Friday, 27 October 2006

A brick thick tome of burgeoning insanity

by Edwin Hesselthwite

"I still get nightmares..." - The first sentence of House Of Leaves

LMWN has experienced some shame for approaching a figure like Dave Eggers of McSweeney’s fame with less respect than his eminent literary status deserves. This author’s opinion was formed almost exclusively by his breakthrough work – A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius (published in March 2000). AHWOSG is an extremely well written memoir (although it is rich with a Generation X sentiment no longer appropriate post-9/11) with a million stylistic intricacies and publishing tricks that allow it to tower over the genre; some over effusive critics at the time compared it to James Joyce. For me, the problem with it is two-fold. 1) it is quite self satisfied with the worst second half to a book I’ve encountered since Huxley’s Brave New World. 2) it had the poor fortune to be released in the same week as Mark Z. Danielewski’s House Of Leaves.

House of Leaves is a novel so unusual that there is almost no baseline for comparison. On first inspection it’s horror with some really strange ideas about publishing formatting (some of the pages are printed upside down, and some have but one word per page), on second inspection it is a multilayered work with at least 3 independent but interwoven narratives that centre on a horror-movie about the ultimate haunted House. On later study it becomes clear that this involved such a massive amount of sheer work that you could spend a PhD trying to decrypt all the subterfuge.

Page 134 of HoL - when the showy textual stylisation gets really wierd.

The central story is about a horror movie released much like The Blair Witch Project, using cheap film making technology - The Navidson Record. It is the story of Navidson, a film maker who discovers his new house no longer obeys the rules of reality, with distances changing and shifting at the will of the House itself. Far more than being merely haunted, The House just might be the entire universe embodied. Overlaid on this is the story of Zampano, a blind man who is writing an epic academic work about the film. This is trapped within the story of Johnny Truant, a psychologically disturbed tattooist who stumbled upon Zampano’s works after the old man expired – Truant can find no record of this film ever existing.

Personally, I happened to come across this novel the weekend my paternal grandfather passed on, and I immersed myself inside its gothic walls for 3 days – the perfect escapism at the time. Danielewski is continuously intentionally cryptic, filling the book with the sort of lies and false academic stylings that have led him to be compared to Borges and Kafka. In my imagination he either lives in a dark American gothic cabin in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, or spends his days as a besuited investment banker never admitting to his night time ravings as the mad scientist of literature. The primary question one asks of a book with this many stylistic innovations is “how the hell did he go about writing it?” In my mind the only way this is possible is that there are 3 novels here which have all been abandoned and woven together. The Navidson Record must exist as a novel in Danielewski’s basement – it’s just that he hasn’t used a single word of it in HoL. It is an absolutely massive amount of work- and it is flawed. But when I say flawed I mean only in the way Citizen Kane is flawed ("Hey, wait a second, how do these characters remember being in places they never were?") - it's a work of such ambition that it can't possibly pull it all off. So, to admit to its failings - The Johnny Truant sections do on occasion come across as overly adolescent, and the structure to bond the three sections together sometimes gets a little weak. It is a massive book - and this is probably what dissuades so many readers (I own two copies, one for mine and one for lending, I know from experience that many people never get around to starting it). Don’t let this put you off – the nature of the publishing stunts involved means this book is twice as big as it’s words should lead it to be, further it has a significant appendix at the end that fills a role similar to Lord Of The Ring's The Silmarillion - drawing out the myths in fascinating detail for those who cant pull themselves free of the books core ideas.

I have no idea why Dave Eggers went on to massive fame for what is fundamentally a very clever Douglas Coupland derivative, while HoL sank without trace into the status of “cult book”. My knee-jerk reaction would be that it was snobbery about genre-fiction, since the two books are attempting such similar tasks, and HoL is so vastly superior at doing exactly what Eggers is trying to do. To be fair it might be that literary critics don't come to novels wanting to be scared, and therefor the book lost its impact for them; like Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse 5 it may be 15 years before this gets its due credit. Danielewski finally, after 6 years of my desperate waiting, released his follow up work Only Revolutions on the 12th of September - my copy is on it's way from Amazon, and it has already been nominated for awards. Typically for Danielewski there is a massive, incredibly clever, incomprehensible website for OR to be found here, and in a further piece of recent publicity Isis, the smartest act in metal, have sited HoL as a primary influence on their new (knowing them, concept) album, to be released this Monday, the 30th of October, under the title In The Absence Of Truth.

I strongly, strongly recommend getting a copy – masterpiece is the only word suitable for HoL. A word of warning - I once lent this to an acquaintance of mine with a reputation for speed reading. He resurfaced 2 days later, unshaven and weeping, demanding I never lend him fiction again - we've been close ever since.

Gothic like a supernova

1 comment:

Bibliolatrist said...

I'm glad someone else thinks Eggers is overrated. Great review, by the way.

What did you think of Only Revolutions?