Wednesday, August 28, 2013

This book will make you dizzy: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski - Final Report

Front CoverThis will be my last entry on Mark Z. Danielewski's wonderful thriller House of Leaves.  I don't anything I say here will be a spoiler.  First off, I'm pleased to say that I loved it all the way to the end.  If you haven't read it yet, you really should.  While there is  much going on in the book, both in its themes and in the way it's written, at heart House of Leaves is a darn good thriller, an old fashioned haunted house story that delivers the goods when it comes to giving the reader the creeps.  I started the book expecting to find an intellectual exercise and ended up finding a ghost story almost suitable for the campfire.
There are two things I'd like to talk about here.  The first occurs in the final visit Navidson makes to the house on Ash Tree Lane, long after his wife and family have moved away and his friends have left him behind.  Before this final trip into the hidden maze beneath what looks like a normal suburban home, Navidson prepares for an extended trip, taking enough supplies to last for several days.  After nearly a week inside the walls of the house, his supplies begin to run low, and it looks like he will never find either the bottom of the abyss or a way out.  
The central gimmick of the novel is that we are reading an account of the film Navidson made about the house and his attempt to explore the maze he found within its walls.  Towards the end of his final trip, Navidson falls down a passageway in the darkness.  Since his camera was rolling we "see" this event the final extended scene of his documentary "The Navidson Report."  However, since he had lost his lights all the film audience can see is six minutes of black screen accompanied by Navidson's comments and the sounds of the cavern he is falling through.  (In a footnote we find that film critic Michael Medved wrote about this scene as the final death of cinema.  He gave the movie a thumbs down.)
What makes this passage wonderful reading, apart from the fact that it's a very good thriller in itself, is that Zampano, the man who wrote the book we're reading, starts to break the narrative's text into blocks of just a few sentences each and to arrange the text all over the page, forcing the reader to turn the book sideways, then upside down, right side up again, until we've begun to lose our sense of which was is meant to be up and we turn the page only to find we've gone backwards instead of forwards.  (If you're reading upside down and you don't know it, it can be disturbing.)  
As Navidson tumbled down into the abyss, the book in my hands began to tumble over and over.  That it did so for some time before I noticed it impresses me.  
The second thing I want to mention is the scene prior to the final one where the book itself makes an appearance in the movie within the book.  There is a sequence showing Navidson, alone it the dark, at the end of his tether, sitting down reading a book.  He has only a few matches left, each only providing enough light to read only part of a page.  He has almost 400 pages to go before he finishes the book but he continues reading.  When he's on his last match he tears out two pages from the book, rolls them up, lights them on fire and uses them to read by.  Once they burn down he tears out the pages he has read, rolls them up, lights them on fire and uses these freshly read pages to illuminate a few more.  This way he is able to finish reading the book.
The book he's reading is House of Leaves, the book that describes the movie he is making.  What does he think when he gets to the scene that describes him reading the book in his hands?
It's just too much fun, and if you were lost in the dark, facing impending doom, wouldn't you at least consider using your last matches to read the end of your book?  I know that anyone reading this blog would never go on a week long spelunking trip without a book in their backpack.  Could you face that final darkness without knowing how it ended?
Not if it was House of Leaves.


Sandy Nawrot said...

You've got me thoroughly confused, James. But one thing I know, and that is I have to read this book. I almost never do this, because I am ALWAYS behind in my print reading, but I'm going to get it from the library and read it, my backlog be damned.

James Chester said...

Well, I really hope you like it.

Anonymous said...

Got to re-read this book.