Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski

One-line summary: A postmodernist experimental novel that's creepy and clever, but maybe a little too much of one and not the other.


Amazon: Average: 3.9. Mode: 5 stars (50%)
Goodreads: Average: 4.06. Mode: 5 stars (45%)

Years ago, when House of Leaves was first being passed around, it was nothing more than a badly bundled heap of paper, parts of which would occasionally surface on the Internet. No one could have anticipated the small but devoted following this terrifying story would soon command. Starting with an odd assortment of marginalized youth - musicians, tattoo artists, programmers, strippers, environmentalists, and adrenaline junkies - the book eventually made its way into the hands of older generations, who not only found themselves in those strangely arranged pages but also discovered a way back into the lives of their estranged children.

Now, for the first time, this astonishing novel is made available in book form, complete with the original colored words, vertical footnotes, and newly added second and third appendices.

The story remains unchanged, focusing on a young family that moves into a small home on Ash Tree Lane where they discover something is terribly wrong: their house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

Of course, neither Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Will Navidson nor his companion Karen Green was prepared to face the consequences of that impossibility, until the day their two little children wandered off and their voices eerily began to return another story - of creature darkness, of an ever-growing abyss behind a closet door, and of that unholy growl which soon enough would tear through their walls and consume all their dreams.

Right after the Foreward of House of Leaves, before the Introduction, is a single page that says: "This is not for you."

It's one of the few things in the book you can take at face value. This is really the kind of book you're either going to love or else you're not going to finish it. For all the one-star reviewers of House of Leaves (and there are many), I wouldn't say they didn't "get" it; I'd say this book is not for them.

House of Leaves is like the Blair Witch Project executed on paper. The same people who thought Blair Witch was just annoying bullshit will probably think the same about this book. Except me; I thought Blair Witch was annoying bullshit, but House of Leaves hooked me.

Reading this book is, like the Halloway party that mounts an expedition into the shifting depths of a house that rearranges its internal dimensions to stretch, contract, or reveal a staircase miles deep, an expedition into pages that do not follow normal conventions of text flow. There is page after page of a single line running along the bottom, up the margins, or upside-down along the top. Sometimes the words make patterns. Sometimes they spill backwards up the page. There are blocks of text that you have to hold up to a mirror to read.

If that sounds unbearably annoying to you, this book is not for you. It's not just typographical cleverness; the structure of the entire book is designed to drown you in the madness of the multiple narratives surrounding the House on Ash Tree Lane. It's a postmodernist experiment. It's a postmodernist mindfuck.

I loved this book, even though at more than one point I almost shouted "Are you fucking kidding me, Mark Z. Danielewski?" and threw it against the wall. The almost-final straw came in Appendix E., with the Whalestoe Letters -- an epistolary novella in itself which Danielewski actually expanded and published separately -- in which at one point Johnny Truant's insane, institutionalized mother writes in secret code and I found myself going through four pages of gibberish to decipher it, and then every other page I saw after that my eyes were scanning the text all the wrong way trying to see the hidden messages.

On the one hand, the long stretches of sparsely-inhabited page space means that this book is not quite as long as it may appear from its thickness. On the other hand, there are pages that are just packed unindented monoparagraphs with the stream-of-consciousness rambling of a drugged-out tattoo artist who is slowly losing his mind.

You're either going to keep going and keep going (like Navidson and Halloway who keep going and going into the dark hallways of the house that change constantly and stretch out forever and there's always another door and another bend and another corridor and another corridor and another turn) or you're going to give up after X number of pages because this is just not for you. You cannot just pick this sucker up and read from page 1 on. It's not that kind of a book.

What is the damn book about?

So, it's about a house. The house is occupied by a photographer, Will Navidson, and his family. Navidson made an award-winning documentary about his house called The Navidson Record. The Navidson Record is famous. It was a pop culture phenomenon.

An old blind man named Zampanò, living alone in a one-room apartment in Los Angeles has written a magnum opus, a book about The Navidson Record, which he extensively (extensively!) footnotes, and also inserts discursive narratives about everything from historical architecture to Jungian psychology to photography to the nature of truth and reality. And other shit like that. Also, letters, poetry, excerpts in dozens of languages from Shakespeare, Dante, Plato, Pliny, Boudelaire, Freud, you name it.

There are footnotes and references to hundreds of books and scholarly journals and magazines and celebrities, all talking about The Navidson Record. Zampanò has footnoted everything. There are citations from textbooks, ancient poems, TV shows, phone interviews, every imaginable sort of citation. All the foreign passages get translations. Sometimes the footnotes are footnoted.

And there's a story in the footnotes, too. Because Zampanò died, and his book falls into the hands of Johnny Truant, an aimless loser who works at a tattoo parlor in Los Angeles. And as Johnny Truant becomes sucked into Zampanò's odd book, footnoting it himself, editing it, and trying to track down what the hell the old man was writing about, he discovers that The Navidson Record, of course, does not exist. Zampanò quotes Stephen King, Larry King, Jay Leno, and a hundred more academic luminaries all talking about it, Time magazine articles, CNN features, the list goes on... all completely made up. The subject of Zampanò's life's work existed only in his head.

In Johnny Truant's footnotes, we follow him in what becomes a crazy-making quest to unravel Zampanò's obsession. Truant himself becomes obsessed with finding the House on Ash Tree Lane, which exists somewhere in Virginia, a continent away. We watch the unraveling of Johnny Truant's mind in the process. It becomes increasingly hard to tell how much of what Truant says is made-up bullshit -- quite possibly it all is.

So, we have an unreliable narrator commenting on an unreliable narrator writing about a non-existent documentary about a fictional house and family. Got it?

You have to admire the staggering amount of effort that went into the creation of this book. Not just all the printing tricks (and I cannot help wondering how the hell a debut author talked any publisher into going along with what had to be a typesetting and layout nightmare), but the way he wrote this multi-layered interwoven story, each as if it were coming from a different mind. The references alone required a formidable knowledge of everything from English Lit criticism to music history to photography. And Oh My God the work Danielewski put into those citations. Some are real, some are of real publications but non-existent articles, and most are completely fabricated but you'd have to Google them to convince yourself of this. The level of verisimilitude is meticulous and mind-numbing.

Sometimes I think this book is one big joke, though maybe you have to have spent time in graduate school to get it. By that I do not mean that you need to have a graduate degree to understand the book, but if you've spent long, tedious semesters reading academic article after academic article, some of them brilliant and educational and many of them a circle-jerk of academics writing papers that will only ever be read by each other, then you'll recognize and laugh at the academic jargon and format that makes up so much of the book. There is plenty of epistemological wankery in the footnotes, and sometimes in the text itself. (Halfway through House of Leaves I felt fits coming upon me, and I wanted to scream "Derrida! Foucalt! I am interrogating this narrative from the wrong paradigm!")

But is it scary?

Way down deep inside this matryoshka doll of a novel, you've basically got a haunted house story. And at this level, House of Leaves failed to really, truly creep me out, because while the House on Ash Tree Lane is certainly creepy and alien and bizarre (even if you cannot decide whether or not it actually exists within the context of the book), the multi-leveled filter through which you read about the experiences of Will Navidson and his family and friends in the house robs it of much of the scare factor. But the house isn't really the point. The unreliability of narratives and the many different ways that seemingly normal individuals can deteriorate into unrecognizable bugfuck insane people right before your eyes (except maybe they were insane all along and you just didn't notice) is the point. Or not. Maybe the point is wading through hundreds of pages of stunt typesetting to arrive at some sort of resolution. Graduate students could easily write theses about House of Leaves trying to unravel it. That would be Danielewski's biggest joke.

Now, if you want something similar, but shorter and scarier, then late one night when you're all alone, point your browser at The Dionaea House and read through to the end. Pleasant dreams!

What the negative reviewers say

Well, it must be said that many, many readers were thoroughly unimpressed with Danielewski's cleverness, typesetting tricks, and book-as-performance-art, and thought it was just an overlong gimmick. Or as one reviewer put it: "It started out interesting, and then at about page 107 Danielewski decided to masturbate for the next 600 pages."

Danielewski followed House of Leaves with another experimental novel, Only Revolutions, which has an Amazon average rating of 2.9 and a mode of 1 star, and its Goodreads ratings look like this:

So, it looks like even a lot of Danielewski's fans could only suffer so much postmodernist wankerycleverness.

Verdict: House of Leaves is a monumental work of genius, but not necessarily a work of monumental genius. It's exhausting and frustrating, and completely different from most any other novel you're likely to read. If you can get through it, it's worth it, but be prepared for some eyestrain and headaches. And it probably is a lot scarier if you read it alone at night in a big empty house.
Tags: books, books1001, horror, reviews

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