October has officially arrived, and with it our first annual Reading With Hippos LiterScary Challenge! We're going to channel some seasonal spirit by reading a scary book together and discussing it in the weeks leading up to All Hallow's Eve. This year's selected title is House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski.
I've already heard from a couple readers (one of them my adoring husband) that they've given up on this book out of frustration and impatience. You see, not only is House of Leaves a brick of a book at 700 textbook-sized pages...it's also one of those dreaded, unspeakable Experimental Novels.
I mean, just take a look at the title page. It says, “Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, by Zampano, with introduction and notes by Johnny Truant.” So just who the hell is the author of this book, anyway?
The answer: Mark Z. Danielewski. But the premise is that the book is a collection of papers and files written by a blind man named Zampano about a documentary film called The Navidson Record. Then, the story goes, Zampano's files are discovered after his death by another guy named Johnny Truant, who collects them and comments on them and adds his own flavor of crazy to the mix. The idea is that the film documents events so terrifying that Truant goes a little nuts just reading about them. (Which sounded ridiculous to me at first—being scared of a movie you've never even seen?--until I remembered the time a former coworker described the first Saw movie to me in detail, and I was so freaked out I vowed never to see it, a vow I have kept to this day.)
So instead of a typical novel that reads sensibly, in orderly lines of consistent font from the top of the left-hand page to the bottom of the right, this book has footnotes by various people, text that goes in all different directions, pages with only a few words, and extensive appendices that a group of editors supposedly collected for publication. It's not so much a book as it is a treasure hunt.
Wikipedia informed me that there's even a literary term for this kind of writing, coined by Espen J. Aarseth: ergodic literature, which literally means “nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text.”
Books like House of Leaves are polarizing to say the least. Some people don't want to wade through a bunch of cryptic gobbledygook to get to the meat of the story. They're not interested in expending a bunch of effort just to read from the beginning to the end.
For example, here's what Adam had to say about the book, which he abandoned in disgust:
“I think of a perfect reading experience as very similar to a perfect run. I get into the zone and just enjoy the ride. This ergodic literature shit is like someone following me along on my run, tripping me every third stride and screaming in my ear like that crazy lady I passed early one morning who apparently thought she was alone on that public sidewalk and was convinced I was accosting her.
There should be a rule. For every dozen footnotes, I get to kick the author in the pills. Mark Z Danielewski has about five nut-kicks coming his way. And I only made it like 50 pages into House of Leaves."
As much as I love Adam and his colorful wordsmithing, I have to disagree with him when it comes to creatively constructed fiction. I love books that make me feel like I'm discovering something. I love books that are made up of letters, with no explanatory narrative in between. I love books that give me fake news articles and chat session transcripts and let me draw my own conclusions. I love analyzing unreliable narrators, trying to separate truth from paranoid fiction. Basically, I like when authors hide the bones and let me go dig around in the backyard trying to find them.
I still vividly recall when my mom got a copy of Griffin and Sabine when I was a kid. I spent hours examining the illustrations, folding and unfolding the letters, picking apart the handwriting on the post cards. And does anyone else fondly remember those Babysitters Club Super Special books that were extra long and contained handwritten post cards from the girls at the beginning of each chapter? Ann M. Martin was my idol, man. I wanted to hang out in Kristy's bedroom, waiting for the phone to ring and dishing about teenage life.
So far, I've read the prologue and the first two chapters of House of Leaves, and it already feels like a fun, twisty, creepy odyssey. You'd think reading a description of a movie you haven't seen would be like watching paint dry, but IT'S SO INTERESTING. I can't wait to see how Danielewski builds the story-within-a-story-within-a-story.
I'm also curious how scary the book is going to turn out to be. I tend not to be easily frightened when it comes to reading; there's something about holding a book in my hands that reminds me it's not real and keeps me from getting too shivery. If I'm reading a scary or gory passage, I can often keep my visualization of the details purposefully fuzzy. (Movies and TV are a totally different ball game, though—I'm a very visual person, and once I've seen something, it's really hard for me to forget or ignore it. It's why I couldn't watch more than ten minutes of The Walking Dead, and it's why I cry every time I watch Steve Carell's last episode of The Office. It's all just too real!) Since I tend toward stoicism with books, I'll be interested to see if Danielewski succeeds in creeping me out.
I'll be posting every week or so to discuss my progress in the book and reactions to what I've read. If you're game to join me, comments will be open on all posts, as well as on Goodreads and Facebook, so you can add your voice to the conversation.
Happy October, and happy (scary) reading!