Sunday, September 26, 2004

Almost Scary

House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski, Pantheon Books, 2000

When I was about ten years old, I wrote a short story with a pen on paper. It was told by a man hiding in a room as a killer stalked him. At the story’s end, there was a paragraph that read something like: “He’s at the door right now. I don’t know if he can break the door down. I can’t escape. I know he’s going to---”

The long dash in my typed version was really a jagged pen mark down the center of the page. “He got me” this pen mark shrieked in one long dying spasm of Bic blue as the knife ended my main character’s life. I thought this particular graphic design element of my story was effective and original. It was (and is), of course, nothing of the sort. Not to be hard on my childhood self, but it was an incredibly clichéd bit of gimmickry associated with writing that’s been done about a trillion times already.

Now, certainly you can argue a good case against it being cliché when I did it. To be authentically clichéd, the bad usage has to be informed by having seen the cliché itself previously. Another word, a subtler definition, would have to apply to something that was, in the greater world, a cliché, but one done through ignorance of what’s a cliché. There are clichés of those who’ve read such things before (see King, Stephen), and there is clichéd material that comes from the great well spring of the collective unconscious. Videos of people slipping on ice and falling down are certainly clichéd bits of film, but they each would be funny individually even if you’d never seen a film of someone falling down before. A pratfall is a pratfall and it touches a chord of humor that’s basic and essential in humanity.

There is nothing funny in Mark Z. Danielewski’s debut novel, House of Leaves. What there is is a quite decent, frightening novel with an unusual take on the haunted house element. And that part of the book is told rather well, paced excellently with relentless menace building and then released but never fully, never resolving itself completely. There are interesting characters in this portion of the novel, a Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist, Will Navidson, and his companion, Karen Greene, and their two children, Daisy and Chad, (later additions will include a team of explorers, Navidson’s brother, and a wheelchair bound professor). And there is a mystery that starts out small and builds to immense proportions.

And all of that is told as part of an occasionally disjointed and fragmented manuscript written by a man named Zampanò. This manuscript describes a film made by Navidson about his house. Originally planned as a documentary about normal home life, the story is jarred by a couple strange happenings. Coming back to the house after vacation, Navidson and Karen find that a small room has been added to their house, in the space between their bedroom and the children’s bedroom. The motion sensor cameras Navidson installed throughout the house to film his cinema verité documentary captured no one installing this small, closet-like room. At some point, Navidson measures the inside of his bedroom, the new additional room, and the children’s room and puts that measurement against the corresponding outside of the house. The inside of his house proves to be one-quarter inch longer than the outside.

At first this is discounted as a simple mismeasurement, but subsequent remeasurings fail to reduce that quarter inch to nothing. This peculiarity is nothing compared to the next addition to their house. Along an outside wall, the family discovers at some point, is a door — one that should lead to the side yard. Instead, upon opening the door, Navidson discovers a long, dark hallway that leads to a turn exposing another long hallway.

What they find in those hallways and the way in which Zampanò describes this is fascinating and terrifying. His manuscript is poetic and erudite, filled with literary references and footnotes, though at certain points you get the distinct impression that the author (Danielzewski) is showboating his scholarship. Derrida, Paglia, Hofstadter, Kubrick architectural references, Milton, Borges, it’s all dropped in the footnotes, most of them fictional, but all done in a too-clever-by-half winking way. It’s the ultimate English-major, intellectual con-job, mental masturbation. I’ll bet he really impressed his thesis panel with the genesis of this idea.

Annoying beyond belief are the frequent interruptions by a hipster character with the unlikely name of Johnny Truant. He has come into possession of Zampanò’s manuscript and often simply footnotes himself into the narrative flow for a good five or six pages at a stretch, nothing he says even remotely bearing on the story at hand. It’s an incredibly awful bit of writing and the footnoted tales are all along the lines of how much drugs Truant did and these chicks with whom he had sex and all of it pointless in the extreme.

For example, at the end of a rather intellectual discussion of labyrinths in reality, theory, and mythology, the end of which I quote here:

Therefore anyone lost within must recognize that no one, not even a god or an Other, comprehends the entire maze and so therefore can never offer a definitive answer. Navidson’s house seems a perfect example. Due to the wall-shifts and extraordinary size, any way out remains singular and applicable only to those on that path at that particular time. All solutions then are necessarily personal.

Johnny jumps in to say he understands this on a totally different level. Like, this one time he and his buddy Lude were out at a bar and they saw this hot girl and her friends, and Johnny was too drunk to go talk to her but Lude did and he was totally an asshole. And then, like, after they left the bar and went their own separate ways, this same girl from the bar picked up Johnny and they had totally killer sex, man. Far out, dude.

That really is the point and gist of his entire four page footnote interrupting this discussion of labyrinths. It is neither germane nor particularly labyrinthine, merely obnoxious.

Johnny Truant’s story, of which we get way more than enough, takes up almost half of the book and literally has no valuable connection to the Navidson story or to the greater theme. It seems a pointless exercise. Danielewski seems taken with it as his second book is an extended version of an appendix to this novel, a collection of letters Johnny’s mother wrote to him from a mental hospital.

But for sheer irrelevant exercises, we return to my original point. To paraphrase Truman Capote, so much of this book isn’t writing, it’s typesetting. There are whole streams of pages in which there are only one or two words; there are sections with pages of words written upside down and words climbing the page and words written sideways across the page; there are footnotes that are in the middle of the page boxed in by a thin line of blue; on the pages opposite those footnotes are the same footnotes at the same place on the page, but in mirror reverse text; there are footnotes that are nothing more than long, long lists of buildings throughout the world or of other photographers.

The whole aesthetic never rises above the bad joke level of my blue ink death cry down the page. The chapter on labyrinths has several footnotes; it has footnotes that reference other footnotes and each footnote has a footnote and sometimes a footnote is footnoted by an earlier footnote. Get it? The exercise of moving through all these misdirectional footnotes is itself a labyrinth. Get it? Get it? You can almost feel Danielewski nudging you as you read this, looking over your shoulder, proud of his joke. After the labyrinth chapter, which is slow going if you commit to reading everything, as I do, the pages with very few words on it do come as a bit of a relief. There’s a pleasantly guilty sensation when you read “one hundred” pages in less than five minutes.

Page 457 reads:

Still not diminished. E
Ventually though, he e

That’s it. In the dead center of a textbook sized page in this novel are those thirty-nine letters. This happens in a scene where Navidson, while exploring the dark hallways finds them getting smaller and smaller. Ultimately, when an author feels the need to resort to a gag this artificial, it’s because they are unsure of their words, they don’t believe in the power of their storytelling to convey the sense of claustrophobia. And if the author doesn’t believe in his or her own story, why should you?

If he’d only stuck to just telling Zampanò’s recreation of the film, Danielewski would have had a decent first novel. There are enough unsettling moments there to leave you with a good chill. The haunted house is presented in an unlikely and compelling manner as you never meet the ghosts, you never get to the bottom of why this is happening, and any questions about these circumstances are left open. The intrusion of hokey typography and page layout does nothing to improve upon the basic story and is more often than not an irritating slap in the reader’s face, pushing you away from the novel instead of working to lure you deeper into this world.

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