on 12 November 2001
Part academic paper, part horror story, part too-real-to-be-comfortable description of escalating insanity, part impenetrable footnote-maze, part (multi-)layered meta-novel - and fully enigmatic and wonderful, House of Leaves is one of the strangest and most memorable books I've ever read. A mere review can't possibly do it justice; isolated and analyzed, its very different and seemingly incompatible elements seem odd, frightening, pointless, sick, funny, and anything in between. Put together, though, the whole thing develops a thoroughly weird and unique attraction.
Having completed the book, I can image Mark Danielewski thrusting his fists skywards, cackling madly and roaring, Viktor Frankenstein-style: "It's alive!" It feels like something that shouldn't be alive but somehow still is.
Danielewski's creation is by no means flawless, the nuts and bolts show in places - but in most cases, I have the impression that the flaws and imperfections are intended.
This one is going to stick, keeping to the edges of my mind like shadows; never quite disappearing, and - when night comes - crawling out of hiding, demanding attention again.
I was planning to write a longer review of this book, but I now don't feel I can add much to the in-depth and thoughtful review left by "drkennydouglas" (see below).
Yes it is clever, very clever. And yes, it is scary. And yes, the scariness unfolds gradually, partly though the asides in the footnotes, as a good horror story should do. However, what I will say is that I found this book very hard work to read.
Most of the time I found the innovative typographical design increased my enjoyment of the book. I've probably used the wrong word there, but what I mean is that the text is printed in all sorts of different ways, sometimes upside down, or working up the page (when the character was climbing a ladder), or in a small box in the middle of the page that gets smaller on subsequent pages (as the character crawls through an ever smaller tunnel), sometimes in mirror writing, and once in a box that went "through" the pages. I particularly enjoyed the sections where there were only a few words on each page which had the effect of ramping up the excitement in an almost cinematic way.
The book has two main stories that unfold side by side. One is in the main text (the Navidson Record), the other unfolds in the (extensive) footnotes (the Johnny Truant story). But there are also numerous pseudo- academic asides which can be quite tedious (I have to admit I mostly skip-read these - you can't just ignore them because they have little snippets that are relevant to the main stories). You also end up flipping backwards and forwards through the pages, and I remember saying to myself at one point "I do wish they'd printed this book in the order I am supposed to read it!".
Overall I enjoyed this book, and at times found it hard to put down. But is was hard work to read and I was rather relieved when I had finished it. If your taste goes to lightweight fiction then I suggest you take note of the review further down by "Bookworm Lady a1za".
on 19 November 2006
Style; unquestionably - Danielewski's postmodern blockbuster (complete with detailed footnotes to completely fictitious academic papers, crazily long lists in mirror writing, and "experimental" typesetting which at certain points becomes out-and-out concrete poetry) is as cool as they come. But for me, this unique book also has substance aplenty: indeed, it is an unexpectedly moving meditation on love as an act of faith and on the possibility of redemption, using the intertwined narratives concerning the troubled relationships of Will and Karen Navidson, and of Johnny Truant with his dead mother, to draw unexpected parallels.
The whole structure of the novel seems designed to highlight the impossibility of any account of events ever representing "objective truth" (another of Danielewski's central themes), as we get three separate people commenting on the same events from very different perspectives. At the start of the book, Johnny Truant (a troubled drop-out with a murky past who is now working as a tattoo artist) comes across a pile of paper (one of the senses of "Leaves" in the title) while clearing the apartment of the reclusive and recently-deceased old man Zapato. These "leaves" contain Zapato's scrawled narrative, written in pseudo-academic docu-drama style complete with footnotes, of the Navidson family's experience of moving into a Haunted House. In addition to Zapato's own footnotes, Johnny Truant adds footnotes which both comment on the Navidson narrative and relate his own ongoing story. To add another layer of complexity, a supposedly objective editor (Danielewski himself?) adds his own footnotes to Johnny's footnotes! Although both Will Navidson's and Johnny Truant's tales are chilling, the whole business of the footnotes and associated postmodern trickery has obvious comic potential, and Danielewski takes full advantage of this to poke fun at various targets: at celebrity culture; at the very American genre of the docu-drama; at previous "Horror" classics of book and film; and at postmodernism itself.
It's impossible to do the book justice in a few paragraphs. However, just when both Will Navidson's and Johnny's tales appear to be becoming ever darker and heading for a horrific end (as Navidson's house spontaneously grows an ever-enlarging labyrinth of barren, ash-walled corridors which gradually "eats" various family and friends, and Johnny's deteriorating mental state seems to be leading him into a drink- and drug-fuelled spiral of violence in which he risks becoming the very Minotaur haunting the Navidson house), Danielewski pulls off the most unexpected trick of all - the possibility of a "happy ending". And it is here that the book's true greatness lies.
Danielewski ultimately gives the reader a choice between two different readings of the words "ashes" and "leaves", both of which are as omnipresent throughout the book as the word "house" (which always appears in blue writing). The initially obvious meaning is that "leaves" refers to Zampano's description of the Navidson house's labyrinth (symbolising Death) and "ashes" refers both to the charred sheets among Zampano's papers and to the cold, dark walls of the labyrinth (images of Destruction). However, towards the end of the book when both Will Navidson and Johnny Truant may have been redeemed by acts of love (depending on exactly how the reader chooses to interpret certain passages), Danielewski offers an alternative reading, with "Ash" referring to the ash tree, which was the Tree of Life in Norse mythology, and "leaves" referring to the leaves of the tree which symbolise Life and Creation. The Happy Ending therefore becomes an act of faith on the part of the reader. To say more would be to risk a "plot spoiler" - but this changes the novel from being just a witty and entertaining postmodern horror story, into being something much richer and stranger.
on 27 April 2011
Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves is without question the most original novel of the naughties, first published in 2000.
The core tale is of a house which grows an extra hallway on the inside but remains unchanged on the outside. The hall grows, shrinks, moves, devours, terrifies and psychologically scars its guests. The house's resident, Navidson, makes a documentary about it called The Navison Record. The thrust of the narrative is an elongated essay by the now-deceased viewer, Zampanò, which is further edited and commentated on by its finder Johnny Truant, whose tale is told in footnotes. A third anonymous editor (possibly Danielewski) butts in now and then.
Navidson's quests into the hallway with various comrades are chilling. Zampanò's retelling of it shows the drama possible through academic research. In a book so dense with symbology and recurring themes, it is actually of benefit to have Zampanò analyse the story as we go. The rabbit trails and tangeants can however become tiresome, and it does require a great deal of perseverance at times to plod on.
Truant's story is altogether different. A junkie, tattoo parlour worker and general philanderer, he becomes greatly influenced by editing Zampanò's manuscript. Danielewski does a brilliant job in contrasting the controlled, careful writing of Zampanò with the rambling, expletive-filled nonsense of Truant. Truant is at times hilarious, greatly insulting to the reader and unreliable (on more than one occassion he admits to making something up) which makes him a great antidote to the formalities and constraints of his counterpart. He is, however, annoying. Drug-induced or psychosis-induced narrative turns into incoherent mess of words that just can't be followed; he is at his most clear when he's pornographically reliving his many dalliances with girls, and fantasies of Thumper. He's seriously screwed, at one point imagining the ways in which his mate's list of conquests have been molested and dreaming of at least two violent murders.
Mention must be made of one of the most unique aspects to the book: its layout. The words climb like a ladder, fall like a stone and are mixed with French, German, Latin, Morse Code, Braille and musical scores. The layout changes are always in keeping with the plot and make it great fun, underlining just how bizarre the story is. They're not as frequent as you might think but certainly add an extra layer of enigma.
House of Leaves may be a victim of its hype. It isn't all that over-enthusiastic fans promise it to be, but it does transcend genre, crashes through classifications and changes the very concept of what a book should be. Brilliantly bonkers, fantastically unique and absoluely terrifying. Well worth a read - if you have the guts to survive the ride...
on 6 December 2010
What is House of Leaves? Well it's a very strange book, is what. Written in the style of a textbook we learn of a house somewhere in America which has within its walls a dimension-bending hidden backstage. The book is written as an analysis of a film called The Navidson Record, a documentary made by award-winning photojournalist Will Navidson. He and his family move into the house for a fresh start and he wants to document their new life by setting up various cameras around the house. And so you can imagine their surprise when, one day, a corridor appears in one of the walls that hadn't been there before.
Soon the inquisitive Navidson explores and finds vast cavernous chambers that can't possibly exist according to the house's blueprints. He assembles a team and together they go into those strange, impossible places. With disastrous consequences.
This book is a real blast. It's a great haunted house story in its own right but the way it's written adds an extra dimension of entertainment. The author builds up the reality of the house so well early on that when the story hits full stride it's incredibly exciting.
More that this, the ending is fantastic. Books with gimmicky styles often fail at the end but it's not the case here. The end is amazing.
on 3 April 2001
Unless you have quite a lot of patience and a willingness to read an 'experimental' novel, you'll probably get bored/lost/frustrated/angry with this typographically erratic, non-linear novel. Having said that, you could be a rebellious reader (postmodern texts often claim to require an active reader, but if you are following the trail the author has left does that make you particulraly active? Maybe it's more active to read against the author's wishes -random thought), ignore most of the footnotes and what you'd be left with is an intriguing, cleverly elaborated story. Is it horror? Well, it didn't make me particularly frightened. I'd say it works better as a philosophical conceit - what if space defies our conception of it and constantly shifts beyond our possibilities of knowledge? In that sense it did make me wonder/feel concerned about whether the rooves, floors, walls surrounding me might suddenly disappear.
I think this feeling was heightened by the typographical games Danielewski plays. For me these were one of the best parts of the book because the layout of the text seems to be mirroring what is happening or being talked about in the main part of the text, so for example in the Labyrinth chapter, the text is in unconnected blocks on the page which are the circuitous paths you read/walk by following the footnotes back and forth across the pages.
As for the footnotes themselves, someone else reviewed this and said that they are misleading but I think that is the whole point - throughout the book we are told that no-one apart from Zampano knows about The Navidson Record. He is deliberately using misleading or fictive quotes and sources to write a faux-academic paper about an imaginary film. The quotes and footnotes then are meant to add a touch of veracity to this game with fictive levels but should not be taken too seriously.
The one thing that got on my nerves was the whole Jonny Truant narrative. He rambles on for pages about not very much, his story is a lot less interesting than the main one and his diversions always seem to happen when the main story is at its most interesting. However, he is an essential component for understanding the book so I wouldn't advise skipping his parts - plus, towards the end a lot of the ideas etc seem to tie together around him. My own theory s that he is meant to be taken as the sole author of the whole work (i.e. he is Zampano and Jonny Truant) because there are lots of textual echoes between Zampano's bits and the letters of Jonny's mother.
At times I thought Danielewski seemed to be hinting at language's/text's (in)ability to represent space and with all the typographical games to be pushing at the boundaries of what can be represented (and how it can be represented). I'm sure someone's PhD is lying somewhere in this dense, encyclopedic novel full of ideas as there is such an inexhaustible stream of information that it could take years of study to understand it from all it's different angles. I think Danielewski is sending up whilst at the same time working within this academic framework with many of the footnotes which are speculating about the film's possible meaning (in fact, it's almost worth reading just for these which rip-take the pointless, convoluted, preposterous ideas of mainly American, mainly literary academics).
All in all, this book is not for the fainthearted, is hard work to read but contains an intriguing story, and ambitious and poetic textual experimentation which make it a rewarding read.
If you're into the whole non-linear, multiple narrative thing but want a read that isn't quite as complex as this try Perec's 'Life A User's Manual' and Calvino's 'If on a Winter's Night a Traveller'.
on 2 June 2002
House of Leaves is one of the most original and astonishing books I have read in recent times. At first I found the prospect of getting through the book daunting - the many footnotes, the double narrative, the often bizarre layout of the pages - but I found the book hard to put down, and the stories, utterly absorbing. This is a very American book, yet it spans Time and Culture. The ghost is a very American ghost, but it is the stuff of many a common nightmare. It is the story of Johnny Truant, an aimless tattoo artist, living in LA, who discovers in the room of his former landlord, a strange collection of manuscripts. As he becomes more and more deeply embroiled in collating these, strange forces are unleashed and he sinks ever deeper into terror and madness. At the same time, "The Navidson Record" the story contained in the manuscripts is woven into the tale, a story that is both compelling and disturbing. The footnotes are fascinating, containing elements of Myth, Physics, fictional criticism (which is at times ironic and comical) Architecture, History and practically every field of Human endeavour. It is also a remarkably touching and compassionate book. It made me feel as if I understood the American psyche a little better. It feels like a great labour of love on the part of the author.
I would recommend this book to any polymath, or anyone with a love of Myth, Art and Science. It is a fabulous literary trip. Oh, and its also extremely scarey!
on 18 May 2015
Blown away—and at times disturbed by this innovative book.
When one buys House of Leaves it soon becomes obvious why this could never work in e-book format... and that is not a bad thing. Having it as a physical thing is to experience it all the more.
I would love to go into more detail here but the kids need sorting out. I did however have to give it a nod and to add that it has to be in my top 10 of all time. I get through about 70 books a year and so this shows how impressed I was by this book, which is at times akin to a work of art in how it works and what it can perhaps do to the reader.
At one point I was reading this in the shade, on a very hot day during my holiday in Turkey, and I got goosebumps and a chill ran down my hunched over spine. I was both disturbed and highly impressed by this.
Give it a go... and fall into the web that the House on Ash Tree Lane spins.
on 14 June 2015
Great book with the exception most of the Johnny Truant parts (who is one of the major narrators in the story, Zampano and The book's editors being the others), I found Truant's little stories and anecdotes got in the way of a better story and I didn't like the character in general. The Navidson Record and Zampano's interpretation of what happens within the 'house' however is excellent in describing a film we cannot see.
The thing that is feared the most within this apparent horror story is not some monster or ghoul but a changing, unknown space and a fear of an unknown. The use of an ergodic style adds to this within the presentation of the book itself. The appendices at the end also add another dimension to this one of which is a fascinating work of literature in itself.
Not quite a perfect work but I'd highly recommend purely on how unique and original it is.
on 25 October 2012
To give this book mere 3 out of 5 stars suggests that House of Leaves is a mediocre work. It isn't. But 3/5 is still the closest approximation of my feelings after reading it, no matter how inadequate the rating system is in expressing the book's flawed genius.
House of Leaves has been marketed as a horror story, and a lesser author than Mr Danielewski would no doubt have turned it into a very engaging and still original piece of horror fiction. But the author has aimed higher, far higher.
Just saying that House of Leaves works on many levels would be a rather trite observation; that much is obvious after even the most cursory glance. At the book's heart is a false document of sorts, which has been edited by one hand, then one more layer has been added by the character who, I guess, can be said to be the main narrator - and then there's one more layer of editors. Sound complicated? It is. For those who 'get' the book, all those layers probably are one of the hooks that draw them in, each level adding new meanings to decipher and discuss. I, on the other hand, was first confused, then irritated, and finally increasingly bored. At one level, it has been suggested, the book is a parody of post-modern textual criticism. If House of Leaves indeed is such an inside joke writ large, then I'm one of the outsiders.
House of Leaves has attracted a considerable cult following. The sort of following who, for example, debate the true meaning of something that in a more ordinary book would have been dismissed as a typo. I can very well believe that Mr Danielewski has crafted the book to perfection, that every word, letter and space is just as it should be. But I wasn't fascinated enough to begin the quest of unravelling all the meanings encoded therein.
House of Leaves will remain in my bookshelf. I have this uncanny feeling that one day I might try again - and be sucked in, becoming one with cult. More probably not, but I like to keep my options open.