House of Leaves
A few months back I blogged about Mark Z. Danielewski’s interview at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival. At the time I had only read The Whalestoe Letters, which (although it is meaty enough to stand on its own as a novella) is no more than a appendix to Danielewski’s enormous work House of Leaves.
Danielewski spoke about his influences in that interview:
The book was influenced by everyone from Homer to Steve Erickson, Danielewski said. The experiments with styles and colors of type derived from Apollinaire and Mallarmé, and although he hadn’t read David Foster Wallace when he wrote the book, he knew about his work with footnotes and endnotes. House of Leaves is in some ways a haunted-house story, and in answer to a audience member’s question, Danielewski threw out Poe, Shirley Jackson, Hitchcock, and Stephen King as additional and equally valuable influences.
Having just finished the novel, I would add that it also reminded me of Borges in its obsessive, yet playful concern with questions of fate and infinity, and with the way it worries itself like an intellectual dog with a bone. But for me, the most striking connections were with movies, not books.
House of Leaves, to put it simply, is about a seemingly ordinary house in Virginia that begins to develop inexplicable and sinister new rooms and hallways, and about what happens to those who explore them. The main character is a photojournalist named Will Navidson, and his insistence on carrying out one last solo exploration of the house even when he knows better reminded me of the original film of The Vanishing, still one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen.
House of Leaves centers around a patched-together documentary called The Navidson Record, and I felt positive that Danielewski must have been influenced by The Blair Witch Project. But since Blair Witch came out in 1999 and this enormous novel was published in 2000, that hardly seems possible. The way that the house seems to respond to the psychology of the people who explore it also reminded me of Tarkovsky’s film Solaris—and the Stanislaw Lem novel it is based on.
The footnotes in House of Leaves are an education in themself, and apart from the many fictional documents Danielewski has created (along with fictional interviews with the likes of Camilla Paglia and Harold Bloom, and fictional quips from Leno and Letterman) you could spend some absorbing days chasing down the leads they contain.
For instance, the fictional Navidson is famous for having photographed a starving Sudanese girl being menaced by a vulture. I knew the real-life photo the author was thinking of, but I hadn’t known that the photographer, Kevin Carter, was also the first person to have photographed a necklacing murder in South Africa, and that only a few months after he won the Pulitzer Prize for his photo, he committed suicide at the age of 33.
The typographical and metafictional games in this novel help keep you moving through its 700 pages, but what really grips you is the way Danielewski shows you the desperate and peculiar ways that the member of one family, and their friends and lovers, cope with something that is far beyond them. When the visual and linguistic games take over entirely, as they appear to do in the author’s next book Only Revolutions, the result is (as he says himself) impenetrable.