Monday, May 18, 2020

the last book I read

House Of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski.

Where to start? Well, let's start with Johnny Truant. As the desperately hip (and doubtless made-up) Bachelor Johnny Cool name would suggest, Johnny is a bit dangerous, a bit whooooah, a bit wheeeyyy, a geezer. His latest dead-end job is as an assistant in a Los Angeles tattoo parlour; the money's not great but he does get to meet some interesting characters, and the law of averages dictates that there will occasionally be a smoking-hot stripper who wants her arse tattooed.

So Johnny is bimbling along in his own way, occasionally meeting up with old pal Lude (again, the clue is in the name) for sessions of drinking and other assorted misbehaviour. On one of these sessions Lude lets slip that there's this old guy in his apartment block who's just died, and that Johnny can come over for a snoop around his old place if he wants, you know, see if there's anything the old guy had that's worth taking. Well, the old man, whose name turns out to be Zampanò (we never find out if he has any other names) didn't have much, but Johnny does come away with a massive annotated manuscript which has caught his eye.

The manuscript turns out to be a minutely detailed analysis of a film called The Navidson Record, a compilation of various home-video footage shot by the eponymous Will Navidson (a semi-retired photojournalist and former Pulitzer Prize winner) in his house in suburban Virginia. Big fat hairy deal, you might say, but wait: there are Strange Goings-On afoot. Fairly newly-moved-in, Navidson, wife Karen and kids Chad and Daisy are just finding their feet when they also find a mysterious corridor between two of the bedrooms that wasn't there when they moved in. Moreover, Navidson takes some measurements which reveal that the house is a fraction of an inch longer on the inside than on the outside. Focusing far more obsessively on this infinitesimal spatial anomaly than on the fact that a corridor has just poofed into appearance out of freakin' nowhere, Will enlists the help of his brother Tom (with whom he has had an intermittently difficult relationship in the past) and his engineer friend Billy Reston (no relation).

Their obsessive laser-calibration of the measuring tools is rendered a bit meaningless when another corridor appears literally overnight in a previously blank section of wall in a downstairs hallway; unlike the blank one between the bedrooms this one features other openings down its length and seems to change and lengthen over the course of the next few days. As you would, the Navidsons install a multiply-bolted reinforced steel door over the end of it, just in case any slavering demons of Hades decide to wander out during the night and drag someone off to hell after stopping off for a Marmite sandwich and a glass of lemonade.

Horror movie cliché dictates, though, that Will Navidson won't be able to resist the temptation for a bit of a snoop, and sure enough he makes a 3am expedition into the corridor and one of its side-passages that reveals not only that some of the connected spaces are unimaginably vast, but that also the whole place is prone to occasional warpings and rearrangements of its entire structure, which makes it extremely dangerous to explore, and it's only by blind luck that he manages to get back into the house.

Will is not an idiot, though, and instead of doing some half-arsed and doomed exploration himself enlists the help of some professionals, including gnarled veteran explorer Holloway Roberts, who arrives with two sidekicks and a van-load of equipment in tow and, after a couple of exploratory recces, sets off with a couple of weeks of supplies for a deep exploration of the vast chamber that Will found and the huge and seemingly bottomless staircase that leads down from it. Will and the others remain in the house to act as support crew, manning the radios.

Much of what happens next is only fully understood later when all the tapes are recovered and edited, but the Holloway expedition soon encounter some weird spatial phenomena - it takes them several days to descend the Great Staircase and markers left by the team seem to have been torn and mutilated by some force on the team's return. And are the strange low growling noises the team hears just the sound of the house's periodic re-alignments, or something more sinister ... and perhaps hungry?

Once it becomes clear that something terrible has happened to the Holloway expedition, Will, Tom and Billy Reston set off to rescue them, Reston somewhat handicapped (though commendably undeterred) by being in a wheelchair. The rescue crew encounter similar weird spatial distortion on their descent, and soon discover that Holloway seems to have taken leave of his senses and shot one of the other expedition members in the shoulder with a rifle. During the course of the rescue Holloway reappears and shoots the third expedition member (this time fatally) before seemingly being consumed by the house. The rescue party completes its long and arduous ascent to the top of the Great Staircase, all except Will, who is trapped by one of the spatial rearrangements and does not emerge until several days later. No-one can relax, though, as the house itself now starts to change around them and they are forced to flee. Everyone escapes except Tom, consumed by the house in the act of rescuing Daisy.

Following their shared traumatic experience, Will and Karen find it difficult to adjust, and eventually separate for a few months. Will returns to the house on Ash Tree Lane to conduct a further, final exploration, for reasons which aren't completely clear - some sort of desire for closure? a faint inkling that he might still be able to rescue Tom? and, armed with a battery of camera equipment, sets off into the corridor. No-one hears anything from him for over a month, and it is only when Karen moves back into the house that it finally vomits up Will back into the world.

And so ends The Navidson Record. It's far from the end of House Of Leaves, though, as there is a further 150+ pages of annotations, appendices, a collection of letters from Johnny Truant's mother from the mental institution where she seems to have been incarcerated for some years, some cryptic photographs and a comprehensive index. Even the text of The Navidson Record itself is far from straightforward, being criss-crossed with Zampanò's own footnotes, Johnny Truant's footnotes on Zampanò's footnotes, and a third set of footnotes by an unidentified team of editors. Things are further complicated by the fact that, despite Zampanò's obsessive citings of other critical works referencing The Navidson Record, and his inclusion of various celebrity interviews referring to it, no evidence for the existence of The Navidson Record, a man called Will Navidson, or any of the rest of the events in the text exists outside of Zampanò's manuscript.

As I said at the beginning, where to start? Perhaps with a few parallels, most obviously (in terms of other books on this list, anyway) to Infinite Jest. Similarly massive, similarly massively footnoted (though Infinite Jest's were at the end whereas House Of Leaves has its inline), similarly averse to the idea of just getting in, telling a story and getting out again, preferring to hold the "story" at arm's length and examine it obsessively from a number of angles. Things House Of Leaves has which Infinite Jest does not include a simpler and more compelling central narrative (the, if you will, "story"), and a whole battery of typographical tricks which are meant to mirror the narrative in some way. One of the things which this does is to make the reader's perception of progress through the book somewhat of a rollercoaster - having slogged through dense full-page text as far as about page 150, suddenly the reader is in a section where there may be only a couple of words on a page, and plummets through the next 100 pages in next to no time. Sections of text are upside down, back to front, printed vertically or diagonally on the page.

The basic story is a compellingly weird take on the basic haunted house story, modern versions of which include The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist. We've all had those dreams where we are running down a corridor towards safety and suddenly the corridor stretches out infinitely and the rescuing hand gets further and further away ... um, haven't we? The occasional grinding noises presaging a rearrangement of the labyrinth is vaguely reminiscent of the film Cube, which I remember seeing many years ago and thinking was really good, much to the bafflement of everyone else in the room who thought it was shit. The several immensely long lists of stuff which no sane reader would be expected to actually plough their way through were slightly reminiscent of some similar ones in Georges Perec's Life: A Users Manual.

That's the basic story, as for the framing device I would say I'm in general agreement with this Guardian review which finds the Johnny Truant character a bit tedious - not necessarily to the extent that I think he should have been left out altogether, but we could probably have done with fewer and shorter interventions. The central story idea is so brilliant that the entire time we spend in Johnny's self-obsessed company, or at least the time where he's writing about things unrelated to the Zampanò manuscript, is time where we're looking at our watch waiting for the good stuff to restart.

The other thing about House Of Leaves is its monumental physical size. My edition is what would be called a "trade paperback" in the UK, which means it's the same size as a big hardback. It's hard to see how it could be published in an edition any smaller than this and retain the typographical layout. The first photo below shows my edition next to the last two books on this list, a standard A-format small paperback (Picture Palace) and the slightly larger B-format (Lanark). So you can see that the current lockdown is the ideal time to tackle a book of this sort, as it would be almost impossible to transport anywhere with you without some serious supporting luggage (a rucksack, probably, as a minimum). In fact I see I mentioned House Of Leaves in precisely this context in an earlier post (note that the coyly-referred-to A-format paperback in my coat pocket was actually Under The Volcano). There are other side-effects of possessing a book of this size, not least that it has for some years been the benchmark for vertical spacing on my IKEA bookshelves.

Anyway, enough of this. House Of Leaves is simultaneously brilliant, thrilling, utterly bonkers, absurd, flawed, impractically huge, and while it's certainly not for everyone I thoroughly recommend it to anyone with the slightest interest in experimental fiction. Plus the physical workout incurred while reading it will give you biceps like Arnie.

Finally: this is the third book on this list to include the word "leaves" in the title (A Fringe Of Leaves and The Leaves On Grey are the other two) and the second to begin "House Of" (House Of Sand And Fog being the other).

No comments: