The House that Danielewski Built
Is House of Leaves the Next Ulysses?
When I first picked up a galley proof of Mark Z. Danielewski's 734-page debut novel House of Leaves (Pantheon), flipped through the multi-font, many-language, oddly formatted text complete with footnotes, graphic images, and an index of every word (or variation) used in the book, I thought, "The media is either going to rip this to pieces or hail it as the next Ulysses." After reading the book, I'm positive the latter will be true. House of Leaves is the real thing, a debut of unbelievable depth, an utterly unique body of work that took the 33-year-old MZD ten years to create.
My world changed a little once I began reading House of Leaves. The feeling I had after the first night, after reading the Introduction and the first forty pages (up to the point where Karen screams), can best be described as a journey into myself. I was totally absorbed by the book, so much I felt as if I had some personal stake in the story, as if my own fears were playing out between the covers. Jonathan Lethem recently explained this feeling saying, "When you purchase your copy you may reach a certain page and find me there, reduced in size like Vincent Price in The Fly, still trapped in the web of its malicious, beautiful pages."
On the surface, House of Leaves is a horror novel. Similar to books-turned-films such as The Amityville Horror, Beloved and House of the Seven Gables, this story also revolves around a possessed house. But this house is peculiar in that it is just slightly bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. As the book progresses, we learn that the inside world of the house is, literally and figuratively, much, much larger than the outside world as a whole; it's a labyrinth, a web of never-ending mazes, much the same as the Internet where you are reading this article linked to color images, contests, and message boards about the book.
The story of this house on Ash Tree Lane is revealed through The Navidson Record, a series of Hi-8 films shot by the home's owner, the fictional Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Will Navidson. What begins as a simple documentary about how this family of four settles into a new house turns into a series of terrifying dramas concerning the mutations in the home that occur, films that become the subject of critics of every ilk from all over the world. But that's just one narrative frame.
The story of the house and the buzz the various films create are revealed through a critical dissertation written by a man we come to know only as Zampanò. Yet Zampanò is not really a character in the book, because by the beginning of the book he's already dead. Although his death is considered natural, a good-time L.A. party boy named Johnny Truant who lives in his building begins to believe there's nothing at all natural about his death. Not only are there huge claw marks in the floor of Zampanò's apartment, but Truant finds a trunk full of the dead man's critical study of The Navidson Record. Truant is responsible for putting the manuscript together for the reader, which isn't always an easy task. Parts of the thesis are scribbled on napkins, envelopes and the backs of stamps. Truant's story becomes yet another narrative line that appears as footnotes to the Zampanò manuscript. Simultaneously, as Navidson's film visually reveals the mutations of the house, Zampanò's manuscript textually begins to reflect these mutations. Truant physically and mentally mirrors these changes as his life spins out of control. Everything surrounding this house loses its center as you, the reader, turn the pages. But the question that MZD is begging the reader to ask is: "Is this necessarily a bad thing?"
East Village Bar from Hell
Soon after I finished the book, I interviewed MZD. We met at a bar in New York City. He was in town briefly from his hometown of Los Angeles to do interviews with writers from various publications. We arranged to meet at a dive in the East Village, a place called the Holiday Cocktail Lounge. As usual, I was early. The bar was immediately on my right when I walked in. Neil Diamond was playing on the jukebox. There was a bearded man face down on the bar, asleep, a full ashtray next to his elbow. Beside him were two men, boys actually. They couldn't have been more than 17. They were wobbling and weaving on their stools and said what I understood as, "Good luck getting a drink." I wasn't sure what they meant, but to their credit, there was no bartender anywhere in sight. Otherwise, the place was empty, a small stale bar with little light.
I walked into the back room to stake out a booth. There were three people in there, a man and a woman sitting at a table and an old man hovering above them. He was also noticeably drunk. After a moment, he began to sing in a high operatic voice, sweeping his hand in semi-circles in front of him. The couple was obviously trying to ignore him. Soon they got up, grabbed their coats off the backs of their chairs and left. The old man stopped singing, picked up the bottles off the table and stumbled toward the bar, hugging the wall as he did. The bartender? You got it, a bartender who drinks his own stock and runs his customers out the door.
MZD walked in immediately after. His candy blue hair was the first thing I noticed, even in the dull light. Other distinguishing traits include a creepy Anton LaVey goatee, deep, penetrating eyes and an easy smile. He stuck out his hand and told me he'd been to the Holiday Cocktail Lounge many years ago when his sister, the musician Poe, had a gig up the street. What struck me immediately about MZD was his passion for discussion and ideas. He, like House of Leaves, can exist and be understood on many different levels. At one moment sitting in front of me was a surfer dude, maybe another Mark, maybe the ghost of Mark Foo. Then in the next moment he was a scholar, waxing lit crit like a Derrida junkie.
The Many Moons of MZD
Born in 1966 in New York City, MZD had a scattered childhood. The Danielewski family was constantly on the move. His father, the late Tad Z. Danielewski, was an avant-garde documentary filmmaker (No Exit and The Guide). They lived in Switzerland, India, Africa, Spain and finally in Utah where MZD went to high school. He came to writing naturally, at a young age. By ten, he had written his first novel, the story of a wealthy kid in New York City who becomes a cocaine addict, beats up a cop and goes to prison. How many people do you know who have written a full-length novel by the time they were ten? "We were moving in and out of these various cultures with different languages," he says. "Writing granted me a place in a constantly changing world. I had my notebook and my papers and my handwriting. I had the English language."
"The text isn't designed to provide the architecture of the house. Most of it is designed around cinematic grammar."
—Mark Z. Danielewski
But when MZD showed the book to his parents, his mother freaked and his father thought it was immoral. It was a crushing early blow to MZD, who respected his father's opinion. That was the beginning of a long life of creative tension in the Danielewski home. "He was never encouraging as far as becoming an artist. He was always saying, 'When are you going to get a job?'" So MZD kept his writing to himself, showing only his sister, who became what he calls "my twin." This special relationship with his sister continues still today. In fact, Poe, whose debut album Hello was released in 1995 to much fanfare (check out www.poe.org), collaborated with MZD on her as-yet-unnamed follow-up due out this May. The CD is based around the book, but more on an interpretive level. There's even a song called "The 51/2 Minute Hallway," which is the title of one of Navidson's shorts.
Yet MZD's father encouraged him in other ways. He was always bringing home new films for home screenings, which MZD claims was a big part of his education. Much of the theory behind House of Leaves is based on film theory, how an image from frame to frame (or in this case page to page) affects the emotion of the reader. "People of my generation and younger generations will understand this readily," he says. "The text isn't designed to provide the architecture of the house. Most of it is designed around cinematic grammar."
A Cinematic Education
Although young, MZD remembers fondly the elaborate ceremony of watching films at home during this time. "The screens were amazing," he says, "pieces of art in themselves." During the reel change, the family would often discuss issues presented in the film. A particular discussion that comes to MZD concerns the Clint Eastwood film Outlaw Josey Wales. "There was a great discussion about how it was actually a Vietnam movie. And that really blew me away," he says. "The notion that something that was way off in left field could be directly related to the political climate of our country was fascinating."
After high school, MZD went to Yale, where he graduated in 1988 with a degree in English Literature. He was still writing at that time, but admits that he was rejected from every writing seminar he applied to, because he was doing things with fiction that were not accepted in the minimalist 80s. "I always had a taste for multiple harmonies and themes," he says. "Even at that time, I was testing the way text is placed on the page. I can't imagine that my experience was unique, that there was a crowd that was the literary elite in school. Because they had been tapped by their professors and their literary magazines, it was assumed that they were going to go on and write great things and represent the literature of our generation. And they were wrong."
"Ideas percolated and they often became these other things that neither one of us expected."
—Edward Kastenmeier, MZD's editor
After graduating from Yale, MZD traveled to Europe. Especially interesting is the time he spent in Spain. You'll remember that as a kid he and his family lived there for two years. Papa Danielewski was making a documentary full of interviews with all sorts of cultural, political, military and artistic icons. "He poured all of his heart and his money into that film," MZD says. But apparently the film was viewed as unacceptable by the government and was confiscated. "So my father lost this film. It was something we grew up with, the stories and rumors that it still existed in some vault." While MZD was in Spain, he tried to dig up the film. He ran into so much red tape that his quest was rendered fruitless. Well, that's all how you look at it, I suppose. That "missing" film is an obvious influence of The Navidson Record.
The Big Book Influence
Another interesting footnote to his European tour is that the only two books that MZD took with him were the King James Bible and a copy of Shakespeare's tragedies. "I was always amazed by how much those contained," he says. "And that was an enormous influence, the sense that there was this great diversity of language and topics in one book." It was around that time that MZD began to feel that all of his scattered writings up to that point had a purpose. But it wasn't until his father died of cancer that the final light actually flipped on. That was when the idea of a house that is a quarter of an inch bigger on the inside than it is on the outside entered his brain. "It was the binding structure that I was looking for that would unify the previous four years' work I'd done up to that point," he says. "It's kind of sad to think about it, but both of his kids began to succeed once he died."
After releasing portions of the book on his own Web site, MZD finally finished the book and began searching for an agent. Warren Frazier, an agent from John Hawkins & Associates, who actually went to college with Poe at Princeton, received the first fifty pages of House of Leaves. "I remember thinking, 'If he's half as talented as his sister is, it should be an interesting book.' So I took it home that night and was just astounded. I remember the sensation of just disappearing into the book. Everything faded around me, and I fell into the book." Frazier went on to drag his girlfriend out of the kitchen to experience what he just had.
MZD's Agent Speaks
Frazier requested the balance of the book and finished it in a little less than two days and begged MZD to let him represent House of Leaves. A little concerned about the expense it would take a publisher to publish such a unique book, Frazier admits that he tried to convince MZD to approach some aspects of the book a little differently. "This wasn't because I editorially felt that they didn't work," he says. "I just thought he was handicapping himself a bit as far as selling it." But when MZD flew to New York City to meet with Frazier, "he just smiled and politely and said 'No.'" So they sent it out as it was.
Edward Kastenmeier, an editor at Pantheon, is one of the thirty editors who received the manuscript. He moved on it fast and was able to land the book in a small auction that garnered MZD a $15,000 advance for simultaneous hardcover and paperback publication. "Our collaboration was very suggestive," Kastenmeier says. "A lot of the time I would be at X and Mark would be at Z and we would end up with Y. Ideas percolated and they often became these other things that neither one of us expected." But it wasn't always such an easy road. At one time Kastenmeier made a suggestion that he thought was a very innocuous change, which was flipping two passages. MZD recalls, "I ended up tabulating that that one change would require like 600-700 other changes."
But the production of the book was probably the most trying for everyone involved. "There was a blue word for God's sake," he says. "That was a huge hurdle." Having already burned out three computers of his own, MZD saw a train wreck at the end of the typesetting tunnel. So rather than wait for it to work itself out, MZD flew to New York City on his own dime (Pantheon later reimbursed him) and put in 24-7 days for three weeks at Pantheon typesetting it himself.
"I took [the manuscript] home that night and was just astounded. I remember the sensation of just disappearing into the book."
—Warren Frazier, MZD's agent
A Never Ending Metatext
House of Leaves is slated for a March 7 release in simultaneous hardcover and paperback editions. 2000 limited-edition hardcovers have been printed. 1500 have been signed by MZD. The book is also available for reading online for a limited time on the iUniverse.com's Daily page. While MZD believes the physical book is an important experience, he says, "There's going to be a completely new experience created by the Internet. Poe and I have been toying with the idea that media like iUniverse.com are creating a new metatext. We could envision twenty years from now another edition of footnotes and riffs from your article and your message boards for instance. A great family tree!"
What is MZD working on now? "I'm trying to get some sleep," he says. When pressed a little harder, he says, "I know the next book will take eight or nine years to create. And that's all I'm saying on that subject." In the end, House of Leaves is the sort of book that will never sit quietly on the bookshelves in any one genre. It's as much a literary novel as it is an exhaustive biography, as much a dime-store horror as it is a critical thesis, as much a textual story as it is a reel of images—an amazing new genre, a docu-fiction if you will. And MZD is not the sort of person you might expect to create the first monumental addition to the lexicon of 21st Century American literature. Or is he?
Nelson Taylor is a content editor for iUniverse.com. His first book America Bizarro will be published by St. Martin's Press in July of 2000.