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The Ash Tree Project

By Steven Moore

Sunday, April 9, 2000; Page X03


By Mark Z. Danielewski

Pantheon. 708 pp. $40

Reviewed by Steven Moore

Any hope or fear that the experimental novel was an aberration of the 20th century is dashed by the appearance of Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, the first major experimental novel of the new millennium. And it's a monster.

Ten years in the making, more than 700 pages long, sporting a half-dozen typefaces, 450 footnotes, two colors of ink, lengthy lists, a bibliography, three appendices, illustrations, an index and e.e. cummings-like typographical layouts, this is not your typical first novel. It's more like David Foster Wallace channeling H.P. Lovecraft for a literary counterpart to "The Blair Witch Project."

A gifted but troubled young man who calls himself Johnny Truant (after his poor attendance record at school) comes across a huge manuscript, by an elderly man known only as Zampano, that was abandoned after his death. The manuscript is a mess, but Johnny is irresistibly drawn to it and begins transcribing it, adding in footnotes a running commentary on his own wayward life.

Zampano's manuscript, entitled "The Navidson Record," is a scholarly critique of a film of the same title made by a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist named Will Navidson. Johnny soon discovers that there is no such film, and even if there were, Zampano was unqualified to write a critique: He was blind. Yet so compelling is Zampano's account of "The Navidson Record" that Johnny -- like most readers, I predict -- suspends disbelief and undergoes a visceral experience that has him doubting the distinction between reality and fantasy.

Navidson's documentary concerns a strange house in rural Virginia into which he moves with his family. All is well at first, but small spatial displacements soon occur: The house measures slightly wider inside than outside, doors mysteriously appear inside with no counterparts outside. Then a walk-in closet appears: The more it is probed, the deeper it gets, until finally it opens up into a vast chamber of vertiginous dimensions, with a spiral staircase in the center that descends endlessly. Navidson gathers a crew for an expedition to the bottom of the stairs.

The accounts of the exploration of this dark abyss are hair-raising, and the physical impossibility of it all only deepens the metaphysical dread felt by the characters. A sharp-clawed monster may inhabit the labyrinth -- references are made to the Minotaur -- and the explorers suffer madness and death before Navidson can be rescued. The physical layout heightens the experience: After Navidson's crew lose their way, the text mimics the labyrinth by expanding and contracting, going off in odd directions, printed upside down or backward, with narrative and multi-layered footnotes crowding each other for space. As texts collide, the reader experiences the same disorientation the explorers do.

The house on Ash Tree Land overshadows other famous haunted houses in literature because of Danielewski's audacious and erudite imagination, which links the terrifying spaces within the house to everything from psychological states like claustrophobia to the Norse legend of Yggdrasill, the great ash tree at the center of the universe. What in other hands would be just another tale of a haunted house becomes in Danielewski's a searching examination of the "psychological dimensions of space." The author brings in architecture and myth, film theory and psychology to explore the way people react to the physical space around them.

Zampano's footnotes cite (and mock) scholarly film criticism; Johnny's footnotes chart his own psychic disintegration, though not in as compelling a manner. After a troubled childhood, he has drifted until finally settling as an apprentice to a Hollywood tattooist. He lives la vida loca, falls for a stripper, does too many drugs and generally burns himself out as he continues to edit Zampano's monstrous text. Details gradually emerge about his ambiguous relationship to his brilliant but mad mother, who literally scarred him for life but in another sense gave him the intellectual groundwork to take on the task of editing "The Navidson Record." Her letters to her son written from an insane asylum, printed in one of the appendices, are dazzling.

Danielewski's achievement lies in taking some staples of horror fiction -- the haunted house, the mysterious manuscript that casts a spell on its hapless reader -- and using his impressive erudition to recover the mythological and psychological origins of horror, and then enlisting the full array of avant-garde literary techniques to reinvigorate a genre long abandoned to hacks. The novel may look like Frankenstein's monster in its patchwork assembly, but it's alive! It's alive!

A final note: It is heartening to see a novel like this published by a major New York house. House of Leaves is something I would have expected from someplace like Fiction Collective 2, not from venerable Pantheon Books. Right on.

Steven Moore writes frequently about contemporary fiction. His edition of the Charles Bukowski/Sheri Martinelli letters will be published next year.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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