First the Web, then the Shelf

A novel makes its on-screen debut.

BOOKS ARE MARVELOUS—not only because of what's in them, but because they work beautifully as machines. Down the ages we've had scrolls and stone tablets and knots tied in twine, but nothing quite measures up to your ordinary book in human-friendly design and sheer appropriateness to the task and pleasure of imbibing literature. The folks who design electronic book-substitutes certainly have their work cut out for them to duplicate and improve on readability, portability, and comfort. Here's some advice: Flash is not the answer. House of Leaves

by Mark Z. Danielewski

(Pantheon, $19.95) My editor asked me to review Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves not because I'd previously expressed an interest in Lovecraft-meets-Joyce postmodern book-length horror fiction (why, had you?) but because the publishers, Pantheon Books, in conjunction with iUniverse.com, were serializing it online before its March release date using the Flash format. Enter the tech columnist, who's generally a good sport about such things. No more, never again, nohow. Of the various ways one might publish a book online—plain-text, Web-style HTML markup, looks-just-like-the-paper-version Acrobat files—Flash isn't even on the list. It's tedious to print out and requires a Net connection, which doubtless made it appealing to the piracy-fearing publisher but forces the reader to sit at her desk scrolling and scrolling through the screen-and-a-half-length pages. (The experience confirmed my long-held suspicion that most art directors don't read, since no literate soul would have signed off on this mess.) I managed on average three heavily footnoted pages at a time before blood starting leaking out of my eyeballs, certainly appropriate for reading a horror novel, but rather hard on my keyboard. And the text? As far as the serialization had gone by the end of February, I enjoyed it OK. Danielewski's laboring under a great deal of hype for this debut novel, which his publicists are comparing to David Foster Wallace and even James Joyce in narrative structure and scope. That's unfair weight on what's shaping up to be a corking shaggy-dog horror story, a multinarrator text about a house slightly bigger on the inside than on the outside. The story itself, which quotes both real and imaginary sources in its analysis of a nonexistent film (The Navidson Record) of the house's insidious horror, is oddly appropriate for the Web—at the heart of this story there is a 404, a file not found. Like H.P. Lovecraft, Danielewski uses a faux-academic voice to make us believe that the horror and strangeness in The Navidson Record is so profound as to attract scholastic attention, and a healthy helping of this-is-so-scary-I-can't-even-tell-you exposition to let our minds fill in the blanks ࠬa The Blair Witch Project. Copious use of footnotes enhanced the found-text effect, although the meta-discussion between the academic "editors" and the derelict, half-mad "narrator" who discovered the original text reminded me more of the Journal of Irreproducible Results than of James Joyce. It's a promising debut, and perhaps the beginning of a renaissance of postmodern book-length horror fiction. I'll just wait until it's an actual book.

 
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