The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985. These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of The New
Canon, Ted Gioia reviews
House of Leaves by Mark Z.
House of Leaves
by Mark Z. Danielewski
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
Some novels experiment with language or plot or chronology. But
how about a work of fiction that takes typography to the next level?
I can tell that you’re hesitant. Okay,
could I interest you in an exciting
novel featuring heroes who combat
the ultimate evil . . . a house with lots
of extra space? And I'm talking lots of
Hmmm, still not taking the bait. But
wait, there’s more (as the infomercial
announcer says). This book also
features a hidden code in the footnotes,
and it spells out secret messages for
those who can figure out the rules. It
includes a pioneering index—yes, full
of mistakes; I’ll admit the page
numbers were hastily compiled—but
which lavishes readers with entries for
and, in, so, dark and all, among others. Starting on page 64, the
author provides the longest list of photographers outside of the
master files at Getty Images. The inside covers can double as a
random number generator. Hell, this book even has words in
different colors. And I save the best for last: there are several
pages that you can’t read without a mirror.
Wait! Don’t run away!
Okay, I’ll admit it. It’s not easy to pitch House of Leaves, Mark Z.
Danielewski’s strange magnum opus, to the skeptical. And this book
can be so frustrating, that there were times I wanted to toss it out the
window, and let the gardener rake it up. House of Leaves, please
meet pile of leaves.
Any yet . . . And yet . . .this is also a feverishly creative book unlike
any other you have encountered. If I hadn’t persevered with this
volume from beginning to end, I would never have believed that a
novel in the new millennium could hold so many surprises. Don’t let
the gimmicks—and, yes, there are lots of gimmicks here—fool you:
House of Leaves is an exhilarating, spooky, mind-bending
But this book is not for the faint of heart. I’m not just talking about
the macabre Stephen King-ish atmosphere in this iconoclastic
novel—which is downright creepy at times. Even more striking is
the way this book forces readers out of their comfort zone.
Danielewski gives you no quarter, no place to hide. There are a
handful of books I have encountered over the years—such as
Heidegger’s Being and Time or Joyce’s Ulysses or Pynchon’s
Gravity’s Rainbow—that possess a “will to power,” an ambition to
dominate the reader. You must address books of this sort on their
own terms, or not at all. House of Leaves is one of those works. It
sets its own rules, and you can play or walk away, but not much in-
For those who are patient in tackling this monster, Danielewski
delivers a brilliant conventional novella in epistolary form toward
the close of his book. This section has been published separately as
The Whalestoe Letters, and is well worth reading if you don’t have
the courage to enter the whole House of Leaves. Yet don’t kid
yourself: this incisive story-within-a-story only gives you the
smallest glimpse of what this author has constructed.
And what has he constructed? Take a night in the funhouse with the
doors locked. Mix in the mutterings of mad academic pushed over
the brink by a persnickety tenure committee. Add footage from a
surrealistic film auteur, the worldview of a tattoo artist, the
metaphysics of fortune-teller, the tricks of a vengeful print shop
devil. Simmer over a fire of burning reference books. Spice with
various fonts. That is the closest I can get to describing House of
For someone like me, who doesn't skim or speed read fiction, the
only thing scarier than reading House of Leaves is the idea of re-
reading it. Yet I am tempted to do so, if only to consider some of the
alternative angles to this text. You could read this book as a savage
commentary on literary and artistic criticism. You could read it as a
verbal equivalent of a labyrinth, or as some sort of a Borgesian
nightmare brought to life. You might look at the genre-oriented
aspects of the story, and classify it as a horror tale or a romance or a
Philip-K-Dick-sian exploration of a universe gone crazy. There are
many doors into House of Leaves, although I am still unsure about
the exits. Put simply, in an age that has a fetish over deconstructing
the text, this is one text that will keep you busy for a long, long time.
Connoisseurs of “serious fiction” have mostly given this book the
cold shoulder, but I think they might just be afraid. Who can blame
them? House of Leaves runs counter to almost everything praised
or promoted in the current literary environment, where even the
most daring writers seem happy to follow the rules, stick to the
established norms of narrative fiction. Danielewski has brought a
unicorn to the dog show, and all the other pet owners are scowling.
Yes, there have been imitators—check out the cutting parody,
House of Pancakes or, even better, read Steven Hall’s The Raw
Shark Texts which shows that Danielewski’s model can inspire
punchy commercial fiction. But there is only one House of Leaves.
Don’t just take my word for it. On your next long trip, make sure it’s
the only book you bring along . . . if you dare.
|The Best in Fiction Since 1985