By Lisa Black
Twenty-one years ago when I first picked up Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves from the library on my way to work, I couldn’t resist taking a peek at it after the office had emptied. By the end of the introduction I found myself reading aloud, delighting in the mesmerizing, lyrical prose and the plot that is both impenetrable and yet as down-to-earth realistic as a documentary (which it purports to be).
The text is difficult to describe, a story within a story within a story, yet not as confusing as that sounds. Story #1: Intrepid photojournalist Will Navidson retires to a pretty house in a smaller town after his wife Karen gives him an ultimatum: stay home and be a husband and father to our two kids, or we’re gone. At first all is well, until a door appears in a wall that hadn’t been there before. It leads to a short hallway between two rooms, that’s all. Nothing threatening, only…impossible. They could almost live with that, except that other walls tend to move an inch or two when nobody’s looking and the hallway grows, turns, leads to other rooms, caverns, and an apparently bottomless spiral staircase. Will comes close to getting lost in his own house, prompting another ultimatum: Don’t go in there.
Will calls in reinforcements—his brother, past colleagues, and experts in climbing and exploration. They try to logically and methodically discover and document what is happening.
But that’s not the genius of the writing. Yes, it’s a ‘haunted’ house book, but it’s so much more. Will’s agony at having to leave the intrepid exploring to other men, especially one who does not hide his glee at the role reversal. Karen’s desperation to hold her family together and keep a father for her children in light of her own past traumas. The easygoing brother, the vastly less successful sibling. Even the two kids, unaware and yet hyper-aware of the tensions in the house.
These accounts are analyzed, beautifully, in a manuscript written by an old man known only as Zampano, which is Story #2. His work is beyond thorough, quoting (and footnoting…lots of footnotes) the different articles written on the case as well as works of philosophy and science. Zampano is already dead when we meet him, having died of old age…except there are deep scratches in the floor next to his body, which are noticed by Johnny—who is Story #3.
Johnny is the opposite of Will Navidson: a nice enough but aimless pot-smoking young man with a dead-end job at a tattoo parlor who’s given to thorough and x-rated descriptions of his sex life. Through a buddy he collects the manuscript for no real reason and adds his own footnotes, which tell both his history and his reaction to Stories #1 and #2. Johnny is as hilariously unfiltered as Zampano is intellectual, and if this is all sounding like it’s too much work, I can assure you it isn’t.
Zampano’s work continues with his uber-intellectual analysis of the inexplicable, including digressions and supporting quotes from works (some real, some not) on a range of topics from architecture to philosophy. However, though the prose is utterly rational, the actual printed words begin to veer. Every mention of the word ‘house’ is in blue ink, not black. Footnotes are no longer relegated to the bottom of the page but appear in a side panel, then a square in the center of the page, then with a reflection which appears in the square on the next page as if seen in a mirror. Then the body text begins to show odd gaps and skipped lines, and soon large sections of the page are blank. The narrators of all three stories are determined to tell them in a logical, straight-forward manner—but the book itself is falling into madness and taking us with it.
Now, reading this twenty years later as a published author, I can only think that this must have been a tremendously expensive book to publish. And Danielewski was a debut author. How did he ever talk an editor into this?
Of course, this overnight success did not occur overnight. He spent seven years at a variety of jobs until a young agent fell in love with the book, offering it to thirty-two publishers before Pantheon decided to accept the challenge. All thirty-two had to have the same reaction: It’s either a work of genius or the work of someone who thinks he’s a genius and believes that if he drowns us in prose, we’ll think so too. Either way, it would cost too much to produce.
And yet it was. So, aspiring writers, take heart. If your story doesn’t fit in a neat marketing box, if your writing doesn’t always stay inside the lines, if agent after agent says ‘I just wouldn’t know what to do with this’—don’t give up. Good writing will find the light of day.
What would you say is the most unusual book you’ve ever encountered?