Pantheon, 2000, 706 pages, C$29.95 tpb, ISBN 0-375-70376-4
Reviewing books on this site for the past few years, I’ve said plenty of ignorant and silly things about a mythical group of “literary types” who would (I imagine) snottily read pretentious literature, pooh-pooh genre fiction and cling to their English Literature degree as if it had any real-world relevance. As I grow older, weaker and softer, I’m ready to admit that this confrontational attitude may not be the best, and that I do no one any favours by opposing the worst clichés of “mainstream literature” to an idealistic image of “genre fiction”. In the real world, isn’t it all middle ground anyway?
Certainly, books like House of Leaves do a lot to bridge the gap between the two mythical groups I have the unfortunate tendency to oppose. At its heart a horror story merged with a suburban romance, Mark Z. Danielewski’s debut novel also earns the distinction of being one of the most playful literary experiment I’ve ever read, all categories combined. A dazzling mixture of book design, subtle jokes, mixed storytelling and erudite writing, it’s also devastatingly effective as a horror novel.
Where to begin to describe the unique features of the book? How about this: all mentions of house in the book’s 706 pages (in all languages) are printed in blue. It has footnotes, footnotes within footnotes, circular footnotes, “transparent footnotes”, sidenotes and endnotes. It purports to be a manuscript studying an eerie film about an impossible house, commented by the discoverer of the manuscript, further commented by the editors of the book. It consciously mixes fonts according to the author, features struck-out passages and accelerates the pacing through fewer words per page during action scenes. Pages are printed sideways, at an angle and upside-down. It includes pictures, letters, manuscripts and tons of spurious references to things that don’t exist.
It is, in short, a book that you can’t read passively. It’s constantly playing along with the audience, daring it to follow as it gets weirder and weirder. One of House of Leaves‘s best aspects is how it gradually reveals its madness, up to a paroxysm where you have to flip over the book frantically to keep up with the action. Wonderful!
What is perhaps more amazing for genre readers is how the low-key terror of the book ends up being far more effective than pure out-and-out gore horror fiction. The uneasiness is introduced so seamlessly in the course of the character’s ordinary life that a 5/16” discrepancy in measurements is almost unbearable. Then delicious shivers start as shelves don’t meet the walls. Latter scenes featuring a multiplicity of closing doors and (later) a wall dissolving in nothingness produce reactions that have everything in common with the best shock horror movies. There’s never been such a haunted-house story before, and there’s seldom been more efficient ones. But you’ll have to read the book to find out why a line like “Ftaires! We haue found ftaires!” [P.414] can produce an audible “whoah!”
It’s not all effective, mind you: As playful as it is, House of Leaves often gives the impression that it’s just screwing with the readers for the author’s own perverse pleasure. Most footnotes are supremely gratuitous, but few are so useless as the ones extending for pages on end, simply enumerating names, places and things that are or aren’t of relevance at this point in the story. Sadly, the book is also overwritten: As a big believer in the “Less is more” philosophy, I could have lived quite well without most of the Johnny Truant passages, or some of the most self-conscious passages that exist solely to demonstrate the author’s erudition.
But it’s easy to forgo even those problems when considering the overall impact of House of Leaves. As a stylistic experiment, it’s not just impressive: It’s compulsively enjoyable. This may not be the most fun you’ll get from a novel this year, but it’s almost guaranteed to be the most fun you’ll have with a novel. (I’m also fascinated by the idea that House of Leaves may be just about impossible to replicate satisfyingly in electronic form for years.) As a genre novel (romance or horror; take your pick), it’s quite good. As a bridge between mainstream and genre, it’s just about perfect. What do you know,maybe it extends forever…