“House of Leaves”: Mixed-Media Fiction or Gimmick Fiction?

“House of Leaves” falls into the love-it-or-hate-it category of literature, a book all at once intriguing and inventive and mind-blowingly creative…and also gimmicky, needlessly difficult, frustrating, and self-indulgent. It is a book that defies easy genre categorization (just call it “fiction,” and more specifically, “mixed-media/ post-modern fiction,” and don’t try to further label it), but also defies easy critical review.

Here’s the basic idea: Danielewski gives us–at the core of the book–an academic study called “The Navidson Record,” written by a strange and now-dead loner named Zampano, about another man’s experiences (and his documentary film) living in a haunted house. Already, at its most basic, the book is two narratives in one: Zampano’s and Navidson’s. And the academic study is heavily footnoted, providing hundreds of other academic perspectives on the Navidson narrative. So the central story becomes a satire of academia, as well as a meditation on narrative and story structure in the age of mixed-media. Brilliant, right?

But then we have an added sphere of narration. Someone has found this academic study, and has interspersed it with a story of his own, how it has affected his life, etc. Simultaneously, then, we have up to four stories happening on a single page, all at once (Navidson, Zampano, Random Scholars, and Narrator). And sometimes even a fifth: the unnamed editors who have taken this entire collection of material, and have published it as a book called “House of Leave.” And it is here that the book loses its effectiveness, I think. While Navidson’s and Zampano’s stories both resonate, and while the scholars are simply a tool for satire or further depth, the narrator (Johnny Truant is his name) simply isn’t interesting. He writes in abstractions, going on for pages and pages about darkness in his soul, horror in the world, etc., etc., giving five-page footnotes so focused on creating a dark and creepy tone that they wind up sounding as cliched and meaningless as a “Hellraiser” monologue. One of the most basic tenets of good creative writing is “show, don’t tell,” and the Johnny Truant narrative fails miserably in this regard. It’s all adjectives, emotions, and abstractions. It detracts from, rather than enhances, the story.

There’s a whole lot more going on throughout this novel, too, of course, so my over-simplification of the book’s structure is…well…simply an unsatisfying discussion of “House of Leaves.” This is also a book that plays with typefaces, fonts, and even the placement of text (we have text in the margins, text swirling in circles, text that leads us on elaborate “wild goose chases,” text that is crossed out, text on top of text); Danielewski is offering us a reading experience that we’ll never have again, in other words, and many of his choices are brilliant, form serving function, much like a breathless progressive verse poem. Some choices, though (a series of letters from Mother to son; the inclusion of an index; the inclusion of appendices) simply feel like gimmicks, unnecessary mixed-media additions designed (through their very strange-ness) to gain mainstream attention rather than actually building upon the narrative at all. They’re no different than a hologram cover, or a pair of 3D glasses packaged with the text. Danielewski, in other words, got carried away.

“House of Leaves,” in the end, is best remembered for the fantastic story at its core, for the satirical look at modern scholarship, and for the inventive use of text and mixed-media…but one cannot simply deem the book an “instant classic,” or “seminal” (though we might regard it as such with some perspective). It fails as often as it succeeds, mostly because of the author’s excesses. Sometimes, the very best works are a combination of remarkable energy, and remarkable restraint. Think about it this way: would you have watched Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy if each film had been 12 hours long (and they very well could have been). The best writers know when to stop, when to edit, when to cut. They know when to omit bad ideas. Sometimes, not every throw strikes the bull’s eye, but the best and most enduring writers know when to pluck the errant darts from the wall.

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