House of Leaves
Mark Z. Danielewski
"This is not for you..."
Well this one was an experience…
House of Leaves is a novel of layers, the main body of the book is a textbook, a literary criticism of a film called “The Navidson Record”. The film is a documentary about a photographer (Navidson) and his family who move into a new house in an attempt to start a new life for themselves. However, they soon begin to notice strange things about their new home. The House is bigger on the inside than the outside and, as Navidson begins to investigate this strange occurrence, even stranger things begin to occur as new doorways begin appearing out of nowhere and the building begins rearranging itself until one day, a corridor appears that leads to a gigantic, ever shifting labyrinth within the bowels of the house.
That’s one layer of the novel, the introduction reveals that the textbook was written by a mysterious blind man named Zampano who was seemingly driven mad while writing it, compiling the book on hundreds of loose pages, napkins, post its and other various scraps. The book was discovered, upon Zampano’s death by a character named Johnny Truant and it is Truant who presents the discovery to us.
Over the course of the book, scattered among Zampano’s own footnotes, (which occasionally provide additional information but which, for the most part, consist of references to various fictional publications for “further reading”) are additional footnotes written by Truant himself.
These footnotes give details of Truant’s research into the credibility of Zampano’s text but mostly provide tales from his life, his bar crawling with friends and his obsession with a stripper named Thumper who frequents the tattoo parlour he works at. As his story progresses we can see that Truant himself is going mad as he delves further into the mystery of the house.
The layers go even further beyond that in the form of additional footnotes from an unnamed editor who has received the book from Truant.
So we have: The Navidson Record > Zampano’s House of Leaves > Johnny Truant’s Additional Material > Additional material from the editor…
…still with me?
The main problem I had with this book was that, while I enjoyed the experience of actually reading it, I didn’t enjoy the actual content half as much.
The formatting of the book is extraordinary, with some chapters reading like a normal textbook while others look more like scrap books with several passages glued onto them. There are pages laid out like film scripts and radio transcriptions, others contain fragments of sheet music or large blank passages where we are told Zampano has burnt a hole in the page, obscuring some details forever.
My favourite sections were the long chapters of nearly blank pages. Perhaps only a sentence or two each, but with the text placed in a manner that corresponds to the actual goings on of the text. The characters duck to the ground and the text moves to the bottom of the book, a gunshot cracks out with a small circle of text in the centre of the page while, overleaf, the text scatters everywhere like the chips of the doorframe the bullet strikes.
Reading these chapters is a wonderful, unique experience. Danielewski even manages to match your reading speed to the speed of the action, as, during this frantic scene, you’ll race through a hundred near empty pages of the book just as the characters race through the situation you’re reading about, it’s brilliant.
The problem comes with the story itself. While I found the contents of The Navidson Record interesting, reading about them in a textbook was not. Zampano’s constant page breaks for references to other books or his long tangents dealing with subjects unrelated to the film itself pulled me away from the atmosphere. When this happens during quiet moments in the “film” it’s not too much of an issue, but when it happens during moments of suspense and tension it kills your immersion in the moment.
This serves to make Johnny Truants sections difficult to read too. He’s supposedly reading the same book as us, but while the book is driving him insane, it drove me to boredom, the end result being difficulty in relating to him.
One frustrating thing about the book is that The Navidson Record doesn’t actually exist, a fact that Johnny Truant himself confirms in his introduction when he says he’s had no luck at all in tracking down a copy.
While it certainly would have been a big undertaking, I kind of wish that Danielewski had actually filmed the movie. There are several scenes that just don’t translate well to text and having an actual copy of the film to watch would have been useful and would also have provided an additional layer to the story, making the various interpretations even more interesting.
I think House of Leaves is a book that needs to be read more than once to fully take in. For a large part of your first read through you’re almost learning how to read the book and it’s impossible to fully grasp everything that it throws at you. The question is, is it worth reading again to pick up everything you’ve missed? And honestly, I’m not sure.
As much as I enjoyed parts of this book, I never loved it, was never able to let go and fully immerse myself in the world. There are far too many instances where you’re expected to put in a lot of work for not much in the way of reward and at times it definitely feels like it’s trying to appear smarter than it actually is.
Criticisms aside though, purely as a reading experience, I’d have to recommend it. There’s a lot of really interesting stuff going on throughout and even though it can be a hard slog at times, it’s definitely worth seeing through to the end, just don’t expect to be blown away by the story itself.