Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Rethinking the Novel: House of Leaves

I have never been an avid reader, mostly because I spend so much of my time occupied by film and music, but I do appreciate a good book every now and then. When I was in high school a friend of mine was reading a book that seemed very interesting. It looked very long and when I asked him to tell me what it was about he had a very difficult time explaining the plot. He opened the book and showed me the pages, and I was surprised to find words written in every direction, some words in color, some text struck out with red lines, and filled with footnotes. What kind of book was this?

Fast forward to 2009. I had long forgotten the name of the book, but somewhere in the back of my mind I really wanted to find out what that crazy book was and get my hands on a copy. One day I was hanging out online on my favorite website and I was reading posts on the Film General forum, when suddenly I found someone talking about the book. It was called House of Leaves by author Mark Z. Danielewski, released by Pantheon Books in 2000.

Over the next month every time I was near a bookstore I went in and looked for it, but it wasn't until I was in the Barnes and Noble in Ellicott City, Maryland that I actually found a copy. I took it home and started reading that day. I'll do my best explain the general concept of the novel.

House of leaves begins with an Introduction from the point of view of the character Johnny Truant in which he explains that he and his best friend entered the apartment of a recently deceased old blind man named Zampano and discovered a trunk he had left behind. Inside the trunk are scraps of paper that when pieced together and put in the right order make up a manuscript. The manuscript is an academic critique of a documentary film called "The Navidson Record." Still with me?

Johnny takes the trunk back to his apartment and begins the difficult task of reconstructing the manuscript. This manuscript is what makes up the bulk of the story. The novel is formatted so that Zampano's critique of the "The Navidson Record" is the main body of text, and then throughout this there are footnotes written by Zampano citing many other sources. But there are also footnotes that have been added in by Johnny Truant in which he tells his own story detailing his struggle to complete the reconstruction of Zampano's work and how it begins to affect his personal life.

While that sounds pretty confusing, once you start reading it's actually not too difficult to follow most of the time. There are certain chapters where the text formatting gets complicated and following the footnotes becomes an adventure in and of itself, but in some ways the difficulty becomes a rewarding aspect of reading this unique novel.

"The Navidson Record," the documentary film that Zampano is analyzing, is about a family that moves to a home in the suburbs of Virginia and soon discover strange things happening in the house. Eventually they realize the interior of the house measures longer than the exterior, which should be physically impossible. Later, new doorways appear out of nowhere revealing a massive, dark, cave-like labyrinth. Will Navidson recruits some people to help him explore this discovery before they go public with the find. But here's the kicker, (and I can tell you this only because it's made clear in the Introduction and doesn't spoil the story in any way) the film appears to be entirely fake and doesn't exist at all. Zampano, the blind old man, seems to have made up the documentary in his imagination and wrote an academic critique of a film which doesn't really exist, and as you read the novel that knowledge adds an unexplainable feeling of terror and tension.

Classifying Danielewski's groundbreaking novel is near impossible. It's Mystery, Drama, Horror and a parody of academic criticism all rolled into one, and I feel confident that there's never been anything quite like it before. While the format and structure are certainly unique, there's one thing about this amazing work of literary art that should be made clear. It's not a gimmick. House of Leaves is extremely well written and the text formatting devices that Danielewski uses only heighten the experience.

By the time you get to the end of the book you can only marvel at how someone could have possibly dreamed up such an idea and executed it so well with such a level of depth and detail. The novel is a tried and true format that doesn't get messed with too often, and it takes a bold idea like this to come along and totally change all the rules, using the medium to its maximum potential. Danielewski thought outside the box and created a true work of art, and such a rare gift should be celebrated.

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