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.
I think this book has the skeleton of a really terrifying horror story; I'd love to see The Navidson Record or read a novelization of it. Even so, given the way House of Leaves is written, I can't see it as scary in the least. I was an English major for far too many years and actually quite enjoy reading analytical articles, but it's not the same as reading the actual work. I know a lot of people who think The Haunting of Hill House is frightening, but I've never heard of anyone who woke up in a cold sweat because they read a critical analysis of the story. I think the essence of horror is getting the reader so engrossed in the story that they forget it's a story at all, but House of Leaves goes to great lengths to ensure that you never get drawn into the action for too long at a time; every time the summary of The Navidson Record starts to build up tension, it ends up getting diffused by a digression into the mythology of echoes and an analysis of their use in the story or some such thing. Even when Zampano, the writer, doesn't interrupt the flow, the editor Johnny will see fit to insert a 2-3 page footnote about his paranoia and nightmares and graphic sexual encounters. While Johnny's story was probably intended to be unnerving as well, I found it extremely repetitive and rarely effective. On top of everything else, we are told right off the bat that The Navidson Record doesn't actually exist (and even if it did, the blind Zampano couldn't have seen it anyway) and are reminded of this several times throughout the story.
At first House of Leaves got on my nerves because I felt it was trying entirely too hard; it's difficult to take a book seriously when it's doing the equivalent of jumping up and down, flapping its covers and shouting "Look at me! See how postmodern I am? Watch me deconstruct myself!" Eventually, though, I realized that it worked beautifully as satire on the academic world - given that The Navidson Record does not actually exist within the novel, we can see that Zampano didn't even bother to write his story; he evidently felt that analyzing a work was more important than actually producing it in the first place. The painstakingly cited references are all made up to suit the writer's convenience, as are the quotes themselves; difficult passages tend to be conveniently lost. The editor is hardly qualified for the job; in fact, he's frequently high and has a tendency to take Zampano's work and subvert it into his own autobiographical ramblings. Then, of course, there's the fact that this is obviously the type of novel to get a lot of scholarship; Danielewski has it set up so that actual academics will be writing actual articles about an article with a made-up premise and forged references. All these potshots at academia are actually really funny when you think about it, and it made the whole thing click for me fairly well. There are still parts that go on too long, and I could have done without the last hundred pages (aside from maybe the letters from Johnny's mother), but the work felt much more cohesive and much more enjoyable from that perspective.
I still think House of Leaves is a fairly impressive example of postmodern incoherency, but like most entries in the genre, it certainly lends itself to interpretation if you care to do so. The Navidson Record events are some of the most wonderfully evocative horror sequences I've read in a very long time, and like I said, if it were a separate work, I'd buy it in a heartbeat. I'm content to stick with House of Leaves as a library book.
Then, seriously, man, you need to finish reading House of Leaves.
Some dead philosopher once said (was it Nietzsche?) that if you stare into the abyss long enough, it will soon stare into you. Well, if you read House of Leaves long enough, pretty soon, it'll start reading you. This can be either terrifying or awesome.
The book itself is written at three, maybe four levels. There's Navidson, who just bought a house somewhere in New England, where apparently, all manner of crazy stuff tends to happen. This time, though, it's not a shoggoth squatting in his basement. It's something different. Say, has that door always been there? Why is the house suddenly bigger on the inside than it is on the outside? That kind of different. So, he does what any rational, sane homeowner does: decides to investigate the strange labyrinth that's beyond this unfamiliar door.
On another level is Zampano, who is some blind cook of a shut-in reviewing the documentary "The Navidson Record," which is the very same Navidson's account of what was beyond that doorway.
On yet another level is Johnny Truant, who discovers Zampano's scribblings, and comments on them as he reads them, and how they're affecting his life.
On yet another level is the editorial staff of House of Leaves, who provide translation and annotation where Truant, Zampano, or Navidson neglected to be clear.
So, nail down some measuring tapes, find a nice quiet (but not too quiet) place and read, read, read. You'll end up losing a lot in the process, one of these things being your sanity, but in the end you'll... well... you'll distrust the laws of geometry. So, maybe it's best that you not read it.
But you really should.
The core story is that of Will Navidson, a prize-winning photojournalist who moves into house in the Virginia countryside in an effort to strengthen his relationship with his girlfriend Karen and their two children. Their developing domestic happiness is shattered when the house begins to demonstrate bizarre characteristics: a passageway suddenly appears between two bedrooms where there was none before, close inspection reveals that the dimensions of the house are bigger on the inside than the outside, and – most terrifying of all – a hallway appears in the living room wall that leads into a vast, dark and constantly shifting labyrinth. Determined to investigate this labyrinth, Navidson recruits his brother Tom, his friend Billy and a trio of professional wilderness explorers. Multiple explorations have various effects on the characters, ranging from claustrophobia and paranoia, to insanity and murder. Navidson, being a photojournalist, records it all and later releases it as a film entitled “The Navidson Record.”
And the story itself – the book you are reading – is in the form of an academic treatise on the Navidson Record, complete with ridiculously extensive footnotes and laughably thin allusions and comparisons. You know the kind: verbose professors seizing on the tiniest pieces of dialogue and extrapolating entire useless theories from them, waffling on about symbolism and the self and darkness and meaning. I squandered three years of my life away on a university course entirely comprised of that kind of bullshit, and while Danielewski obviously intends to satirise it, the joke runs its course after about 100 pages and you’re left reading something that is, for all intents and purposes, exactly as frustrating as the pseudo-intellectual drivel he seeks to mock.
This fictional treatise was written by a man named Zampano, who dies at the beginning of the book. His notes are discovered and punished by California deadbeat Johnny Truant, who regularly interrupts the text with is own footnotes about his life of sex, drugs and a slow descent into insanity.
The problem with this novel is that only the first story is any good. The parts of the narrative that focus on Navidson’s exploration of his house are excellent. It’s an original, bizarre, unsettling and sometimes downright scary tale. But Zampano’s analysation is as tedious as one would expect, and Johnny Truant is little more than a Hunter S. Thompson wannabe regularly treating us to annoying, extensive ramblings as his obsession with the treatise sends him insane (in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever read a fictional account of paranoia and descent into madness that wasn’t repetitive and tedious.* The human mind is not an interesting landscape). By the time I reached the appendices and was reading letters JT’s mother sent him from her room in the mental asylum, I just didn’t care anymore.
This book is gimmicky. I’ve heard it described as the popcorn lit of post-modern literature, which seems about right (and is not exactly an insult – at least "House of Leaves" is somewhat entertaining, as opposed to anything written by DeLillo or Pynchon). There’s a good story here. Just be prepared to wade through plenty of junk to find it.
(*Actually, scratch that – "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins is quite good, maybe due to its brevity.)
The book (a literal house of leaves) is metafiction horror made up of multiple narratives. There's a tattoo artist who is telling his demented account of things. Then there's a scholarly essay recounting and analyzing the Navidson videos showing explorations of a rather ordinary house that over time becomes more and more extraordinary and wrong.
House of Leaves is old enough to predate many of the internet memes that it would have / should have embraced. For instance, the Navidson videos are shot on super-8 or on camcorders and somehow widely shared (before YouTube, back when most users were still on dialup and video was both expensive to put online and painful to watch because of the lag), enough so to be a thing. These videos are more like grudge ghost infested VHS tape of The Ring, where nowadays, the ghost would just be stuck waiting for a victim for years, possibly decades.
And then there is the carefully reproduced colors within House of Leaves. The author maintains a forum for anyone to discuss the colors or other themes and Wikipedia has some interesting thoughts too. Here are mine, taken with in the context of the book's publishing date, 2000.
Back in the early days of a publicly available internet when the emphasis was on the hyper-text part of HTML, rather than the mark-up language part, web pages consisted of text and links and nothing more. The default colors were blue for the unvisited links and purple for the visited ones. Later as font tags were included (in the precursor days to CSS), the blue and purple colors were still holy, untouchable things, because users might be confused if the link colors were changed. But red was adopted as an IMPORTANT color, to highlight things that needed a viewer's attention.
Astute readers who have a full color edition will see that the house and any synonym for it is rendered in blue. Purple shows up in the story of P. (Pelafina), the tattoo artist's institutionalized mother. And the minotaur's story is done in red. In the parlance of early internet, it tells me that the house, while on the surface, the story, is the part of it never actually visited. The house is either to scary to visit or is an illusion that can't be visited. Johnny's story of his mother with the purple links, while tied to the color of her fingernails and his tattoo ink, is also the color of links visited recently and perhaps frequently. Finally, there is the Minotaur — the half man - half bull trapped below ground in an unsolvable (unless you have enough of a klew/clue) labyrinth. In red, the Minotaur is the IMPORTANT part of the story. To understand the house, one must understand the minotaur.
10 or 20 small candles, maybe "tealight" style candles, from the dollar tree or superstore
A small lighter
A place alone with no artificial light, or just cover up those little blinking LEDs with napkins or something
House of Leaves
A mind altering drug, perhaps alcohol, if legally available.
Wait until the dead of night, when most people are asleep.
Put the candles somewhere prominent near where you will be reading.
Flex your imagination, and try to suspend disbelief as much as possible.
Rip off the book jacket and front matter blank pages of the book House of Leaves.
Take a shot of whiskey, or what have you.
Read House of Leaves by candle light.
My results? The exquisite dread and empty feeling I had while reading this lasted for days. Echoes of it still linger. It's an experience I will not soon forget. The only way it could have been weirder is if it had shown up on my doorstep in a blood-spotted plastic bag of unlabeled typewriter pages.
House of Leaves is an extraordinarily complicated book. This is primarily made manifest by the book's labyrinthine structure. Since the idea of a dark, shifting maze is at the center of the book, this mirrors that, but its larger purpose seems to be to explicitly talk to the reader on several narrative levels at once. The book is a story within a story within a story. Even at its most basic and straightforward, the structure is:
A book by Danilewski:
-purporting to be a book by "Johnny Truant," (an unreliable narrator), which contains both a framing story about Truant himself, and more importantly:
-purporting to be an unfaithful edit of a fragmented and disorganized copy of a heavily footnoted manuscript by (an equally unreliable) someone named Zampano:
-which describes and discusses a movie by "Will Navidson" (which may be a documentary, or may be a hoax), but:
-which seems (according to the fictional Truant) to be merely a fiction of Zampano's and not a real movie at all.
The narrative of the supposed movie, called "The Navidson Record," is the actual central narrative of the book. The movie is an autobiographical documentary where Navidson moves his family into a new house and soon discovers that something is drastically wrong: the house is larger on the inside than on the the outside, and growing. Doors, closets and entire rooms and hallways appear which weren't there the day before. Eventually, the house opens onto a seemingly endless maze of windowless rooms and dark corridors. The bizarre and impossible situation takes its toll on Navidson and his family.
The narrative style used to draw the storyline is dizzying. Zampano may be insane or may be using the fictional movie to try and work through his own life's failures, or may not exist at all. Danielwski absolutely denies the reader any irrefutable firm ground. Instead he pulls out the stops in what I think iis an attempt to try and inculcate that tension and strangeness into the reader's own sense of reality.
He will discuss people whose thinking becomes disordered for no obvious reason, and then attempt to put the reader more in sympathy with it by intentionally disordering his prose, making it difficult to tell who pronouns refer to (is "he" Navidson, or Zampano, or some author that Zampano has been discussing in relation to Navidson, or some friend of Truants?).
The book can be a sort of a postmodern questioning of reality as a social construct. The author will try and induce mental stutters by using non-standard but comprehensible words like "decapacitating" for "incapacitating" and them jar the reader again by immediately calling attention to it, or let them slide without comment as "pyritic" for "illusory." There are hundreds of footnotes so that the various upper levels comment on the lower. There are odd stutters where a character at one narrative level seems to refer to events or people at a higher one
Usually a text like this would annoy the crap out of me. I'd likely dismiss it as "pretentious, hiding a lack of ideas behind intentional obscurity." Unless you're twice as profound as Shakespeare, a first-level reading shouldn't be twice as difficult. I'd get to a page full of bizarre typography, and walk away. Oh, I might admit exceptions for say, Faulkner or Joyce, neither of whom I care for at all, but where at least it's clear that they know what they're trying to do and why, but still, not my cup of tea even from those originals much less from their many, many lesser imitators.
So it surprises me that here I don't mind it so much, because I can't begin to think of a way that Danilewski could have achieved anything like the same effect without his tricks.
It's a book that centers on the ultimately unknowable darkness at the center of one's home, or life, or love. And ultimately, it is somewhat unknowable itself.
In short, it was fucking phenomenal.
I was initially reticent to pick up the book; the comparisons to Chuck Palahniuk turned me off, as I find Palahniuk to be the Dan Brown of would-be edgy, postmodern literature. (Sorry if that offends.) I figured that if this was just going to be Palahniuk, part deux, it would not be worth my time.
Having read House of Leaves, I can understand the basis of the comparisons between the two writers. While Chuck Palahniuk treats his characters with contempt and reeks of judgmental grandstanding, Mark Danielewski's writing has none of the moral superiority and shock value stylings that makes me grit my teeth (and that made Chuck Palahniuk famous).
But I digress.
House of Leaves is a story within a story about several movies documenting the events that transpired in Ash Tree Lane. In keeping with (pseudo-)academic convention, the text is replete with footnotes, some of them directing the reader to yet more footnotes, and there are appendices and exhibits at the end of the book. Though footnotes and appendices are usually in place to aid the reader, that doesn't always happen here. A footnote will tell you to flip to Exhibit C, only for you to be informed that Exhibit C is missing.
Our (anti)hero is Johnny Truant, a young tattoo apprentice, whose own descent into obsession seems to run parallel with Will Navidson's. Will Navidson is the award-winning photojournalist who finds himself living in a house on Ash Tree Lane, a house that suddenly produces a closet which becomes a hallway which in turn evolves into a self-contained labyrinth, defying all laws of physics as the labyrinth means that the house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Zampano is the writer of an unpublished treatise on the phenomenon on Ash Tree Lane; his death is the catalyst of this unfortunate story.
Johnny Truant takes it upon himself to make sense of Zampano's writings. Along the way, he fucks a lot of women, does a lot of drugs, thinks about his mother a lot, and starts remembering other people's memories. Oh, and as it turns out, there is no record of a house with a self-contained labyrinth on Ash Tree Lane, nor is there a record of the documentaries that Zampano wrote about, and there's barely any record of Zampano himself.
What does it all mean? What's true and what isn't? Who's real and who isn't?
Fuck if I know.
Sound confusing? It is. To try and explain more would be impossible. I could write ten pages and barely skim the surface.
Is the book overhyped? Yes, but, surprisingly, only a little. My honest opinion is that it's the best debut novel I've read since White Teeth.
I have a feeling that literature and/or philosophy students will be writing their theses and dissertations on House of Leaves for years to come. If you want critical analysis, then wait for the earnest student to present you a painstakingly researched document. All I can do is recommend the book so you can make your own judgments.
The premise is an old one; odd manuscript discovered in someone's recently deceased apartment. It details a documentary of a families fresh start in a new house, one that goes horrible wrong when a door appears leading to a dark hallway that physically doesn't exist. But does this film actually exist? Does the manuscript even exist?
The found manuscript is the worthwhile bit. Slow to start and sometimes overburdened with academia and literary critic in-jokes, it ends up being an extremely gripping and compelling story. At its heart it is a simple idea but one that weaves in so many different aspects and then expertly twists them. The characters become very real and the story becomes difficult to put down. Even the "visual writing" and bizarre lists simply add texture, upping the oddity and tension.
However all this is marred by the other story: the 1st person account of the guy who finds it and what happens to him as he reads it. A person who is unfortunately extremely unbelievable, with irritating tendencies and who degenerates into ridiculous madness. I mean the manuscript is odd but what is there to get paranoid about? Especially so early on, it just so far fetched it throws you out of the story and adds nothing( Look I was too irritated to find out what the point was)
So it is worth trying, stay with it for the 1st 100 pages or so and do ignore the footnotes if they start to annoy you. For that matter ignore the appendices. Yawn.
After reading the introduction to [House of Leaves] I thought, "my god, he's going to do it." This would be Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius brought to screaming life as, paradoxically, one of its own hronir. An artifact of a history that never was. A world that lives in the mind manifested in my hands, a series of other worlds impossibly nested within, simutaneously containing, contained and interpentetrating eachother. Holy fuck.
I'm not going to review this book. For one it seems redundant. What could I possibly add to a book that is endlessly self analytical? There is temptation to fall into step and emulate the obtuse and alternatingly sublime and idiotic criticism defining the Navidson report, but such an attempt would be merely cute and shallow on my part.
Instead I just want to record my experience and impressions reading the book, to help me remember when I look back on it.
Boundaries, impossible ones that defy space and reason. Do these geometries reflect another sort of space? Could this be a reflection of an internal space? Are there limits to the space in a human mind? Could the distances Navidson walks in the house reflect the distance he must travel to reconnect with his wife?
I woke up two nights in a row in the middle of the night. Grinding my teeth. I haven't done that since I was a kid. The only way to get back to sleep was to read more.
I figured out pretty early that I personally couldn't read the book in sequence. I stopped thinking of it as a novel. I used five bookmarks and sticky note and read what I wanted when I wanted. Like the house there is no beginning, middle and end here, just more explorations. They grant insight, but never the full story. If someone asks what the book is about I say "to me it is about boundaries," and then founder trying to explain the swirling eddies, how it is impossible to follow each to its conclusion and that what I find is only the product of the current I happened to be swept up by.
This would be an amazing book for a book club as I expect each member would find something different. It's not like reading a book, its like getting to know someone. It isn't linear or purposeful. You get pieces, out of order that in an imperfect manner define the boundaries of the person. And whats more, like the house people change. What you have learned in the past may no longer hold true.
And lastly a salute to my old art theory teacher. I know for a fact I wouldn't have lasted a day in the House of Leaves without him. Its strange to think that of all of the styles of text here it's the the formal report that most captivated me. It was a little nostalgic to revisit the blend of absurd and insightful all rolled together in that dry and hopelessly obscurant voice that set loves so much. All the same I'm still not planning to revisit any of that Derrida and Baudrillard you dropped on me Carmine.
In essence, House of Leaves is a very simple story, told in the most complex way imaginable. There are four layers to it, which I will call "inner", "middle", "outer", and "editorial". We are introduced to it first via the most nebulous and thinly drawn of those layers, the "middle". That is the work of a character whom we never actually meet, an elderly recluse Zampanó.
This is where the complexity comes in, even before describing the narrative and literary techniques employed. Zampanó's scholarship is discovered after his mysterious death, by Johnny Truant, anti-hero of the "outer" layer, a young man who works in a tattoo parlour and whose main obsessions are drugs and women. On a late night sortie with a friend, he finds himself in Zampanó's unoccupied apartment, sees a trunk and takes it away to his own apartment. The trunk is full of scraps of paper forming the bulk of Zampanó's annotated scholarship, but seemingly incomplete, containing many crossings out and source material of various kinds. Truant makes it a personal project to assemble this academic jigsaw puzzle into a complete and coherent whole. But gradually, as he puts it together, it begins to pervade his life, first simply as a private obsession, then as the portal to some bizarre and terrifying manifestations. As time passes, his life falls apart, he loses his job, he loses his friends, he becomes a recluse, and more and more comes to resemble the character that Zampanó had become.
Truant is a troubled individual. When he's a small child, his real father dies in a road accident. He's brought up by his mother, and stepfather with whom he has an uneasy relationship which descends into violence. Then his mother is taken into institutional care when he's still a child, suffering from mental delusions (possibly caused by an kitchen accident when Johnny was very small, involving a pan of hot oil, leaving the child with permanently scarred arms.) Finally, Truant leaves home and makes his own way in the world, to escape the violence and strictures of his stepfather.
Truant's story is presented in the "editorial" layer by way of lengthy footnotes to Zampanó's scholarship, both contained within the fictional edition of a work called "House Of Leaves" (i.e., the "book you're holding in your hands"). Truant's story only barely interfaces with Zampanó's, and neither of them 'interface' with the "inner", which is a multi-media event - portrayed as based upon a real series of phenomena - called The Navidson Record. This is presented - by Zampanó - as a factual record, finally seen in cinemas by millions (like a real-life Blair Witch Project) and written on and reviewed by literally thousands of commentators, media outlets, research and academic journals, literary critics, psychologists, paranormal investigators, etc. Each review and comment is added by Zampanó as a footnote, making it seem as if what he is creating is a major academic work.
Strip all the above layers away - editorial, Johnny Truant, Zampanó, Zampanó's footnotes - and what you are left with is the 'very simple story' I referred to earlier. To summarise : acclaimed war photographer Will Navidson moves his family (beautiful career model wife Karen, and two children) to a house in Virginia. An inexplicable spatial anomaly opens up which Navidson begins to explore and attempt to map, but it grows larger and larger and almost swallows him. He brings in a team of explorers, plus his brother Tom, and an older, wheelchair-bound tutor. Tom is the opposite of Will - he's warm but unfocused - while Will is driven and 'difficult', Tom has no steady relationship or career. After a series of terrifying events, Will finally decides to explore the anomaly on his own, much to the horror of his family. Due to the panoply of recording equipment - still cameras, movie cameras, radio broadcast - there is a solid record of the anomaly's exploration, which eventually forms a cinematic release, the so-called Navidson Record.
There's just one problem for Johnny Truant - in his (i.e. our) world, no-one has heard of The Navidson Record.
So far, so good (if unbelievably and almost unreadably complex). However, there are aspects of this novel which are either completely overdone, or even unnecessary. In order of irritation, they are:
FOOTNOTES. I've already mentioned that Truant's story is conveyed in lengthy footnotes within the "editorial layer". The structural conceit makes this necessary. There are also a smattering of editorial footnotes. However, the footnotes added by Zampanó are so numerous that they will drive you mad. Ok, they present the endless commentary upon The Navidson Record, but we 'get' this by the end of the second chapter if not sooner. Do we really need thousands of invented annotations, from fictional journals, books, reviewers, academics and assorted media? In the end I just scanned each one quickly to see if it contained something beyond a reference. Some I ignored completely and I don't believe this did anything but enhance my enjoyment, unlike the burden of the footnotes themselves.
TEXTUAL FORMAT. Danielewski plays with text. He places words horizontally, vertically, upside down; he scatters a few words across a page, or spirals them into the centre; he buries the narrative within blocks of total garbage (text drawn from where?); this is all in addition to the various differing fonts and point sizes used, which at least serve the purpose of changing the POV, so those are not entirely redundant. But, what starts as a clever kind of device, soon becomes intensely annoying and irritating, especially when the book has to be frequently turned in order to read what may be only ten words on a single page, and the next, and the next. Not really very funny.
DIGRESSIONS. There are at least two lengthy excusions. One on the topic of echoes, and one on labyrinths. These are explored in-depth, as if they were genuine intellectual essays. But do they have any relevance to the narrative? None that I could see. AND they are liberally spiced with the totally overdone footnotes. I'm sure some of those were genuine? I didn't bother to check.
Is this novel some kind of allegory? If so, I wasn't erudite, bright, or intellectual enough to see it. Apart from the seriously spooky central story, and Truant's own horror story (which almost stands alone from the other), this was more hard work to read than I ever want to spend on a novel again. I won't be returning to it.
The variety of voices that are used not only allows us to see from different perspectives, but creates perspective: with no dominant voice, it becomes obvious that the different characters live in very different psychological worlds.
Besides it's thrilling horror aspects, I found it beautiful, lyrical, insightful, and satisfying. Before I read this book I thought the only use for an experimental novel was as an intellectual's plaything.
To be honest, it seemed to me like American literature had become a fool's game. The publishing scene made countless best-sellers but the only literary novel's I could name from the last 20 years were by Toni Morrison. This novel, I believe has the power to rise above the social issues of the publishing world, and perhaps could revitalize the American Novel.
I was completely entralled and enraptured by this book. The author's sister, Poe, had simultaneously created a CD to complement the experience of reading this book. I had owned and loved Poe's CD "Haunted" for more than 10 years before I finally picked up the "House of Leaves" in a secondhand bookstore. Reading the book has completely shifted my perspective and understanding of Poe's CD. The two come together in a fascinating way. I can't believe I waited so long to read the book! I highly recommend both the "House of Leaves" and "Haunted," but if I were to do it again, I would skip most of the footnotes and the secondary stories. I think they generally detracted from the story and had little to offer to improve the reader's knowledge of the story. I was sad to see the book end, however, and I will likely read it again to see how the second reading improves my conceptualization of earlier parts of the story.
It is not an easy read. But the amazing thing is, the postmodernism works! It not only works, it actually enhances the work as a whole! This book would not be anywhere near as captivating and twisted without it. Due to my limited exposure, this was the feature of the book I was most skeptical about going in, and boy was I ever shown how it's done right. Hats off to Mark Danielewski!
If you like Nabokov (esp. Pale Fire), Borges, film criticism or unique horror you have got to read this at once. I'm already looking forward to reading it again.
That said, while I was sorry for Johnny and curious what happened to him, I often found his additions less interesting, and I found some of the latter parts of the central story less gripping than the rest, and some of its characters' motivations and actions hard to buy, even with lengthy analysis making the downpayment.
Reasons I love this book -
I felt Danielewski was able to take a work on paper and physically manipulate the reader to cause emotions.
There's a story within a story, within a story...possibly within a story....
Yet, each story is still clear to follow.
It's a horror story. It's a love story. It's a thriller. It's a mystery. - that's not each story covering a topic, in most cases, each of the layers is actually all those things.
It was initially released on the internet and only later picked up by a publisher.
This book is a multi-layered onion... A guy and his wife made a series of documentary videos about their extraordinarily strange house. A whole bunch of academics, enthusiasts, and conspiracy theorists wrote articles and books about those documentaries. A blind man read all of the scholarship and then wrote his own book about the documentary, but he dictated the book to a series of trascribers, and collected the unorganized and unfinished book in a trunk. When he died, a neighbor's drug-addled friend took the trunk and organized the book into a publishable form, along with a whole bunch of his own footnotes about how he's going crazy. Then, some unknown editor edited that, and published it, and that is what we are reading. So it's hard to say what this is "about," really, because there are so many frame stories.
On top of that, the book is famous for its typography. Not only are there footnotes (often with their own footnotes) and appendices, there are also pages where the words are arranged to tell the story. To be honest, this was the part of the book I was the most interested in, and also the part that fell the most flat for me. The necessarily disjointed experience of reading multiple layers of footnotes did contribute to the ultimately disjointed nature of the layered frame stories, but a lot of times, I didn't think the typography actually contributed anything to the experience. Sometimes the typography contributes to the dizzying sense of confusion and chaos (especially when it prevents you from finding the footnote you're looking for), but I don't think the word-pictures enriched the experience of the book.
The book has a lot of loose ends, which is in character with the chaos of the whole thing, but which left me frustrated. I kept waiting for a big reveal, or for the actual big scary scene, but they never happened.
To be honest, the storyline of the compiler, who does a lot of drugs and has a lot of sex and is slowly going insane in the rambling footnotes, didn't do anything for me. I could have skipped it and would have enjoyed the book just as much. Other than his growing insanity and paranoia, there doesn't seem to be any connection between his story and the story of the house.
The aspect I enjoyed the most was the satire of academia: all the footnotes and scholarship and long tangents about labyrinths were a brilliant commentary on academia's rambling self-importance. (My dissertation committee told me I needed to be more wordy to add 40 pages to my dissertation.)
So... I think this book deserves a lot of credit for being complex and clever and unique, but that doesn't necessarily mean it is a good book. It feels pretty masturbatory - Danielewski seems more interested in showing off his genius than writing an enjoyable book.
This book’s genre is horror, although it’s by no means a blood and gore fest you might expect, or a vampire or ghost sci-fi book. Yes, the house if horrifying, but the real horror to me is the human reaction and how each and every one of us would have looked into the darkness, with the same obsessive desire to see something and the desperate need to find it. Books and movies don’t usually scare me, but I found this book to be terrifying which is a very good thing.
However, I enjoyed the actual story about the house a lot. I was less enamoured with the footnotes and the appendix and the coded letters. I was also too lazy to get a mirror and read the mirrored text or dig my way through page upon page of seemingly random names.
I guess, in the end this is a puzzle, and if you want to give it a superficial read you'll find a compelling story and if you want to dig deeper you can probably dig for years and still find new things. It's definitely not a book for everyone, but I enjoyed myself.
On the other hand, if you realize the "point" of the novel before the end, the remaining pages will seem hollow and not worth the effort of fighting through. This is a book which may not be worth reading at all if you now much about how it works.
An interesting read, but one can be left with the feeling that Danielewski holds both his readers and literary tradition in a contempt which allows him to disregard the readers expectations of deep meaning in the text and the idea of a book as a vehicle for ideas. This is not necessarily the conclusion that you will come to, but one that is not uncommon.