Everybody in the House

By James Flint, 10 September 2000

James Flint on Mark Z. Danielewski’s labyrinthine new novel House of Leaves


There’s a novel in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves somewhere – but there’s also a commentary, a biography, an autobiography, a commentary on a commentary and a critical appraisal of a series of films that don’t exist. Written by a blind man. Who is dead.

We’re led into this literary labyrinth by one Johnny Truant, a fucked up trainee tattooist with a post-graduate’s penetrative intelligence, a major drugs habit and a voracious sexual appetite. Stealing a trunk belonging to his recently deceased neighbour Zampanò, Truant unearths a critical discussion of a film made by a photo-journalist called Will Navidson. Navidson’s moved his family to a house in rural America which, unfortunately, turns out to be a) haunted, b) larger on the inside than the outside and c) capable of reorganising itself around the psyche of whoever steps inside it.

Just as the space expands and mutates, so does the book. To Zampanò’s text, already annotated by Zampanò himself, Truant adds his own footnotes which soon expand into a diary and autobiography, itself annotated by other material including an appendix filled with letters from his mentally deranged mother.

While neither the voices of Johnny nor that of his mother ever quite gel, and some of the extensive textual trickery could have done with being edited down, there’s no doubt that in the house Danielewski has developed the most outstanding compacted metaphor, one which he makes stand for death, love, madness, desire, fantasy and a dozen other things besides. This is the real triumph of House of Leaves; it’s also what makes it, despite all its po-mo stylings, a thoroughly modernist book. Its heart is to be found in Rilke, Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger; its subject matter is the entangled logics of sensory and emotional experience. While David Foster Wallace, author of the immense and convoluted Infinite Jest, uses footnotes to explode the world of the book into a decentred network, Danielewski does the reverse. If Wallace writes of the information overload and ineffable systemic power structures of global consumerism, Danielewski is writing from the point of view of the political elite. The same allegorical dimension is apparent here as in The Blair Witch Project: the US imagines itself to be in charge, but the space it’s in charge of is recursive and continually reconfiguring itself in a way designed to come back to haunt whatever action is visited upon it. This is why it’s so right to compare Danielewski to Poe: both dream the nightmares of privilege and power.

James Flint <>

>> Illustration by Richard Priestley

House of Leaves // Mark Z. Danielewski // Anchor // £13.00 // 720 pages // ISBN 1862 301 107