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Spotlight on: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves
Mark Danielewski is either a genius or a certifiable maniac. I've never experienced a book anything like House of Leaves. It is certainly the most interactive experience I've ever had reading a book.
For the uninitiated, House of Leaves is a multi-layered book with a history. Passed around the internet (according to the notes), it gained a cult following among the misfits who most identified with the struggles of Johnny Truant, tattoo artist and general layabout. I'll describe the book's contents as basically as possible: Will Navidson and his family moved into a house in Virginia to find that a door that was supposed to contain a closet, actually opened up into an area of hallways, stairwells, and unpredictability. Realistically, the room should not have been there, as the door was on the side of the house and a film made by Navidson showed that nothing was on the other side of the wall but the yard.
Navidson and friends explore the area and film their exploits into what became known as The Navidson Record. A blind man named Zampanò wrote (or rather dictated) an academic exploration of the film in a book of the same name. His descriptions of the film and other people's thoughts on it comprise the bulk of House of Leaves.
After Zampanò's death, his neighbor, Johnny Truant, found the manuscript in pieces in his apartment and spent a lot of time compiling it into readable form. While doing this, he took the opportunity to comment on various sections (via footnotes) that related--however tangentially--to his own life. These footnotes range from sentence fragments to several pages. This is a second story separate from the Navidson tale, but as the Navidson tale is often so suspenseful within its telling, Johnny's life story is a nice break. Also, where Zampanò's writing is very dry and terse, Truant's is, of necessity, off the cuff and very stream-of-consciousness, which, considering Johnny Truant's different states of consciousness, is an experience in itself.
A second editor also appears and makes comments on both Zampanò's and Truant's various comments in a third font style in the footnotes, thus making the reader keep up with three very different voices that can change at will at any point in the narrative.
Another difficulty in reading House of Leaves is that the formatting is not always consistent. Often there are only a few words per page, or they'll be upside down, or coming from the corner fo the page, or a footnote will appear in the middle of several pages, or whatever Danielewski happened to dream up at the time. Plus, the word "house" always appears in blue, no matter its use. Even on the cover, see? Strange and thrilling, mostly because I don't understand it.
Further drawing you into his strange world are the appendices at the end of the book, containing notes, photographs, excerpts, clippings, and other manifestations of the story of the house on Ash Tree Lane and Will Navidson's trek through it, Zampanò's obsession with it, and Johnny Truant's disdain of anything unlike it.
But as much as this may seem like a turnoff, this is exactly what attracted me to the book in the first place. House of Leaves is a book for the reader who wants to be challenged by a book, to have his/her way of thinking twisted for a while. The reader who wants no part of reading to be difficult is going to be instantly turned off by this book. That person just needs to stay in their little house, going about their business, and never come near Danielewski's book.
The rest of you--the one's you got here by typing "House of Leaves" or "Mark Danielewski" into your search engines--are the ones that this book was written for. Step forward, steel yourself for the blow, and acquire yourself a copy of this book. You think David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest with all its hundreds of endnotes was challenging? Good. Now you're ready to take the next step. Welcome to the House of Leaves. Come on in.
And if those layers aren't enough for your experience of House of Leaves, try popping in Mark Danielewski's sister Poe's album, Haunted. Both that book and this album had the same original catalyst--the death of their father, director Tad Danielewski (Poe's birth name was Annie Danielewski).
It's a real trip to experience one and then the other because then all the inter-references, allusions, and similarities come out. One of the first lyrics of the title song is "Here in November in this house of leaves I'll pray." There's also a track of that name and a song that refers to an important reference in the book, the "Five and a Half Minute Hallway." (Reading the epilogue sheds even more light on the similarities, leading one to believe that they exist together in their own separate mythology. And I just love that kind of stuff.)
Listened to separately from House of Leaves--which is the way I first experienced it--Haunted is a terrific concept album. Each track blends into the next via interesting segués and the songs are peppered with recordings of Danielewski pere either teaching or ostensibly berating his children, often including Poe's own childhood voice in response. It is an almost voyeuristic trip into the singer's present and past.
Haunted was recorded exclusively in digital format, with Poe often changing pieces of songs around--even after recording was complete--up until the last minute. She said in an interview that, for example, if a guitar part worked better in one song than another, she would simply move it. In effect, she has made a collage of sounds that, while really independent of one another, are made to fit in the best possible way.
Poe has made an extremely bare and exposed album, as well. I sometimes get uncomfortable with the amount of information that is shared through the music--sometimes the level of pain is overwhelming. But, with this in mind, the trip is entirely worth it and Haunted is an album I revisit often. In fact, I was so impressed for a long time that I put off writing a review of it. In its own way, it is the modern pinnacle of concept recording, a personal operetta unto itself. Where House of Leaves is a fictionalized response to a traumatic event, Haunted is non-fiction rock at its most raw.
(Email me and let me know what you think.)