Saturday, 10 September 2011

Good Books for Gamers #1: House of Leaves

This is the first post in a series I hope to be setting up over the coming months; Good Books for Gamers. I'll be reviewing books which I believe should be a the top of any gamer's reading list. They won't be like "Big Jim's Big Book of Game Cheats", but hopefully they'll be books which will nurture the kind of mindset which you need to be a good gamer or at least bring up some interesting ideas for your brainbox.

First book in the series is one of my top 5 fave books of all time: House of Leaves

Released in 2000 and written by Mark Z Danielewski House of Leaves tells the story of a number of different characters:

Johnny Truant - a tattoo artist who's friend suggests he moves into the apartment in his block which has just become available. In this apartment he discovers (amongst other weird shit) a mysterious manuscript which he edits and transcribes for the reader, the manuscript is written by the previous occupant of the flat a Mr...
Zampano - a mad old man who lives alone in his flat with boarded windows and blocked ventilation systems. He is writing a critique of a documentary film called "The Navidson Record" which concerns the events surrounding...
The Navidson Family - William Navidson is a famous photographer and he is moving into a new house with his wife and children. Unfortunately, they find that their house holds some pretty fricking freaky secrets. Will Navidson films his exploits in his new home on a video camera; the results of which eventually become the documentary film "The Navidson Record".

(There are also the fictitious Editors who pipe up now and again to edit or paraphrase some of Johnny's ramblings - they are assumed to be the ones publishing the book as a whole).

So, as you can probably tell the book is pretty complex: Johnny is transcribing Zampano's critique of a documentary about a family. It's a book about a book about a book about a film. House of Leaves is a freaking onion, it has so many layers. It's a whole bushel of onions, dammit. Do onions come in bushels? I guess that's irrelevant.

The Plot
Starting from the very bottom of the narrative tower, ie: the Navidsons. The documentary "The Navidson Record" is pieced together out of old family videos filmed by Will Navidson. After a sizable description of the characters and their lives before they moved into the their new house, the story really starts when they discover that their new home is literally bigger on the inside than it is on the outside (they actually get a tape measure out to verify this). But it really, really starts when they come home from a trip to find a new door in one of the walls. A door leading to a hallway which, physically, should extend out into their back garden, but doesn't. The documentary which Zampano critiques mainly concerns the strain which is placed upon the family as Will Navidson and other intrepid adventurers explore the pitch black labyrinth of twisting hallways, shifting doorways and endless chambers which lies behind the new door. Frankly, the whole experience is incredibly harrowing and terrifying!

Zampano's written critique of the documentary is rambling and frequently goes on tangents so immense it's like reading an acid trip. At one point he begins listing the characteristics of various shotguns - right down to their measurements and specifications. 

Johnny transcribes Zampano's insane ramblings for us, but often goes out of his way to describe his own drunken, drug filled, sexed up, insomniac lifestyle. Johnny's story is told in parallel to Zampano's, often in epic footnotes (sometimes taking up whole pages themselves).

What makes House of Leaves so interesting for me is the fascinating way the information is presented to the reader. The text is often distorted to reflect the characters emotions, feelings and situation at the time. For example, when Will Navidson is squeezing his way through an increasingly narrow hallway the text becomes tighter and tighter - forcing the reader to quickly skip through the text and feel the increasing pressure as the blank margins bear in on the text. 

 Similarly, as Will is climbing a rockface we have to read up the page in sections to simulate the feeling of ascending at a laborious pace.

Danielewski employs colour to add an extra layer of intrigue into his text. Every instance of the word house is in blue, every instance of the word minotaur is in red and throughout the book, strikethroughs and purple text is employed - but never really addressed. The book comes with a sizable full colour appendix containing a number of letters to Johnny from his mother and other interesting pieces.

Gaming the book
Why I think this book would be interesting to the average gamer is that it is absolutely riddled with riddles, it is covered with codes, cryptic cryptids and puzzles which, if you don't keep a keen eye, you'd miss. For example, at one point Johnny meets a band in a bar who have read his published copy of Zampano's transcript, not knowing the Johnny is the author one member says: 
"Had he made it to Virginia? Had he found the house? Did he ever get a good night's sleep? And most of all was he seeing anyone? Did he at long last find the woman who would love his ironies? Which shocked the hell out of me. I mean it takes some pretty impressive back-on-page-117 close-reading to catch that one." 
(House of Leaves, pg514)

So, you flick back to page 117 and find (in a particularly rambling footnote on his woman trouble) Johnny says:
"...a wild ode mentioned at New West hotel over wine infusions, light, lit, lofted on very entertaining moods, yawning in return, open nights, inviting everyone's song"
(ibid, pg117)
Which is an acrostic of "a woman who loves my ironies". Other puzzles reveal more about the characters, at one point Johnny's mother writes a letter which contains the code: "my dear Zampano, who did you lose?" similarly in acrostic - suggesting a hitherto unknown connection between the two characters.

This is just one of thousands of hidden gems which are burrowed deep within the book, and there is debate on whether we have discovered them all, and whether we have fully understood the ones we have discovered. There is the matter of the front cover, for example:

As you can see, the front cover is not quite large enough to cover the inside of the book. Almost mirroring the house itself in it's topsy turvy dimensions. Some have gone as far as to say that the book published by the editors IS the house - and the house IS the book. But that's getting into some pretty messed up metaphysical fuzz which I really don't want to get into right now.

My point is that the ability to grapple with puzzles such as the House of Leaves is an essential characteristic to being an effective gamer (well, OK, maybe not some FPS games, but certainly puzzle, MMO and adventure games). Even if you don't buy into the puzzle and game side of it, it's an incredibly engrossing book. Before the end you begin to wonder what part of it is real? Was there ever a family who lived in a house bigger on the inside than out, or was that made up by Zampano? Or was HE made up by Johnny as an expression of his increasing paranoia and madness? Or is it all the insane ramblings of Johnny's mother - alone in the mental asylum?
If you aren't convinced as to how enveloping the mystery is, just take a look at my copy: 

PS. that's how a book SHOULD look by the way - nice and worn. If another person lectures me about "breaking the spine" of a book, I might just go biblical on them.

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