House Of Leaves Book Review

by Josh Hanagarne on September 24, 2010

house of leaves

“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?

Josh

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Ry September 24, 2010 at 1:12 pm

One of my favorite books ever, and I have to applaud Danielewski for sticking his neck out. Calling it pretentious is missing the point – it’s ambitious and says “I’m doing something.” The pretense is that you can be an artist when you write a novel.

The sequence of single lines disappearing to nothing is one of my favorite experiences of any media.

I also enjoyed Only Revolutions, which makes me a minority. I saw a lot of those poor books in the bargain bins.

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Josh Hanagarne September 24, 2010 at 1:28 pm

Yeah, I have noticed that as well. For a book that must have cost a fortune to print, I was always bummed out to see Revolutions discounted. I didn’t love it, but I sure did like flipping the pages and watching the circles spin.

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mumsyjr September 24, 2010 at 1:27 pm

I first read this book sometime around 2002 or 2003. I liked it A LOT. It helped that the Poe album “House of Leaves” was partially inspired by it. The last track even has a passage of the book being read aloud over some very good music. I went through the book twice on it’s own, and once trying to note the connections to it in the album (which are a lot), and over all had a ton of fun with it.

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Johnny B. Truant September 24, 2010 at 2:55 pm

** KINDA SPOILERS **

The semiotics in the work are just fantastic. Everything is a symbol for something else, and often that something else is a symbol for something else. You start to wonder what is inside and what is outside. The particularly mindbending part for me is when Will begins reading the book he’s currently a character in, reading by the light of the previous pages as they burn.

The one question I have every time I read it is about a scene very near the end of the book, involving a baby that is very sick and a mother who seems to keep it alive by will until she finally lets it go. I’m convinced it’s an important scene, but nobody I’ve run into has thoughts on it. Remember, much of the book is really about Johnny’s relationship with his mother, but… can’t quite figure that one out.

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Josh Hanagarne September 24, 2010 at 4:14 pm

Have you read any Umberto Eco, while we’re trotting out the big words like semiotics?

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Lynn Kilpatrick September 24, 2010 at 4:08 pm

I’ve read most of it. I love the Navidson record and the faux academic footnotes with hilarious titles. I love all of that. I didn’t/don’t love the Johnny Truant parts. They felt self-indulgent and excessive. I agree that the house part/film analysis stuff is great and really smart.
It’s not so much that I think the Truant parts are pretentious, but they made me feel kind of like I felt when I read On The Road as a thirty year old. Like if I had read it when I was 18 or 20 I would have thought it was really cool and innovative and wild, but now it just strikes me as solipsistic and masturbatory.
I admit I haven’t finished it. But I think about how much better the book would have been (for me) without the Truant parts. Maybe I’ll feel differently if/when I finish it…

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Josh Hanagarne September 24, 2010 at 4:14 pm

I read On The Road for the first time a year ago, on audio. I don’t think I’d enjoy it as much in print. There are a lot of books and authors I would have died for, had I read them at the right time (Ayn Rand when I was 19 years old, for instance).

I like the footnotes too. Have you read any David Foster Wallace?

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Lynn Kilpatrick September 24, 2010 at 4:24 pm

Yes, quite a bit. But I actually prefer his non-fiction. Go figure. Though there are a few stories of his that I love.

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Tony Irvine September 25, 2010 at 5:28 am

Read it and absolutely loved it. One of the great “anti-novels.” It really gets into your head and demands that bit more attention and commitment. For anyone who enjoyed House of Leaves I can highly recommend all of the following:
Pale Fire – Nabokov
At Swim-Two-Bird – Flann o’Brien
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller – Calvino

None of them are anything like House of Leaves in terms of plot but none of them are really like anything else at all… They are all definitely not normal novels though. Don Quixote and Tristrim Shandy probably belong in there too. Would be very interested to hear of any recommendations from others.

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Josh Hanagarne September 25, 2010 at 12:13 pm

I’m a HUGE fan of Pale Fire and the Calvino book. Still haven’t read At Swim yet, but I’ve heard great things about it, thanks.

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Piñata Tsunami May 23, 2011 at 5:05 am

(Half a year late to the comment section here, but I figure why not)

House of Leaves is definitely one of the best books I’ve ever come across. Even the things you could say negatively about it work in its favor. Now, there are many valid excuses not to finish it. As I recently said when I reviewed it for a friend, it’s not a book for everybody (or more pointed, like the book actually opens with, “This is not for you”). It’s a very demanding book that is in my perspective openly hostile to its readers. It sort of brings to mind that book Rowling describes in her Harry Potter series, the Monster Book of Monsters; at times, House of Leaves almost seems out to harm you.

And that’s the one thing I would bring up ahead of anything as the real brilliance behind it. The hostile, alienating format (making me at times feel like I was losing my mind) accentuates the alienation of the story perfectly. There’s no safe harbor, not for you, not for Truant, nor for anyone else the House touches.

As to accusations that the book is pretentious, I vividly disagree. It has artistic ambitions, but there’s no pretense about it, because it delivers. It’s extremely well thought and well crafted, and where some people might see long paragraphs about the labyrinth of Minos as artistic pretense, the same paragraphs resonate on a deeper level as symbolic of the nature of both the book and the house it describes. Nothing in this book, no matter how pretentious it might seem at first glance, is tacked on. It’s part and parcel to the whole work.

All in all, House of Leaves is a strong, profound piece of literature. It’s keenly intellectual, emotionally powerful, an enigmatic mystery throughout. I’m sure many other experimental authors were called pretentious in their time, but Danielewski places himself in a proud line of artists, behind notables such as Diderot, Joyce, Quenau, Burroughs or perhaps most strikingly Jorge Louis Borges – I don’t think it’s accidental that one of the main characters is a blind, Spanish writer. My reading of House of Leaves tells me that Mark Z. Danielewski is a man not content with following the conventions of his artistic field, but investigates and challenges them. To me, that points to him being the real deal. Either way, the book is amazingly enjoyable, but if and only if you can get past the challenges of form presented.

Or, to tie it neatly back into the book, if you can get into the heart of the labyrinth.

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Will June 19, 2012 at 2:40 pm

It’s hard for me to enjoy commenting on a book that bashes the idea of commentary itself (the spiel about reverberations growing WEAKER as they move away from a source – like an earthquake’s epicenter; the chapter mocking theorists like Derrida – a philosopher with a particular distaste for the term CENTER). I’d argue that MDZ, then, is a fan of centers. What is his center? I’d argue that it’s his idea of good parenting (the novel ends with families happily trick-r-treating on Halloween; Truant is OBSESSED with his mother, resents her, and has the typical literary sense of a disillusioned, angsty teen, and includes, with the book, excerpts from his mother’s diary).

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