House of Leaves
by Mark Z. Danielewski
Published by Pantheon
710 pages, 2000
This Weird Old House
Reviewed by David Middleton
The trouble all starts over a quarter of
an inch. Will Navidson, his partner Karen Green and their
two children move from the city and take up residence in an
old house in the Virginia countryside. Navidson, a Pulitzer
prize-winning photojournalist, decides to put his career on
hold in an attempt to save his disintegrating relationship
with his family. But for Navidson -- "Navy" to his friends
-- work is never far behind. He decides to document the move
and occupancy of the house by mounting video cameras in
every room -- often carrying one himself -- to record his
family and how they adapt to their new environment.
At first it is a difficult and annoying read, riddled
with extensive -- and at times unintelligible -- footnotes
by editors, aforementioned slacker Johnny Truant and
Zampanò himself. But about 40 pages in, I didn't want
to stop. In fact, couldn't stop for fear that I would lose
my already tenuous hold on the book's twisted reality.
Zampanò's dry, almost emotionless treatise and
Truant's drugged-out, often ill-worded rants couldn't be
farther apart in both style and structure and Danielewski
slips effortlessly between narratives and voices with
jarring and head spinning effect.
In one continuous shot, Navidson, whom we never actually see, momentarily focuses on a doorway on the north wall of his living room before climbing outside of the house through a window to the east of that door, where he trips slightly in the flower bed, redirects the camera from the ground to the exterior white clapboard, then moves right, crawling back inside the house through a second window, this time to the west of that door, where we hear him grunt slightly as he knocks his head on the sill, eliciting light laughter from those in the room, presumably Karen, his brother Tom, and his friend Billy Reston -- though like Navidson, they too never appear on camera -- before finally returning us to the starting point, thus completely circling the doorway and so proving, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that insulation or siding is the only possible thing this doorway could lead to, which is when all laughter stops, as Navidson's hand appears in frame and pulls open the door, revealing a narrow black hallway at least ten feet long, prompting Navidson to re-investigate, once again leading us on another circumambulation of this strange passageway, climbing in and out of the windows, pointing the camera to where the hallway should extend but finding nothing more than his own backyard -- no ten foot protuberance, just rose bushes, a muddy dart gun, and the translucent summer air -- in essence an exercise in disbelief which despite his best intentions still takes Navidson back inside that impossible hallway, until as the camera begins to move closer, threatening this time to actually enter it, Karen snaps, "Don't you dare go in there again, Navy," to which Tom adds, "Yeah, not such a hot idea," thus arresting Navidson at the threshold, though he still puts his hand inside, finally retracting and inspecting it, as if by seeing alone there might be something more to feel, Reston wanting to know if his friend does sense something different, and Navidson providing the matter-of-fact answer which also serves as the conclusion, however abrupt, to this bizarre short: "It's freezing in there."
According to its press, House of Leaves originally started out as "... nothing more than a badly bundled heap of paper, parts of which would occasionally surface on the Internet," which was being passed around among a small assortment of devotees and has only just been brought together into a cohesive whole in book form. From the ominous dedication: "This is not for you," through to its gooseflesh-raising conclusion, Danielewski's first novel House of Leaves is frighteningly stunning, shockingly fresh and will forever change the way I view the dark. | May 2000
David Middleton is the art director of January Magazine. He hasn't been afraid of the dark since he built a glow-in-the-dark Frankenstein monster when he was 10 and then left it by his bed one night.