With so many competitors out there, an aspiring novelist needs a strong talent or an original slant to rise above the hoard. Mark Z. Danielewski seems to have both. It’s difficult to imagine a more original and distinctive novel than his House of Leaves. At first glance, it seems to reject most precepts of narrative structure. Remarks by various narrators and commentators appear in different typefaces; there are hundreds of sly footnotes; on some pages the text runs sideways or at an angle; and occasionally there’s only a word or two on a page. One page consists of three measures of music. Toward the back there is a collection of quotations, including a passage from Homer in five different languages. The book ends with an alphabetical index to, apparently, every major word in the entire text.
While these narrative games are all good fun, House of Leaves adds up to more than playfulness. As it should be in such a nightmarish fantasy, what appears to be a barrier is actually a gateway. Like Joyce and Proust, Danielewski isn’t rejecting narration as much as customizing and turbo-charging it. For one thing, he invents several layers of narrators. The author’s name doesn’t even appear on the title page; it’s opposite it, reading "Mark Z. Danielewski’s," with the title page following: "House of Leaves, by Zampano, with Introduction and Notes by Johnny Truant." And the whole thing is a commentary on a homemade film documentary by a man named Navidson. Straightforward this book isn’t, but it is amusing, challenging, and terrifying.
Usually the appearance of a first novel is the public culmination of a long, silent apprenticeship. "I’ve been writing my whole life," Danielewski says, on the phone from his home in California. "My father was an avant-garde filmmaker, very much an intellectual. My mother wasn’t as formally intellectual as he was, but they were always in favor of seeing movies, reading books, and always bringing those subjects into long discourses at the table. My father had been steeped in the 1950s, the literature of the modernists. So certainly the discussions of Freud and Nietzsche and Borges and Sartre were all part of what we discussed and fought about."
Danielewski’s firm grounding in the canon shows in House of Leaves. The central image of the book — a house that is much larger on the inside than on the outside — is very much a Borgesian conceit, and the layering of narrators and cheeky asides bring to mind Nabokov. As the horrors accumulate inside the house, there will be moments when you will think you are reading the unnatural love child of Lewis Carroll and H. P. Lovecraft.
Apparently Danielewski has always confidently ignored readers’ expectations. He wrote his first book at the age of 10. "It was called The Hell-Hole," he remembers. "It was one of those things where we all sat around and made a New Year’s resolution, and I said, ‘I’m gonna write a book.’ I said I was going to write one page a day, and I never altered from that. In the end I had a 360-page book, which I rewrote a little. It was about a young kid who grows up in New York City, becomes a cocaine addict, beats the hell out of a cop, and goes to prison — which was the hell-hole. It was pretty brutal. My father thought it was immoral, and my mother was deeply disturbed. And they basically just didn’t want to talk about it."
He didn’t discuss the manuscript with anyone for at least three years, until he showed it to a high school teacher. Because he used one of the few four-letter words still verboten in prime time, she declared that he had written a dirty book. "I became incredibly wary about showing my work to anyone," Danielewski admits. But he didn’t stop writing. "That was the odd thing, that the force, the will to write, was always far stronger than the criticism that came my way. When I was at Yale, I was rejected at every writing seminar I applied to."
Part of House of Leaves also has its roots in concrete poetry, the tiny subgenre of poetry in which the typographical arrangement of words on the page reflects the topic of the poem. The words to a poem about time, for example, can be arranged in the shape of an hourglass. In House of Leaves, when a character is crawling down a narrow tunnel, the page’s layout shrinks to a claustrophobic band of words. There are many such moments. Danielewski explains: "My view of placing text on the page — aside from being influenced by the likes of E. E. Cummings or maybe some John Cage — was actually cinematic. The point wasn’t just to get really obtuse in the placement of the word. I was very interested in how the reader moves through a book. I’ve never talked to anyone who didn’t feel a sense of elation when they’d read, say, 80 pages in an hour, because something was moving quickly — or expressed some sort of frustration because it took them an hour to read ten pages. So I began to realize that cinema has an enormous foundation of theories on how to control the viewer’s perception of a film." There are passages in which Danielewski’s attitude toward prose seems to echo Hitchcock’s approach to film as collage. His text moves like a camera, slowing down, speeding up, turning corners, zooming, panning, fading.
As he talks about his book, Danielewski doesn’t tell the usual horror stories about the world of publishing. "The book may have started off in solitary confinement," he says, "but I had really a wonderful group of people to help finish it. And we all managed to spit and hiss and finally get together. They called me three days ago with one final question about the blues on the book." Blues are the photographic pages that get shipped to the printer in the final stage of preparing the manuscript for publication. House of Leaves isn’t a typographical maelstrom like Finnegan’s Wake, but its idiosyncratic layout hides countless traps for unwary copy editors and typesetters. "That’s why it was a huge process," Danielewski says. "After the manuscript was purchased, it took two years to really finish the book. I was involved, thanks to Pantheon, in the entire process, all the way from copy editing to layout." He laughs. "The good news is that I got to do it all, and the bad news is that if there’s anything you don’t like, it’s my fault."
Michael Sims is the author of Darwin’s Orchestra and two science books for children.