Saturday, January 16, 2010

Book Review: House of Leaves

The following is the first of what I hope will be many book reviews written by a guest reviewer. Thanks so much to Caroline and to other followers of The Elephant's Bookshelf who've said they would like to write reviews. ~ Matt

House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski
Review by Caroline Hagood

Every once in a while, a reader falls in love with a different kind of fiction that changes how we as readers (and writers) think about characters.

In House of Leaves, Mark Danielewski uses the house in the title as a trope for the challenges of written testimony. Here, he has secured himself a space outside of time and narrative from which to survey both.

The inner flap reads: “House of Leaves by Zampanò with introduction and notes by Johnny Truant,” (two of the characters) with no mention of Danielewski. This is followed by an introduction from an edgy countercultural youth (Truant) who claims to have found a collection of writings in the home of an old man who has recently died (Zampanò).

The papers he finds are Zampanò’s scholarly analysis of The Navidson Record, a documentary by yet another one of Danielewski's characters, the world-renowned photojournalist, Will Navidson. The film catalogues Navidson's exploration of the house he moves into on Ash Tree Lane that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

With input and copious footnotes from still more authors and critics real and imagined, the text addresses the physical and psychological world that Navidson examines. The quality that makes Navidson’s house different from the average home is that it suddenly develops new doors, staircases, and hallways; this tortuous structure becomes the novel’s central metaphor for writing.

The labyrinth at the heart of the novel is not only a single location that the characters explore, but also a symbol of the intricate structural composition of the narratives of each of the authors, including Truant, Zampanò, Danielewski, Navidson, and even Navidson's wife, Karen, who also contributes a short film to the novel’s roster of texts.

Since the majority of the critics and authors mentioned either do not exist, or exist but did not say what the novel claims they did, House of Leaves critiques writing's truth claims when it comes to representing individual and communal history.

Danielewski is not at all interested in our progressing right-side-up trip through his literary phantasmagoria. Clearly, authorship is being turned on its head as unstable meaning is filtered through multiple creators. But how do we read a book like this? Easy: we have to change the way we read.

Danielewski is not concerned that we locate an answer; rather, he wants us to note how each new interpretation changes the labyrinth of the narrative structure. In this way, Danielewski demonstrates that the trajectory of history, or present reality, can be altered.

That one writer’s analysis is not an absolute truth is made clear to us as readers of a heap of invented criticism. In a novel that comprises stories from multiple authors, as well as criticisms of these authors that we are forced to engage with as though they were, like us, real outside readers, we are confronted with the changeable nature of written "truth."

In the end, the house represents not merely language but metalanguage. It is the commentary on all stories, both fictional and historical; it's a chance to rewrite reading, writing, and history.

Caroline Hagood is a poet and writer living in New York City. She has written on books, film, and culture for Film International, Film-Philosophy, Film Catcher, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Campus Progress, The Journal of Popular Culture, The DVD Lounge, in her own column on writing for Blogcritics, and her own blog, Culture Sandwich, among others. Her poetry has appeared in Shooting the Rat (Hanging Loose Press), Movin' (Orchard Books), Oxymoron, Angelic Dynamo and Ginosko. This is her first review for The Elephant's Bookshelf.


jmartinlibrary said...

"literary phantasmagoria." If the book is half as lush and intriguing as this review, I'm in.

Nice analysis.

Brian James said...

Thanks..sounds interesting like some interesting ideas in here. Perhaps a little too post-modernist for my tastes, but interesting nonetheless. Form the review, it feels a little like Umberto Eco's works, no?

Matt Sinclair said...

I've not read it myself, either. But I will certainly check it out. I think Caroline did a fine job with the review. I'm looking forward to others from her and from any followers or newcomers.

All are welcome, all are welcome.

caroline_hagood said...

Thanks for the feedback everyone, and thanks to Matt for publishing the review. I definitely think there's an Umberto Eco feel to the book. When you read it, you get that same sense that the author is trying to include everything he knows into one book.

Matt Sinclair said...

He's another writer I need to read. I have some of his books but simply haven't cracked them open.

Thanks again, Caroline, for your review, which has been well received!

missingno said...

The book is good

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks, and I appreciate your commenting on this post. We intend to do more book reviews in 2013. Hope you come back. :-)