The Digital Cardinal - 04/20/2000

House bound

The first thing one notices about "House of Leaves," Mark Z. Danielewski's first literary opus, is that some bizarre publishing demon must have sabotaged the book's entire layout. Pages are upside-down, stretched-out, randomized, framed, with multiple fonts, photographs, collages and the word "house" is always in blue type. This last detail becomes strangely connected with Danielewski's physical appearance. The Los Angeles-based author's blue head of hair blends right in with the State Street scene as he sits in front of a cup of mud in a busy
coffee shop. Is the hair because of the book, vice versa or what? He's not telling.

"House of Leaves" took an entire decade of 34-year-old Danielewski's life to complete. The story works on at least three levels. It is about a documentary film that Will Navidson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist made about his family moving into a house in Virginia. Soon they discover that the inside of the house is inexplicably larger than the outside, because of a physically oxymoronic hallway that seems to go on forever into darkness. At the same time, it is the story of an old Homeric figure, a blind man named Zampano', who reconstructs the film's story and makes sense of it through mountains of research. Finally, it is the story of Johnny Truant, a Los Angeleno tattooist who finds Zampano's fragmentary work, attempts to reconstruct it and lets the story drag him into the deep end.

It is left up to the reader to figure out what is real, meaningful and coherent in "House of Leaves"' 600-plus pages. Reading it can be a very personal experience for anyone. The reader, in many ways, uses him or herself as the additional missing link of the complex narrative. "House of Leaves" is more than just a memorable book. It is almost a chapter in the reader's life, a complete intellectual experience that takes time to process and that stays with the reader for a long time.

Danielewski's sister, singer/songwriter Poe, is in the process of mixing an album called "Listen to the House" a project parallel to the book. In it, themes from "House of Leaves" are extrapolated and given alternate meaning and context. Sitting in a noisy cafe, Danielewski's eyes (blue, of course) light up when he talks about his sister.

The Daily Cardinal: How did you two end up working on companion projects?

Mark Z. Danielewski: She and I are very close. Every writer needs a reader, and she's always been my reader. She's encouraging, she's sensitive, she's got an amazing ear. You need to find that force, even if it's internal. Vice versa, I listen to her demo tracks, just sketches that's she'll put down on a DAT that no one ever hears. So, she was reading the manuscript and it influenced her, and she wrote a song about it. And that influenced me. The emotional map of her song took my original idea in a totally different direction. This has been going on for five years for this project. Really, though, our whole lives.

DC: You're obviously enjoying some success for this book. How are people perceiving it?

MZD: It's a difficult book to describe. The first way people glom on to it is for the way it looks. Then they catch on to the idea of a shaky documentary of something spooky. As they go on, they see that there's so much more.

DC: From the start, one gets the impression that reading "House of Leaves" is different from reading any other book one might have read before.

MZD: The main point of this book is to draw the reader in almost as a co-author. It's an adventure, you become part of it. That's the great thing about a book. I mean, a movie you're always gonna watch, but you're in your seat with popcorn, there's lots of music ... But here you're actually involved. While you're reading it you start thinking about your own adventure.

DC: Nowadays it seems like many young writers can make it with easy, semi-biographical Kerouac rip-offs. With what it took you to write this book you could have written five more accessible ones. But you chose to do it the hard way.

MZD: There's very little biography there. Johnny Truant is his own character. I mean, I know a Johnny Truant. He's a definite club kid, he goes to limits that I don't go to.

Also, Johnny becomes involved with deconstructing the architecture of denial. He loves his storytelling. He makes stuff up. And as the story progresses you start to see that his fictive inventions have elements of truth. He starts to scrape away at things and get closer to who HE is.

DC: The mythological, historical and philosophical background of the book is almost...scholarly. Not many novelists today use Dante and Wordsworth. How does that fit with the fact that most of the literary press has compared "House of Leaves" to a strictly pop-culture phenomenon like "The Blair Witch Project"?

MZD: Because you look a certain way or talk a certain way, that pre-empts you from being involved in philosophers or Dante. There's no reason a skateboarder can't read some Dante. If presented in the right way, he'd love it.

As far as "The Blair Witch Project," it's great. I don't have a problem with it. I actually like the direction they went with the movie. The book, though, was bought before that movie was even written. There are even some people who say it's possible this actually influenced "Blair Witch." But if people find it easy to latch my book on to it, that's fine. Again that's their kind
of participation.

DC: Do all of the millions of bits of information in the book have an ultimate purpose, in your mind?

MZD: The nature of the invention is complicated. Nothing is made like 'Wow, that sounds good, I'm gonna put it down.' So even the apparently most trivial portions of the footnotes have certain themes that are going on.

DC: Do you think this book can inspire people to write more unconventional books, to let their ideas flow in different directions?

MZD: It looks expensive to make, but it was kind of like an independent movie. I did all of it. I did the type setting, most of the proofreading, most of the design.

The same goes for the Web site (houseofleaves.com).

Pantheon [Books, NY, the book's publisher] doesn't have any money, so my sister and I are doing it on our own.

DC: I understand the film rights are not for sale.

MZD: That's correct. It's about the fucking book. Film imagines for you. Books demand your imaginative participation. It's mental muscle that needs to be used.

I have very strong feelings about it. You don't get that sort of creative experience when you go to a movie, it's all done for you, all the sound effects, all the visual.

When you're reading about these dark rooms, you've got an image of what they look like. You're illuminating them in your mind.

You're creating bases, scenes and juxtaposing them to your own history. Imagination is important for people, for the world.

If you imagine, you can imagine the lives of others. If you can do that, you can empathize. It's healthy.

So ... fuck them, I'm not gonna turn it into a movie.



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