Friday, January 05, 2007

A blast of cold, fresh literary air

I am particularly enjoying one of my Christmas presents at the moment - "House of Leaves" by Mark Z. Danielewski (first published back in 2000).
After ploughing manfully through Michael Sholokhov's "And Quiet Flows the Don" (worthy and estimable, no doubt, but a bit turgid to say the least), it's refreshing to be able to tackle something challenging but fresh, experimental and thought-provoking (not to mention bizarre).
At its simplest, the novel is about an ordinary house in Virginia which develops a tendency to mutate internally, so that everyday closets are transfigured into long dark corridors, which in turn stretch and generate ever-changing rooms and stairways, and harbour an unseen but palpable evil presence, and where the normal laws of space and time do not apply. Harry Potter material thus far.
But the fascination of the book lies in its method of exposition.
Firstly, the novel (like the house) is on many overlapping levels. Again at its simplest, it follows the collation and compilation by a bookish but messed-up Californian junkie of a blind old man's detailed literary criticism of a cult film (a grainy, Blair Witch sort of an affair) made by the owners and explorers of said house. There are citations, sources, marginalia and reference notes (many of them spurious, although convincing) at the various levels, and references to the references in different typefaces (and, in some cases, references to the references to the references by some undisclosed "editor").
There are extended and often erudite diversions in some of the notes (all duly "accredited") into a bewildering variety of topics including photojournalism, labyrinths, the physics of sound, etymology, architecture, metaphysics, kinky sex, clinical psychology, biblical metaphors, drugs, and many many more, interspersed with the personal ramblings by the contributors. Some of the notes are struck through, some deliberately excised, some parts missing completely, like a convincing reconstruction of an interrupted research.
Possibly the most experimental aspect of the novel is the unconventional use of page and type layout. As the behavious of the house becomes ever more fantastic and unpredictable and the characters descend into madness, the text might appear vertically, or backwards, or back to front, or in small boxes, or at crazy angles, or in any combination of the above. There are sections in Braile; there is text running in a circle; there may be just one or two words on a page; punctuation may be strange or non-existent; a line of text appears at the top, or the bottom, of a page, or split on either side, or mis-centred.
All this might sound like an annoying gimmick, but it is not over-done, and it usually has some significance or symbolism. In fact, I was surprised that I hardly ever found it ill-considered or gratuitous.
All of this together in one 700-page book (complete with appendices, indices, poems, letters, sketches and photos, you name it) makes for a demanding but ultimately rewarding read. There was much that I just didn't understand (among other things, impenetrable quotes from Jacques Derrida, and the fact that every instance of the word "house" is typed in blue - duh?). A lot of the time you are left (deliberately) wondering whether a source quotation is real or not. And it is definitely not suitable for your Aunt Marge or little Celia, as it lurches from the profound to the scatological to the disturbing and back again.
But what a blast of cold, fresh literary air! Only Thomas Pynchon and James Joyce come close in either ambition or exigence. I already have Danielwski's follow-up "Only Revolution" on my birthday list.

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