“What is House of Leaves about?” This is a question I’ve gotten a few times at the library, and one that remains wonderfully difficult to answer.
House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski is nearly impossible to review for anyone who has not seen the book, or attempted to read it. I say that because:
1)The way the book looks has a lot to do with how the book is read/experienced, including crazy typefaces, page layouts, different colored fonts, and monstrous amounts of footnotes;
2) I know a lot of people who have tried to read the book and have given up more or less immediately. Some of them say it’s too difficult, some say it’s too annoying, some say the book is too pretentious…seriously, pick your adjective. It’s probably been used to justify someone not finishing House of Leaves.
I loved it. The first time I read it was six years ago. I got it out again this summer to take another look and see what had changed for me.
House of Leaves Summary
The narrator of a large portion of the book is a man named Johnny Truant. Early on in the story, a blind man named Zampano dies in Johnny’s apartment complex. When he and a friend go to investigate, they find huge amount of disorganized pages, a manuscript that Zampano has apparently been working on for a long time.
The only thing is, Zampano was blind.
Truant takes the manuscript with him and begins to read it. He slowly becomes obsessed by what he reads and his life starts getting…strange, to put it mildly. Johnny Truant’s part of the story appears in the footnotes. It is interspersed with the actual text of Zampano’s manuscript, which is the other storyline.
This is where is starts to get really weird.
The Navidson Record
Zampano’s text is an academic dissection of a documentary film, created by a man named Will Navidson whose family has recently moved to Virginia. Will is an award-winning photojournalist who is making a documentary about…well, it doesn’t really matter what it was going to be about. House of Leaves largely about what the documentary becomes when the house they have moved into begins to misbehave.
A series of surveying measurements initially reveal that the house is larger on the inside than on the outside. The discrepancy is less than an inch, but is a sign of things to come. One day a small, closet-size room appears in the home, although the outside dimensions have not changed.
Things progress as doors come and go, then become hallways, hallways which have nothing but absolute blackness on the other side. Will Navidson becomes obsessed with what is happening and begins exploring, leading to one of my favorite scary scenes in all of literature–“The 5 and 1/2 minute hallway,” named for the amount of time he spends on the other side of an opening that appears in the wall.
Eventually a famous exploration team is called in to investigate the depths of the house. By this point it is apparent that there are, at minimum, miles of unexplored space in the blackness of the house. Grand staircases appear and then vanish. Antechambers are used as reliable points of reference, but they also shift and change, making navigation awkward if not impossible.
There is also something down there that keeps growling.
Things go badly with the exploration.
Keep in mind that all of this is being treated in what is sometimes a frame-by-frame academic analysis of a film. Navidson’s and his families’ experiences in the house were filmed. What we are reading when we are not going through Johnny Truant’s first-person account is a dissertation-quality examination of a film.
Sound weird? Not really. Not only was the document written by a blind man, but the Navidson record is entirely fictional. The blind guy wrote a massive academic treatise on a documentary that doesn’t exist.
Meanwhile, Truant is struggling to stay sane, hold down his job at a tattoo parlor, and progress in his relationship with an exotic dancer named Thumper.
Anything bad about House of Leaves?
Honestly, I have no complaints about this book. I will admit to skipping parts of it. There were mathematical passages that were literally beyond me and I didn’t feel bad about skimming pages about the frequency at which various echoes vibrate.
But for anyone who really enjoys deep exploration of a book, there will always be something new to find here.
I normally get annoyed when an author is obviously showing off their talents and/or knowledge, but Danielewski obviously had so much fun writing this book that I’m happy to let him do it. He knows a lot more than I do about a lot of things and it made for a fascinating read that absolutely cannot be duplicated.
And if you want to go even farther, the very manner in which the book was released in its various editions is a performance of the themes within it.
Who would I recommend House of Leaves to?
Anyone who knows how to read who is old enough not to be scandalized by the rougher material. Horror fans. Anyone who loves anything postmodern. And at its core, I personally think this book is a love story, although I won’t argue too much with anyone who disagrees. That’s how I read it.
Have you read it? What did you thin?
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