is always rendered in blue is among the most prominent,
but Danielewski’s most striking choice is crossing out any text referencing the myth of the Minotaur that lived in King Minos’ labyrinth, as though in some futile attempt to erase the concept from the story but only drawing more attention to it.
As briefly as possible, this book takes the form of a mass-market edition of an amateurish academic essay cobbled together by tattoo parlor employee Johnny Truant based on writings by Zampano, a blind old man, examining the events of The Navidson Record, a purported documentary about the maze hidden in the Navidson household—although Truant can’t find any evidence that the documentary or its subjects even exist. In all, there are three different people writing footnotes, sometimes even writing footnotes for their predecessors’ footnotes (thankfully, differentiated from each other by font). While the urgency and emotional heart of the novel lies in the deepest layer, it is the clamor of other voices, commentating and occasionally disagreeing with each other (or with themselves) that bring the story to life and give it the context it ultimately needs to carry an immense emotional weight. Zampano’s footnotes are a series of pedantic academic references to topics as far-flung as geochemistry, architecture and mythology, examining the events of the documentary from many angles and establishing dozens of literary allusions that linger throughout the book. Johnny Truant’s footnotes are raw and personal, as well as frequently autobiographical. He’ll occasionally comment on something interesting in The Navidson Record or in Zampano’s analysis, but the majority of his footnotes are tangents about his own life inspired by whichever part he just read. The third voice, an unnamed editor, will correct an occasional typo or explain some element of the manuscript that Zampano or Truant couldn’t have known, but their role is mostly to put one final barrier between the reader and the story of Will Navidson that is now nested like the smallest doll in a matryoshka set.
The innermost layer, bolstered by it’s eerie premise, could have stood on its own as a horror story without all the metafictional trickery, albeit with diminished effect. Just as Will Navidson has finally agreed to settle down with his family after a life of travel and adventure, his family discovers the entrance to a maze that cannot exist, serves no obvious purpose and seems to have no end. The passages of the house’s unplanned addition are utterly black and cold, breezeless and featureless except for the occasional door or staircase. Worst of all, the corridors are always shifting, doors appearing and disappearing, rooms expanding and shrinking and moving around without explanation. It’s dangerous to even go inside without wearing a harness. The adventurous spirit that animated Navidson’s legendary career as a photojournalist urges him to explore the darkness with his camera, but at the insistence of his partner, Karen, he agrees to send a professional expedition team instead. The couple assumes that working through intermediaries will keep the dangers of the maze at a distance; by the time they realize how wrong they were, it’s already too late.
While it lacks the high concept thrills of The Navidson Record, the diary that Truant keeps in the footnotes tells an eerie story of its own. He has lived a life of distraction for years, getting high on whatever’s available, hitting bars and nightclubs with his friend Lude every night looking for casual sex. When by coincidence he gets his hands on a box of Zampano’s notes, he thinks organizing the material will be just another way to kill some time.¹ Before long, however, he grows obsessed with the manuscript and the the impossible story it contains, seeing echoes of his own life in the icy darkness of the labyrinth. And the more Truant vanishes into his restoration project, the more certain he becomes that something invisible and inhuman is hunting him and that his only hope of escaping it lies within the manuscript itself.
The mark of a truly great book is being able to open up to a random page and not find any passage that feels out-of-place or unnecessary. House of Leaves manages this achievement with grace and apparent ease. Whether I was watching explorers slowly starve in an endless labyrinth or Johnny Truant install a sixth lock on his front door, I always felt it was part of one story, one fever-dream-vision of humanity being swallowed by darkness. Despite its bleakness, the book is never so self-serious that it becomes a chore to read. There are lighthearted moments too, courtesy of Navidson’s wisecracking twin brother, Tom, and some experimental page layouts that are more playful than profound, but these are only dead-ends branching from the true path to the center of the labyrinth, where Will Navidson and Johnny Truant must confront an emptiness that they cannot escape.
The Navidson labyrinth lies at the heart of Danielewski’s achievement. He leans into the uncanniness of its pitch-black halls—its coldness, its sterile emptiness, its complete silence except for an intermittent rumbling sound
like the roaring of a bull—to unnerve the reader, but also to provoke their curiosity and wonder. Although the expeditions Navidson organizes to explore the maze discover very little, especially at first, there is something awe-inspiring and strange about human beings walking through such an alien place at all, like watching someone walking on the moon. As if in reaction to this strangeness, it is always during trips into the maze that the formatting goes the wildest. Sometimes, the text will flip upside down or sideways. Sometimes, footnotes will expand until they overwhelm the body of the text itself. On one occasion, the text is even printed mirrored. It is as though even words are not welcome in the darkened hallways, and must be twisted in strange ways if they are going to survive. While the maze is obviously dangerous, it also has a kind of strange beauty; it’s no wonder Navidson is so enthralled by it.
It’s difficult to come up with substantive criticisms of this book. Johnny Truant’s footnotes occasionally descend into stream-of-consciousness word-salads that annoyed me at first, but the further I read, the more obvious it became that these ramblings suited his character. Similarly, I usually find myself irritated by long, meandering asides, especially when they are in footnotes and harder to read, but when House of Leaves descends into chapter-spanning lists of architects’ names or types of construction material, it seems so appropriate that it actually enhances my experience. Readers should feel free to skim these protracted lists without fear that they are missing out on anything. After all, a dead end is a dead end, no matter how long it takes you to get there.
House of Leaves is an astonishing success, a work with boundless ambition and the artistry to match it. It thrills the reader with supernatural horror, but also challenges them to explore its twisting passages in a search for hidden meaning. Occasionally, the book is funny; more frequently, it is sad. Twice, it made me cry. It’s a book with a clear vision, although ironically, a clear vision of murkiness, of confusion, of being lost and afraid. Johnny Truant’s paranoia, Zampano’s loneliness, the swallowing darkness of the deepest, darkest pit of Navidson’s house: these are all corridors in Danielewski’s maze, and we are its prisoners. Groping around in the dark, we must stay alert and never give up hope if we are to have a chance of discovering an exit, and beyond it, sunlight.
Final Grade: A+
¹ As a younger Zampano once said:
“Who has never killed an hour? Not casually or without thought, but carefully: a premeditated murder of minutes. The violence comes from a combination of giving up, not caring, and a resignation that getting past it is all you can hope to accomplish. So you kill the hour. You do not work, you do not read, you do not daydream. If you sleep it is not because you need to sleep. And when at last it is over, there is no evidence: no weapon, no blood, and no body. The only clue might be the shadows beneath your eyes or a terribly thin line near the corner of your mouth indicating something has been suffered, that in the privacy of your life you have lost something and the loss is too empty to share.”
Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves (New York, New York: Pantheon Books, 2000), p. 543