Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves

It's right there on the list, #73 out of 79 among "Books That Literally All White Men Own: The Definitive List,"* so … well, I don't know how I feel about that.

The list, I mean, in that I've read 21 of the 79 and taught three of them, and I'm unaccustomed to being gendered and raced all that accurately. Mark Danielewski's novel House of Leaves' place on the list, however, I'm totally fine with. This might be the biggest wank of a novel I've read in years, which for an English professor is saying something.

Seriously, this is a 700-page novel that purports to analyze a non-existent documentary film of a possibly haunted house that contains a door to a constantly shifting labyrinth of unlit corridors and rooms, and that:
  • includes an extraneous 40-page index;
  • requires you to be familiar enough with deconstruction to notice some of the jokes and follow some of the exposition, but not so much that you'd ridicule the Derrida dialogue for being unutterably, cartoonishly untrue to Derrida's habits of self-expression;
  • spends a startling amount of time self-consciously slumming amongst drug-takers, alcoholics, strippers, tattoo artists, and the like (look at meeee, exactly as edgy as These People!); and
  • is really about how suburbia is, like, totally a rabbit hole for Creative Geniuses to fall down and be swallowed by.

I've blogged before about how horror isn't my genre, and that's one of the generic affiliations this novel gets tagged with. To the extent that it's a novel of and about horror (and yes, it's partly that), then this would explain some of my skepticism about House of Leaves. But really, it's barely a horror novel: definitely unheimlich, a word unpacked and repacked with relentless self-congratulatory humour here by Mr. Danielewski, complete with requisite sneering allusions to Heidegger, but that's hardly the same thing.

What some pages look like. Fancy.
I see that other reviewers regularly remark that readers tend to either love or hate this novel, on which grounds they are pleased to call it a cult novel. I'd suggest, though, that an alternative response to House of Leaves is to have a hard time not rolling your eyes while reading it. Presumably I'm not far off the target market for this novel, but lordy, am I ever judging you harshly if you loved House of Leaves.

(It may be worth saying, incidentally, that in the New York Times, the worryingly prolific poet Robert Kelly described this book as, among other things, "sexy," which made it into a blurb on the back cover. More wrong, a reviewer has rarely been.)
* For the record, about this brilliant list from The Toast:
  1. I've read #11 (high school girlfriend), 15 (tutoring high school kids as undergrad), 19 (humouring a friend), 34 (book club), 61 (undergrad pretentiousness), 64 (because Tolkien, seriously, you guys), and 74 (BECAUSE JACK LONDON = AMAZING, so shut up);
  2. I've been given #24 (not sure who by - read it, ugh), 40 (friend - read it, hmm), 44 (brother-in-law, unread), 58 (brother-in-law, unread), 60 (ex-wife - read it, appreciated it), and 73 (student - read it, see above);
  3. I've bought for myself #12 (prof's recommendation - read it, loved it), 49 (not sure - read it, loved it), 55 (not sure - read it, loved it), 57 (friend - read it, LOVED IT), and 68 (course text - read it, LOVED IT); and
  4. I've taught #35 (took over someone else's course - students mostly liked it), 38 (dystopian environmental lit - students suffered), and 56 (history of nature writing - students seemed baffled).
Yep, I'm more than a little bit white. Though it's less clear how manly I am.


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