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.
Danielewski.
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
space.

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
experience.

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-
between.

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
Leaves
.

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 New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
The New Canon

Home Page

Gabriel García Márquez:
Love in the Time of Cholera

David Foster Wallace:
Infinite Jest

Margaret Atwood:
The Handmaid's Tale

Toni Morrison:
Beloved

Jonathan Franzen:
The Corrections

Don DeLillo:
Underworld

Zadie Smith:
White Teeth

Roberto Bolaño:
2666

Mark Z. Danielewski:
House of Leaves

Cormac McCarthy:
Blood Meridian

Philip Roth:
American Pastoral

Jonathan Lethem:
The Fortress of S0litude

Haruki Murakami:
Kafka on the Shore

Edward P. Jones:
The Known  World

Ian McEwan:
Atonement

Michael Chabon:
The Amazing Adventures of
Kavalier & Clay

Philip Roth:
The Human Stain

Mario Vargas Llosa:
The Feast of the Goat

Marilynne Robinson:
Gilead

David Mitchell:
Cloud Atlas

José Saramago:
Blindness

Jennifer Egan:
A Visit from the Good Sqad

W. G. Sebald:
Austerlitz

Jeffrey Eugenides
The Marriage Plot

Donna Tartt:
The Secret History

Michael Ondaatje:
The English Patient

Saul Bellow:
Ravelstein

A.S. Byatt:
Possession

Umberto Eco:
Foucault's Pendulum

Cormac McCarthy:
The Road

David Foster Wallace:
The Pale King

J.K. Rowling:
Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone

Arundhati Roy:
The God of Small Things

Roberto Bolaño:
The Savage Detectives

Paul Auster:
The New York Trilogy

Per Petterson:
Out Stealing Horses

Ann Patchett:
Bel Canto

Ben Okri:
The Famished Road

Joseph O'Neill:
Netherland

Haruki Murakami:
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Marisha Pessl:
Special Topics in Calamity
Physics

Jonathan Franzen:
Freedom

Colm Tóibín:
The Master

Denis Johnson:
Tree of Smoke

Richard Russo:
Empire Falls

Alice Munro:
Runaway

Martin Amis:
London Fields

Mark Haddon:
The Curious Incident of the
Dog in the Night-Time

John Banville:
The Sea

Chuck Palahniuk
Fight Club

Jeffrey Eugenides:
Middlesex

Junot Diaz:
The Brief Wondrous Life of
Oscar Wao

Aravind Adiga:
The White Tiger

Tim O'Brien:
The Things They Carried

Irvine Welsh
Trainspotting

Tobias Wolff:
Old School

Tim Winton:
Cloudstreet

David Foster Wallace:
Oblivion

Oscar Hijuelos:
The Mambo Kings Play
Songs of Love

More to come


Recommended Links:

Great Books Guide
Conceptual Fiction
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's personal web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

American Fiction Notes
LA Review of Books
The Big Read
Critical Mass
The Elegant Variation
Dana Gioia
The Literary Saloon
The Millions
The Misread City
Page-Turner
Page Views

Disclosure note: Writers on this site and its
sister sites may receive promotional copies of
works under review.