It is a curious thing to have a chat with a book store manager who is ardently recommending a book to a customer. I was such a lucky customer, and upon browsing the book being recommended to me, I was amazed to see the text artfully laid out on the creamy pages. Mirrored text, inverted text, scattered text, text grouped in tight squares, text running at the bottom of the page, and text forming circles. This is what I came to know later as an example of ergodic literature.
It is a curious thing to see a single word printed in a different color. House, haus, maison, domus are all rendered in blue. Further scanning revealed footnotes on footnotes, extensive appendices, full-color collages, and index. I was sold, so to speak, but I didn’t manage to read this book after two years.
House of Leaves (2000) is popularly known as a terrifying story about a house that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. That is only one layer of narrative because that surface story is just as expansive as the story that happens outside of it, which is definitely bigger. Such stories upon stories, I feel, demand to be read with a support group. To be blunt about it, there are three main story arcs:
- The Navidson Record, a documentary film that deals with the aforementioned house and the family that inhabits,
- The story of Zampano, a writer who, upon his death, leaves behind the manuscript of an academic and critical study of The Navidson Record, and
- The story of Johnny Truant, a tattoo shop employee who stumbles upon the aforementioned manuscript.
There are many references and parallelisms with the myth of the Minotaur and his labyrinth, which one might find really interesting. The Minotaur references are supposed to be not there, according to Johnny Truant, but even if the text about it were successfully removed, one would still detect them.
The narrative style depends on which text the reader is on. The Navidson Record reads like an expository report. It presents a lot of details that one might feel are irrelevant until the thesis is presented. An example is a discussion on the physics of sound. How fast does sound travel? How soon is an echo created? How far is the source of an echo once it reaches the ears? Once the formulas and the factors are presented, the reader, as a parent, will realize the horror of hearing his or her own children’s echoing voices, who are just playing at a seemingly nearby part of the house.
Additional story arcs are left for the readers for their own theories, which are best discussed with a support group. Although this book can be read alone like any other book, the urge to discuss this after is going to start aching, an ache that demands to be soothed with the balm of a book discussion.
The artistry of the text’s layout may strike the distrusting reader as gimmicky and pretentious, but this has its purpose. It serves as the cinematography of the book, creating images in the reader’s head and an illusion for the eyes. To illustrate, some text is cramped in a tight square at the center of the page, a square that gets smaller and smaller as the character crawls through a tunnel that gets smaller and smaller until he is squirming through it on his belly. This creates not only an illusory tunnel but a feeling akin to claustrophobia.
Another example is that as the characters get lost, the text runs on the top, bottom, or edges of the page, with footnotes jumping at each other, thus making the reader just as lost as the characters in this labyrinthine reading. One may dismiss it as drivel, but it does work.
The not Kindle-friendly design demands some skill from the publisher, but more skill is demanded from the author, Mark Z. Danielewski. It actually requires a different kind of talent and intellect to put together this seemingly mashed up pulp and let the reader make sense out of it. One is always on the lookout for any coded text, suspicious misspellings, or any winking clues that are left at various places. One wonders if this indeed is a début novel.
As if that task were not daunting yet challenging enough, there are the appendices, particularly The Three Attic Whalestoe Institute Letters, which all seem to push the story further and shed a different light when the story is supposed to have ended. The truth is it all might not make any sense but the reader is still left wanting to untangle the reality from the fiction.
Perhaps the attempt to do so is the point of the book. My support group and I might not have the best theories, what with so many questions still left hanging in the air, but we are quite happy to at least have unspooled our own threads of thoughts.
I do not know anything about Art with a capital A. What I do know about is my art. Because it concerns me. I do not speak for others. So I do not speak for things which profess to speak for others. My art, however, speaks for me. It lights my way.
This is the art of reading this book. In the end, House of Leaves will continually be that horror book with the unconventional text layout, but one must not forget that at the core of it is the story of a couple, a couple named Will and Karen, trying to save their relationship as they delve so deep into their respective psychological houses, houses which reveal something about the guilt of success, the trauma of the past, the depression that is never suppressed, the fear that we don’t know exists, and the complexity of human nature.