I have a long list of my favorite things I’ve never finished. A very fine copy of “Gravity’s Rainbow” is gathering dust, a bookmark stranded somewhere in the middle of Part I. Metroid Prime is sitting inside my Gamecube’s disk drive, awaiting the defeat of the final titular antagonist. In my fridge, a growing pile of undeveloped Fuji Reala film canisters is starting to overtake the nearby package of soy cheese. It’ll all be finished one of these days.
Somewhere near the top of my unfinished list is Mark Danielewski. Danielewski is the kind of literary aberration that only comes once in a great while, silently slipping his genius in between the wash of disposable contemporary novelists. In fact, it wasn’t until five years after the publication that I found the volume that reigns supreme on my list: House of Leaves. Once I discovered it, however, rarely did a month ever pass without it being abducted from the fiction stacks by yours truly.
House of Leaves follows in the Ergodic tradition of being a wolf in sheep’s clothing. On the surface (read: on the book jacket) it seems so foolishly simple, but once the spine is cracked, the deeper implications become apparent.
House of Leaves follows a multitude of plots and a whole host of characters.
The book is disguised as an academic paper by “Zampano”, a blind researcher writing on the symbolic and historical implications of “The Navidson Record”. The Navidson Record is apparently an obscure documentary about Navidson, an award-winning documenter who has discovered that there’s something odd about the spatial dimensions of his new home. Navidson’s ensuing video documentary, in raw, messy and unbridled steps, begins to bring light to the fact that this house is bigger inside than it is outside. Something is growing in the unnoticed corners- stretched hallways, new doors, an unquenchable blackness.
As the book progresses, however, footnotes begin to appear that have been written by someone else: Johnny Truant, a young lowlife who happened to take Zampano’s manuscript after his death. As the manuscript details the horror of Navidson’s great and empty house, Truant weaves in his tale of his own unraveling sanity. One story echoes another, and soon it is all but impossible to discern one from the other. Footnotes lead to other footnotes which lead to notes hidden in the margins- which in turn refer to volumes and volumes of research- some of which don’t even exist. Each footnote adds a story, an idea, a snippet of a thought.
The effect is disconcerting- where does the academic nature of the work end, and where does the fiction begin? Terrifyingly enough, many of the references in the book are real. Danielewski draws us into the madness with this- the line between fiction and nonfiction is lost in the fine print. Is it a horror story? An analogy of the breakdown of the American nuclear family? A satire on the nature of research documentation? An experiment in typographical style? Each time I read it, it takes on a new face.
A patron once said to me that Finnegans Wake, like the Bible, is one of those books one is never finished reading. The deeper I delve into House of Leaves, the more I feel it is another of the same type. Behind each door is a winding hallway of possibilities and ideas; each exploration unveils another twist, another detail. House of Leaves is less a novel than it is an enigma. It is a multi-faceted artifact that begs us not to complete it in a sitting or a week or a month, but to explore it. It is one of the few books that should remain unfinished for a long time, so that we may better explore its branching caverns and savor each line of its calculated madness. It’s so good that I hope I never finish it.