April 2000
Page 35


Mark Danielewski's debut novel is the literary equivalent of The Blair Witch Project. Only weirder.

When novelist Mark Danielewski was six years old, his father, a documentary filmmaker, took him to a bullfight in Madrid. As a treat, Danielewski was led to the ring through a series of labyrinthine tunnels, past hissing, agitated bulls. He saw the great matadors displaying less bravado than fear through the whites of their eyes. Danielewski was understandably terrified.

This experience clearly informs the backbone of his first novel, House of Leaves (Pantheon), which took 10 years to complete. Already hailed as groundbreaking, it's an ambitious literary horror novel concerning a house on a suburban lane in Virginia. But, then again, it also centers on a young, disaffected Los Angelino named Johnny Truant -- a tattoo artist's apprentice -- who's in love with a stripper named Thumper. "In fact," says Danielewski of the 667-page book, "you really get five books for the price of one." You also get poetry, graphics, and a design treatment that should come with a warning label for epileptics. Text changes font, size and even direction for the sheer hell of it.

House of Leaves takes mind-boggling twists -- and the experience of actually paging through the novel itself is unlike any you've ever had. (A film analogue might be The Blair Witch Project ). While cleaning out a deceased neighbor's apartment, Johnny Truant discovers a very strange unpublished account about a cult documentary film, The Navidson Record. The manuscript tells the "factual" story of the documentary's emergence and the resulting shockwaves. The footage of The Navidson Record chronicles the experience of a family whose house contains a door and hallway that defies basic scientific tenets and leads to a profoundly disturbing "somewhere and nowhere."

Growing up, Danielewski's life was ripe with narratives on the road with his father. "We were a rags-to-riches-to-rags story. I lived in Switzerland, Spain, India, Africa, Manhattan all before the age of 12," he says. When the money dried up his father directed soap operas to survive. Danielewski had written his first book by the time he was 12, a 335-page screed titled The Hell Hole -- "about a wealthy New York kid who becomes a coke addict, beats up a cop and is sent to prison. My father said it was 'an immoral book.' My mother was scared shitless."

Danielewski anticipates some antagonism from certain quarters of the publishing industry. "There's this idea that unless you went to an Ivy League school you can't read this book. You know, fuck you. I hang out with plumbers and restaurateurs in L.A. and these people are very engaged with reading." He stops to sip his tea, adding, "This book is about a dark house, but it is the reader who will illuminate the rooms."

Article Tad Floridis
Photograph Abby Moskowitz