Brilliant or annoying?

When the film "The Blair Witch Project" came out in 1999, it became fodder not only for movie reviewers, but for academics who churned out journal articles with titles such as "Trespass into Temptation: Gendered Imagination and 'The Blair Witch Project.'"

Mark Z. Danielewski's 2000 novel "House of Leaves" — which just popped up in the new books section of the Ashland library — follows photojournalist Will Navidson, who has made a documentary film about his eerie new house and its otherworldly ability to warp space. In the novel, a reclusive academic type, Zampano, then writes hundreds of pages of critical analysis about Navidson's film.

Like the real film "The Blair Witch Project," Danielewski imagines that the film about the house (which is described only through Zampano's writings) has spawned an industry of academics to dissect it. Zampano frequently references the critiques of these academics in the text and footnotes of his own dissertation-style analysis.

Now, why would anyone want to slog through "House of Leaves," a 709-page novel written in an academic style, complete with footnotes, appendices and an index?

I asked myself that the many times I put the book down in annoyance. But I came back to it and eventually finished it because the writing is actually good, and filled with interesting details from disciplines that vary from physics to mythology.

In one section, Zampano goes from a tale about Echo, a beautiful mountain nymph from Greek mythology, to a discussion of how a person must be at least 56.5 feet away from a solid surface in order to hear his or her voice come back as an echo. That's because when the sound wave bounces back, there must be at least a 50 millisecond gap between the time a person yelled and the return of the sound for the human ear to distinguish between the two sounds. The long discussion of the subject of echoes bears spine-tingling fruit when Zampano writes that Navidson's children's voices produce echoes when they are playing in the house, even though none of the rooms come close to approaching 56.5 feet in length.

Later, Navidson descends a lightless spiral staircase in the house, but then it stretches into a vast, unknown length when he reaches its end. People who are waiting for him at the top of the staircase drop a coin into the darkness but can't hear it hit bottom. More than 50 minutes later, the coin falls near Navidson's feet.

Without all the academic accoutrements, "House of Leaves" could have been a fairly short story about a frightening house that manages to kill people through shifts in space. That by itself is fairly cerebral, so why all the extras? It's easy to imagine Danielewski, an obviously talented writer who studied English literature at Yale and did graduate work in cinema and television studies, forced into the mold of writing term papers in the dense, screw-the-reader style favored by academia.

(I confess to devouring piles of books on postmodern philosophy and art criticism during college, then cranking out my own deep, murky papers. It wasn't until I read William Zinsser's classic "On Writing Well" that I began to appreciate the virtues of brevity and clarity.)

"House of Leaves" parrots academic writing and even makes fun of it at times with absurdly intellectual and mind-numbingly long footnotes. Danielewski has absorbed that style and then risen above it through Zampano's writings, which are dense but also engaging.

Predictably, in an example of life imitating art that imitates life, the novel "House of Leaves" has itself become the subject of journal articles, with titles that include "Blueprint(s): Rubric for a Deconstructed Age in 'House of Leaves'" and "What Has Made Me? Locating Mother in the Textual Labyrinth of Mark Z. Danielewski's 'House of Leaves.'"

Reach reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-479-8199 or

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