A Labyrinthine Read

IMG_0204“Prometheus, thief of light, giver of light, bound by the gods, must have been a book.”–MZD

Title of this blog post might better be, “What Happens When You Follow the Reading Suggestions of a 17-year old Boy?”  Short answer: “A lot.” And not just any 17-year-old, one of Those Boys. Smart and intense and eager to become an Intellectual. We fell into a long conversation about reading at a cocktail party (he was with his parents), and I made some suggestions, and he hazarded one back.

Now I’ve read his book. I’m tempted to say, “or it read me,” not in the sense that the book bore any relationship to my life, inner or otherwise, but in being so outside my life experience in both form and content, it filled out a place I didn’t know was vacant.

The book is House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, copyright 2000, but for many years before that, pieces of it had a samizdat-like distribution, were the subject of whispered Internet rumors, and finally attained a cult following. I bought the full-color edition, in which the word “house” appears in blue. (It’s not to be confused with John Guare’s 1966 play, House of Blue Leaves, which I have seen but, alas, do not remember.  Considering the multiple games the author plays, he might have had Guare’s title lurking around a corner of his maze-like mind.)

The book is the story of a house—one that is measurably bigger on the inside than the outside. An exterior wall contains a closet that stretches many feet into cold darkness (and eventually descends deeper than the diameter of the earth), but the closet cannot be detected from outside the house. The effects of the house on the family that lives there and the people who attempt (futilely) to understand the phenomenon is one story.

The young man who finds a trunkful of notes about the house, especially the films made of the explorations of it, and the histories of its inhabitants (and so much more) tells his own story in a series of rambly footnotes. Trying to cobble together the narrative of the house—that is, to create the book you are holding—apparently drives him mad.

There are photos, art objects, quotes, letters from the compiler’s institutionalized mother, an enormous index, and, throughout, academic-sounding footnotes from researchers into the house’s arcana.

Called, by turns, a horror story (the house), a love story (its residents), and a satire on academic criticism (the footnotes), it is an effortful read.  Danielewski received much praise upon its publication (4 stars from Amazon and Goodreads; 4.5 from B&N). Intriguing and mesmerizing in its content and bizarre—but perfectly apt—typographical presentation, smitten New York Times reviewer Robert Kelly, said, “I love the difficult, since it makes the easy seem finally possible.”

I’m not the first person to notice some at-least-superficial similarities between this book and last year’s Night Film, by Marisha Pessl. Both books give readers a collection of parts from which they can almost make their own construction. Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that both deal with works of film, and in their construction variously bend time and use jump-cuts, split-screen, and the scene-setting of a movie.

You already knew all about this one, right? I’m just late to the party??