March 20, 2000
"A Spooky But Literary 'Blair Witch Project'"
The author turns writing--literally--upside down
By Malcolm Jones
Explore Los Angeles with Mark Z. Danielewski as your tour guide, and the line between fact and fantasy quickly vanishes. Cruise Hollywood Memorial Cemetery and you have to find Peter Lorre's grave. Motor into the Hollywood Hills and he'll show you the tower house where Elliott Gould lost his cat in "The Long Goodbye." You have to wonder, is this big, strapping 34-year-old with hair the color of blue M&M's a serious literary man or the child of a postliterate visual culture? Choose both. The son of a documentary- and avant-garde-film maker, Danielewski has also spent the last 10 years crafting his first novel, "House of Leaves," one of the most ambitious, complicated and eagerly anticipated literary debuts of the year. So let's talk books for a minute. What's it like to be a writer who lives in Los Angeles? "It's great," Danielewski says with a big grin. "It's totally lonely."
Danielewski admits that he knows a few other writers and artists, but when he insists that he likes the fact that Los Angeles is not a literary town, believe him. Because "House of Leaves" is like no other novel you've ever read. As big as the Los Angeles Yellow Pages, it takes the form of a book-length essay by a mysterious blind man named Zampanò, writing about a 1993 documentary film called "The Navidson Record." In the late '80s, Will Navidson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, moved his family into an old Virginia farmhouse that proves to be five sixteenths of an inch longer inside than it is outside. Soon they find dark hallways that stretch and compress and a winding staircase that goes miles into the earth.
Navidson films his family's efforts to survive their stay. The resulting documentary becomes a favorite target for academics and critics, including Zampanò. After Zampanò's death, the unfinished manuscript is found and further annotated by a Los Angeles street punk named Johnny Truant. This means there are two and sometimes three narratives going on at once. Concurrently, the book's text moves backward, upside down and diagonally, sometimes on the same page. There is even an index. Both daunting and brilliant, the novel is surprisingly fun to read, a sort of postmodern fun house where the reader becomes the author's partner in putting the story together. Like Dave Eggers's hit memoir, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," "House of Leaves" comments on itself as it goes along. It is also flat-out terrifying. Think of it as "The Blair Witch Project" with footnotes.
Danielewski has no patience with the usual ways of doing anything. Suspecting that his core audience will be younger readers "used to working with web pages with multiple texts," he persuaded his publisher to serialize the entire book on the Internet--a first for a major publisher. He has also collaborated with his sister, the musician Poe, whose next CD, due out in June, features songs inspired by and complementing the narrative. But while he loves the idea that "House of Leaves" might inspire other artists, he adamantly refuses to sell his story to Hollywood. "Movies," he says, "are this incredible vampire on the human imagination."
Last stop on the Los Angeles tour: the Museum of Jurassic Technology, essentially a museum dedicated to hoaxes. Danielewski loves this place. It prompts one of his epic monologues (he is a grade-A talker), beginning "I despise hoaxes if they're malicious" and winding up several minutes later with "but when hoaxes inspire mystery, it's absolutely wonderful." The length of this aria leaves him looking a little sheepish. "So, yes, I love hoaxes," he says. "Just put down 'yes.' But footnote it."
© 2000 Newsweek, Inc.
[caption: Eclectic: Danielewski (left) says 'Chopin, Pearl Jam, the Beatles, Johnny Cash, the King James Bible and Shakespeare' influenced his collagelike novel (below)]
[photo credit: Left to right: Davis Factor, David N. Berkwitz for Newsweek (2)]