I’m finding myself struggling through Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. I’m not sure why. It’s utterly beautiful, intriguing; a dark, labyrinthine story within a story within a story. And yet still I find myself struggling, barely getting through more than a couple of pages at a time. The structure of the book is a challenge, sending me up and down, forwards and backwards through a maze of footnotes, endnotes, translations, appendices and exhibits… most of which turn out to lead nowhere at all, like wrong turns in a maze. It moves between segments of critical analysis, and stream-of-consciousness interior monologue as it alternates narration. One quote in particular resonated with my slow progress:
“Si on lit trop vite oú trop doucement, on n’entend.”
(If one reads too quickly or too slowly, one understands nothing.)
So, time to pick up the pace. This is a book that deserves study, journaling. Every time I open it, I find something new – a beautiful turn of phrase, an unfamiliar word, a literary allusion to be explored, or a clue to the book’s interwoven layers of mystery. I’ve only made it through 120 odd pages, but already I have so many thoughts on the text as it draws me deeper and deeper into it.
The story itself embodies a trope common to many horror films: husband and wife with a strained marriage and two young children move into a new house in the suburbs that hides a sinister secret. However, it is made unique by the framing of the text. House of Leaves is three stories in one. The main body of the text concerns a fictional film, The Navidson Record, produced by photojournalist Will Navidson and his wife, Karen Green, to document their experiences in their new house. The documentary is described through the lens of a critical analysis by the academic, Zampanó, which is in turn found in the deceased author’s house by waylaid tattooist Johnny Truant, who provides his own parallel narration in the footnotes as he pieces together Zampanó’s text. (It’s hard to make this sound less convoluted.) A story within a story within a story.
As the characters begin to explore their unusual house, the horror creeps up on the reader slowly, quietly, both momentarily redirected and foreshadowed by Zampanó’s segues. In one of my favourite chapters so far, Zampanó discusses acoustic theory alongside the myth of Echo and Narcissus.
“Myth makes Echo the subject of longing and desire. Physics makes Echo the subject of distance and design. Where emotion and reason are concerned both claims are accurate.
And where there is no Echo there is no description of space or love.
There is only silence.”
This evokes both the distance and silence in Navidson’s relationship with his wife, and the limitless, silent space that the house occupies: a space outside of regular space and time, impenetrable by light and sound. The house presents a domestic horror, one that threatens mundane and ordinarily comforting institutions like “family” and “home” as it throws its walls between them.
The structure of the text is disruptive, sending the reader through a web of footnotes that break up paragraphs, interrupt sentences with Johnny Truant’s narration of the strange happenings in his own life as he uncovers the mysteries of Zampanó’s manifesto, text that reads upside down, back to front, diagonally, occupies only the edges of the pages, or paragraphs that become smaller and smaller and smaller from page to page to mimic the psychological experience of the characters. This structure throws the reader into the strange dimensions of the house, into the confusion of the book’s subjects as they try to piece together this spatial enigma.
This is a story about so many things. It is a metaphysical horror, a rumination on existential philosophy, classic literature and Greek mythology. It is a story about a family, a marriage, a love. A house that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, and a journey into unknown places. Most of all, this is a novel about space, both interior and exterior, both physical and spiritual, occupying the dark, secret ambages that within the walls of our selves.
“This desire for exteriority is no doubt further amplified by the utter blackness found within.”
I’ll update as I work my way further through the text. If anyone else has read this incredible book, I would love to hear your thoughts. And if you haven’t, read it!