Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Review of the First Fifty-Five Pages of 'House of Leaves'

I can imagine, having been around in 1999 when 'The Blair Witch Project' became such a sensation in the public consciousness for several months, exactly how the genesis of the novel 'House of Leaves' came about. Remember that one obnoxious wannabe stoner who saw it before you did and dragged you to it talking the whole time about how bad it would mess with your head, and how scary it was, and how cool it was, and how it was totally based on a true story and the actors were all really dead, and how all this bit was totally symbolic because Plato talked about how there was this cave, right, with shadows on the wall, and there were shadows on the wall in this bit and that made it so deep, and how he was going to totally get laid later that night after he scored some pot with these guys he knew who were in the Jamaican Mafia, which is totally a thing and you just don't know about it because you're not cool like him, because he's really cool and deep and does drugs and everything, man, and...

I can only assume that author Mark Z. Danielewski had a similar experience, and wanted to replicate it exactly in novel form. The innermost nested narrative, the story of a family whose house slowly begins to get bigger on the inside than on the outside, is effective and creepy, and made me want to read more. But I cannot imagine--I literally cannot imagine a situation in which someone came up with that central concept and said, "Hey! You know what would improve this? If it was narrated by a rambling half-baked pseudo-philosophical pompous windbag who frequently interrupted it with long pointless digressions on linguistics that aren't nearly as intelligent or interesting as he/I think they are, which are in turn repeatedly interrupted by a narcissistic douchebag who spouts off alternating lines of BS about how scary you're going to find the rest of the novel and about how much trim he gets!"

That's the central problem of the book, and it's an insurmountable one--there literally is no amount of time I can spend reading the authorial voices of "Zampano" or "Johnny Truant" that is too short. These are two people I wouldn't want to spend five minutes in an elevator with, and Danielewski seems to be under the impression that there's no digression too trivial to break away from the Navidson narrative in order to spend several pages with these two gentlemen as they explain the various mytho-poetic and symbolic meanings of the word "echo", or talk about their endless attempts to pick up women and the boring lies they told to get laid. It doesn't just halt momentum, it actively guts any interest I have as a reader in continuing. Knowing that there was another goddamn Johnny Truant sequence coming down the pike in a few pages made me want to put the book down and play video games. Or read io9 articles. Or spend a good few minutes watching paint dry. Anything, really, so long as it didn't involve reading the text in that Courier font.

Was the editor drunk? Did they leave the room? Did they edit the novel blindfolded as some sort of challenge? Or did they just finally, after repeated warnings to the author about how they were taking a really interesting horror novel and turning it into an obscure cult novel that was only going to appeal to pseudo-intellectual stoners, give up and let the author publish it as it was? This is a question that will keep me up at night far longer than any of the supposed terrors that the narrator warns me about.

It's a shame, because I'd really like to read an expurgated version that focuses exclusively on the Navidson record. Or give it to someone willing to adapt it ruthlessly, like William Goldman did to his own novel of 'The Princess Bride', and turn it into a film. (Which apparently Danielewski has refused to allow on multiple occasions. I'm giving him a lot of flack here for turning out a novel that I can't imagine ever ever ever wanting to read because it's awful, but I will admit to admiring him for sticking to his guns and refusing to alter his artistic vision. It's just the artistic vision itself that I can't stand.)

Basically, what I'm saying is that this book now joins a highly exclusive club. I will be turning forty this year, and I'm a voracious reader (I read maybe a book a week? Sometimes two or three?) Let's say that equates to roughly 2000 books I've read over my lifetime. I can think of exactly two off the top of my head that I didn't think were worth finishing. 'House of Leaves' is one of those two.


Cousin Angelika said...

And the other is?

I have to thank you for taking the hit for us, though. I'd always been curious about this novel I'd heard about, but now I think I'll take it off my "to read" list and have a go at The Book of the War instead.

John Seavey said...

The second Anita Blake novel. I bought the first two in a fit of optimism based on all the good reviews I was hearing, gritted my way through the first one, and then realized about a quarter of the way through the second that it just wasn't getting any better and I shouldn't even have started it. I had really high hopes for the idea of a female private eye who was also a vampire hunter and sorceress...but the whole series up to that point was her simpering, hiding, running, asking men for help, begging, pleading, caving in to the bad guys, and generally being all the worst sexist tropes in literature in one package. While the author claimed she was a feminist hero.

I opted out, never heard anything that suggests I made a mistake there. :)