Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is ambitiously postmodern on the scale of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996). Both are long, convoluted novels with multiple strands of narrative, lots of footnotes, and much self-consciousness in their use of literary form. While Wallace explored the theme of the addictiveness of popular culture in the context of Alcoholics Anonymous, Danielewski writes in the gothic tradition of Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft as filtered through the mock documentary format of the film The Blair Witch Project (1999). The novel’s structure has affinities with Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) in its creation of an alternative universe and James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) in its use of multiple styles to add layers of meaning to the story. In essence, House of Leaves is a horror novel that uses page layout for suspense and pseudoscholarship to add a sense of the literary heritage behind blood and gore.
Danielewski’s narrative gradually unfolds under several layers of exegesis. Johnny Truant, a young drug-addled character who works in a Los Angeles tattoo parlor, stumbles upon a trunk full of papers in the smelly apartment of a recently deceased old blind man named Zampanò. Gradually growing obsessed with the manuscript, Truant decides to edit Zampanò’s work, adding long digressive footnotes reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov’s fictionalized editor in Pale Fire (1962). Meanwhile, Zampanò’s papers describe a documentary entitled The Navidson Record, made by Will Navidson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative photojournalist. The Navidson Record recounts the story of a house that defies the laws of physics by opening into an alternative universe, a huge underground frozen maze of corridors and empty rooms covering miles and miles. Navidson’s five explorations into that space provide the kernel adventure around which all the other “texts” (such as critical commentary, Truant’s footnotes, and other addenda) revolve. Part of the pleasure of the novel lies in teasing out thematic connections between the different layers of discourse. Thus, the novel is a kind of assemble-it-yourself kit of fragments that obliges readers to synthesize information across a wide range of sources, providing a kind of information overload familiar to anyone who has surfed the Internet.
The core story concerns a man’s quest to explore the supernatural interior of a house in Virginia. Will Navidson initially intends to make a documentary about his family adjusting to a new home. He plants motion-sensitive video cameras in the rooms and starts filming happy family scenes, but the house quickly begins to tell another story altogether. As in the case of Stephen King’s The Shining(1980), the house has a sinister personality of its own. It can create inner spaces that defy the laws of physics. This phenomenon, known as “little/big” in fantasy fiction circles, begins innocuously enough with a closet that has about one quarter-inch of space inside of it that is physically impossible according to any measurement outside the house. Intrigued, Navidson brings in some specialists to try to figure out where his calculations could have gone wrong, but he then discovers in the closet a freezing, absolutely pitch-dark corridor that leads to a maze of empty rooms and larger corridors and eventually a gigantic spiral staircase that seems to drop down to the center of the earth. Insofar as the closet faces the outside wall of the house, none of this interior should exist, and when he and other men explore it, the dimensions of the place tend to shift mysteriously, leading the men into a tomblike expanse that proves dangerous. The Navidson Record recounts the various exhibitions into this space and the adventures the men encounter.
In his discussion of The Navidson Record, Zampanò brings in mock scholarship from commentators that range from Jacques Derrida to guests on the Today show. By inventing authoritative voices reacting to the documentary, the novel ironically cultivates its myth of global importance. Early on, Zampanò writes, by way of introduction:
These days, with the unlikely prospect of any sort of post-release resolution or revelation, Navidson’s film seems destined to achieve at most cult status. Good story telling alone will guarantee a healthy sliver of popularity in the years to come but its inherent strangeness will permanently bar it from any mainstream interest.
Danielewski not only defines the response to his work in advance but also helps bring about the cult following his novel has since received. He is masterful at mimicking the critical feeding frenzy of a culture eager...
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