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House of Leaves

by Mark Z. Danielewski

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Some novels experiment with language or plot or
chronology. But how about a work of fiction that
takes typography to the next level?

I can tell that you’re hesitant. Okay, could I interest
you in an exciting novel featuring heroes who combat
the ultimate evil . . . a house with lots of extra space?
And I mean
lots of space.

Hmmm, still not taking the bait. But wait, there’s more
(as the infomercial announcer says). This book also features a
hidden code in the footnotes, and it spells out secret messages for
those who figure out the rules. It includes a pioneering index—yes,
full of mistakes;  I’ll admit the page numbers were hastily compiled
—but which lavishes readers with entries for
and, in, so, dark and
all, among others.  Starting on page 64, the author provides the
longest list of photographers outside of the master files at Getty
Images. The inside covers can double as a random number
generator. Hell, this book even has words in different
colors. And I
save the best for last: there are several pages that you can’t read
without a mirror.

Wait! Don’t run away!

Okay, I’ll admit it. It’s not easy to pitch
House of Leaves, Mark Z.
Danielewski’s strange magnum opus, to the skeptical. And this
book can be so frustrating, that there were times I wanted to toss
it out the window, and let the gardener rake it up.
House of Leaves,
please meet pile of leaves.

Any yet . . . And yet . . .this is also a feverishly creative book
unlike any other you have encountered. If I hadn’t persevered with
this volume from beginning to end, I would never have believed that
a novel in the new millennium could hold so many surprises. Don’t
let the gimmicks—and, yes, there are lots of gimmicks here—fool
House of Leaves is an exhilarating, spooky, mind-bending

But this book is not for the faint of heart. I’m not just talking about
the macabre Stephen King-ish atmosphere in this iconoclastic novel
—which is downright creepy at times. Even more striking is the way
this book forces readers out of their comfort zone. Danielewski gives
you no quarter, no place to hide. There are a handful of books I
have encountered over the years—such as Heidegger’s
Being and
or Joyce’s Ulysses or Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow—that
possess a “will to power,” an ambition to dominate the reader. You
must address books of this sort on their own terms, or not at all.
House of Leaves is one of those works. It sets its own rules, and
you can play or walk away, but not much in-between.

For those who are patient in tackling this monster, Danielewski
delivers a brilliant conventional novella in epistolary form toward
the close of his book. This section has been published separately
The Whalestoe Letters, and is well worth reading if you don’t
have the courage to enter the whole House of Leaves. Yet don’t
kid yourself: this incisive story-within-a-story only gives you the
smallest glimpse of what this author has constructed.

And what has he constructed? Take a night in the funhouse with
the doors locked. Mix in the mutterings of mad academic pushed
over the brink by a persnickety tenure committee. Add footage from
a surrealistic film auteur, the worldview of a tattoo artist, the
metaphysics of fortune-teller, the tricks of a vengeful print shop
devil. Simmer over a fire of burning reference books. Spice with
various fonts. That is the closest I can get to describing
House of

For someone like me, who doesn’t skim or speed read fiction, the
only thing scarier than reading
House of Leaves is the idea of re-
reading it. Yet I am tempted to do so, if only to consider some of
the alternative angles to this text. You could read this book as a
savage commentary on literary and artistic criticism. You could
read it as a verbal equivalent of a labyrinth, or as some sort of a
Borgesian nightmare brought to life. You might look at the genre-
oriented aspects of the story, and classify it as a horror tale or a
romance or a Philip-K-Dick-sian exploration of a universe gone
crazy. There are many doors into
House of Leaves, although I am
still unsure about the exits. Put simply, in an age that has a fetish
over deconstructing the text, this is one text that will keep you busy
for a long, long time.

Connoisseurs of “serious fiction” have mostly given this book the
cold shoulder, but I think they might just be afraid. Who can blame
House of Leaves runs counter to almost everything praised
or promoted in the current literary environment, where even the
most daring writers seem happy to follow the rules, stick to the
established norms of narrative fiction. Danielewski has brought a
unicorn to the dog show, and all the other pet owners are scowling.

Yes, there have been imitators—check out the cutting parody,
House of Pancakes or, even better, read Steven Hall’s The Raw
Shark Texts which shows that Danielewski’s model can inspire
punchy commercial fiction. But there is only one
House of Leaves.
Don’t just take my word for it. On your next long trip, make sure it's
the only book you bring along . . . if you dare.
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