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Mark Danielewski: House of Leaves

Any doubts about whether the brilliant, post-modern novel is alive and well at the end of the twentieth century (yes, Virginia, 2000 is still the twentieth century) is dispelled by this brilliant first novel. Indeed, not since Donna Tartt has there been such a brilliant debut novel. Let’s hope that he does a better job than Tartt of following up.

The novel is a film within a novel within a novel. Or something. The hero and narrator, one Johnny Truant, an orphan and foster child, is now working in a tattoo parlor and casually indulging in the finer things of life – sex (lusting after a stripper called Thumper and the German-speaking Kyrie whose homicidal boyfriend, known as the Gdansk Man is out of town, at least at the beginning of the novel), drugs and booze. His best friend is Lude who lives in an apartment where one of the other tenants, Zampanò, a blind old man is dying. On his death, he leaves a mass of papers which he passes on to Truant. Most of the novel consists of Zampanò’s paper, with ample glosses by Truant.

Zampanò recounts the story of what is known as The Navidson Record. The Navidson Record is a film, which was initially a cult, but has now been released by Miramax. Zampanò tells of the genesis of the film, what happened to the main characters (it is a documentary) and the massive industry that has subsequently developed commenting on all aspects of the film and the people in it. The trouble is, as Truant finds out, none of it seems to be true. He can find no evidence of the film, the famous people involved deny all knowledge of it, most (though not all) of the (generally scholarly) works cited do not exist (the Invisible Library, a site devoted to fictitious works of fiction, has a huge list of them), even the house in Virginia, that is the”star” of the film, does not seem to exist. The other trouble is that the book seems to get to Truant and gradually eats up his life.

The Navidson Record is about Will Navidson, a famous photographer, known best for his photo of a young Sudanese girl being eagerly eyed by a vulture waiting for her to die. His lover, Karen, a former model, wants him to stop travelling and they move with their two children to a house in Virginia, near Charlottesville but out in the country. Navidson (known to everyone as Navy) wants to make a film about moving in to a house and so sets up motion-operated cameras in various rooms as well as filming himself. He notices a closet that doesn’t seem to have been there before. He measures the house and finds that the inside is larger than the outside. This is confirmed by experts. Then the closet has grown and from there things start getting really worrying. The house suddenly takes on a whole extra dimension, as extra rooms suddenly appear and initial exploration reveals that it is not just a few rooms but virtually a whole universe down there. He elicits help from friends and a detailed and scientific exploration takes place, with tragic consequences, but reveals little about the nature of this universe, only that is cold, unfriendly and subject to constant change. Is there”something” there? Maybe or maybe it is just their fear. We never find out.

All the while that we are getting Zampanò recounting The Navidson Record, we are getting a whole lot more. Firstly we are getting Zampanò’s comments on the The Navidson Record as well as its history, how it was made, how the characters were affected and how it became a huge cult. Zampanò’s comments are fascinating, mainly quoting fictitious sources (though some are real), in several different languages and very scholarly. Danielewski cleverly uses Zampanò’s comments to discuss a whole range of issues – from the nature of art and reality to marital relations. The second level is Truant’s glosses on Zampanò. Truant is clearly not as educated as Zampanò and sometimes he is lost, sometimes he seeks outside help and sometimes he makes comments, pertinent or otherwise. Thirdly, while making these comments, Truant tells his story in bits and pieces – his father’s death and his mother’s insanity, his problems as a foster child, his relations with women, his job in the tattoo parlour and his friendship with Lude. But the most important part of his life is the effect The Navidson Record has on him, gradually eating him, making him have vivid dreams, though he can hardly sleep, eventually losing his job, his apartment, his women and, finally, his friend, Lude.

But none of this can begin to tell of the power of this novel. The story of the house is in itself incredibly powerful as Danielewski has us guessing the whole way. Coupled with the story of Johnny Truant, the relationship between Navidson, Karen, his brother and the others, the whole panoply of post-modern tricks Danielewski pulls out of his bag, the scholarly glosses of Zampanò (which Danielewski uses both to make some telling points about a whole range of subjects as well as to viciously skewer the criticism industry, psychologists, sociologists, the film industry and many others besides), the moral dimension which is very strong and which I have barely touched on (it’s a long novel) but hangs on the Sudanese girl (Delilal) he photographs, Danielewski has produced a wonderful novel that is essential end of the twentieth century reading and is a superb entry point for the next millennium.

Publishing history

First published 2000 by Pantheon