Book Review: Revisiting Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000, Pantheon Books)

Written for the Et Cetera.

“This is not for you,” read the only words on the first page of Mark Z. Danielewski’s seminal debut House of Leaves.

It’s not the only time we encounter a single sentence, a single word – or in many cases, no words at all – throughout the 700 pages of the now-cult status novel. Words are frequently placed so as to climb to the top of the page, or to appear fractured and disjointed, or to simply crawl along the bottom of the page for frenzied and constant page-turning.  Toying with the customs of text layout is just one of the ways that House of Leaves strives to defy the unspoken etiquette of traditional storytelling.

To focus on the novelties of its aesthetic, however, is to be distracted from one of the most elaborate and manically schizophrenic pieces of fiction in modern literature.

Easier experienced than explained, Danielewski’s twisting narrative centers around the cultural phenomenon of a house that is bigger inside than it is on the outside, and is recounted and picked apart through various fictionalized records, scientific analyses and personal journals of those involved with and affected by the anomaly.  Fertile ground for another half-baked fantasy rag, you might say – but House’s careful revelation of its evil lends itself to the kind of horror and moral terror that would feel right at home in one of Stephen King’s earlier works.

But it’s not a horror story.

As cold and eerily methodical as Danielewski can get, he can’t hide his tendencies towards the romantic, the somber and the introspective. As the pages turn, House reveals itself to be something of a love story, in fact. The prominent voices of photojournalist-cum-explorer Will Navidson, pseudonymised schizoid junkie “Johnny Truant” and the frenetic archivist Zampano command empathy without ever feeling forced or trite. Alternating between seamless and deliberately jarring tonal shifts, and tinkering with the conventional construct of story without ever becoming a convention itself, it reads like an academic journal from the pen of a poet.

And then there are the talking heads: The scattered and seemingly random interjections of scientists, investigative journalists, even authors and filmmakers as they chime in on what the living paradox means to them (a fictionalized Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King himself even make appearances), often disagreeing with one another or focusing in on laughably insignificant details of the existing records. Danielewski’s subtle humour lends the otherwise grave circumstances a level of playfulness that one rarely finds in modern fiction. It’s a smirking caricature of academic criticism, and it prevents the more analytical passages from feeling too one-note.

Perhaps most importantly – especially in the case of horror – House is decisive in never explaining the origins or motivations of its faceless antagonist. Danielewski seems to understand that the threat of the unknown is the most powerful tool for fear, and that the threat dissolves almost completely when its “what” or “why” is made clear. House keeps its curtains drawn and its shades pulled, refusing to wrap its malice into an easily digestible archetype. Those who like their fiction neatly packaged with a bow on top would do well to steer clear.

It’s common for debuts like this one to collapse under the weight of their own ambition: They can be too confusing, too invested in their own mythology, and for the most part, way too long. Danielewski, however, seems to have hit the colloquial sweet spot with an even distribution of terror, love and humour that anyone willing to suspend their preconceptions about storytelling can find engaging.

Tampering with the sacred aesthetics of text aside, House’s intricate universe turns the predictable box of conventional narrative into a complex Rubik’s cube.

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