Wednesday, February 8, 2012

House of Leaves (Or, Why would you go in there? Why, for the love of God, why?), by Mark Z. Danielewski

A story about a book about a film about a frightening house, some, all or none of which may be real.

If ever a book was ever written specifically for me, this is what it would look like. However, I understood very little of it (which is just how I like it). What does the title mean? Does The Navidson Record exist (in universe)? What is the house?

A place of dubious reality.
A frightening monster.
A test.
A love story.
A God.

Johnny Truant finds a dead man's manuscript. An academic analysis of an underground film series, The Navidson Record. A documentary so far fetched no self respecting critic, artist, or audience member credits it as real. Nor would you want to - a house that warps, and changes, tortures, and maims, it's tenants is much safer in the province of fiction. Will Navidson, a Pulitzer prize winning photojournalist, his wife, and their children, throw themselves at the house and record it all on old Hi-8's. Meanwhile, the manuscript starts to eat away Johnny's sanity.

A skeleton blurb doesn't do justice to the depth of reality lent to this book by the loving detail provided by Danielewski. The manuscript Johnny finds in the apartment of the dead man is as dry in manner as any academic textbook, and Danielewski is as scrupulous with his referencing as any professor. Of course, some of these references are authentic. Some exist within the book's world. Some are entirely fabricated. Perhaps it doesn't matter. Perhaps you should just stop thinking.

I think House of Leaves would be especially enjoyed by people who love David Lynch. Like Lynch's work, this book is best interpreted intuitively. The language is one designed to make you feel, the semiotics designed to trigger a subconscious, rather than a surface means of interpretation. Like the language of a dream, symbols have a personal, rather than a shared, meaning.

The book goes out if it's way to make its reading a visceral experience. The author messes with the format to mimic the experiences of the characters; to produce feelings of claustrophobia or dread. Personally, the formatting didn't have that effect on me. Rather, it just added to the novel's uncanny nature.

Uncanny. Unheimliche. Something given a lot of time in House of Leaves:

Nothing is more uncanny than a home that is not safe. But it was only after Navidson drunkenly and cryptically suggested the house was God (not God's house, not a house of God, but God), that I began to see it's darkness and shifting hallways in a different light. Us humans take things so personally. A house that changes and shifts its corridors to trap you, that acts independently and threatens your survival, must have a malicious intent.
But perhaps the house merely exists without personality. A desert's sands shift and disorientate.  In it you can die of exposure, or hypothermia, or thirst. But a desert doesn't enjoy torturing you, it isn't evil. Perhaps, neither does the House on Ash Tree Lane.

The twisting, intertwined narratives told through the footnotes give a thrilling sense of pace. Similar to that sense of flying out of control when a rollercoaster takes off. However, I admit I was often frustrated; Johnny interrupts the story of The Navidson Record at the most inconvenient points. I felt like screaming at him, "I don't care how many women you've fucked! Tom might DIE! Now is not the time!".  Danielewski is either a tease, or an inept lover.

If you're studying, or if your memories of studying are still painfully fresh in your mind, you might find the textbook style of the narrative dull. I've read enough dry academic tomes in my life to be wary of a thrilling tale buried underneath a clinical analysis. But it ended up being far less painful than I expected. And I can only wonder at the power of imagination, and the vast academic experience, that must lie behind the author of such a detailed world.

There's so much to House of Leaves that I can only interpret with the help of the internet; the dense metaphor, the hidden codes, even some of the plot. Maybe one day I'll sit down and plod methodically through it all. But for now, I get great joy out of barely understanding what happened, and letting my imagination fill in the gaps. I can let the book leave its impression on me, and it stays all the more uncanny for it.

But there is one thing I would love to hear some theories on:  Why is it called House of Leaves?


  1. Really good review.

    You're right about the frequent digressions. I'm halfway through the book and certain aspects of it are frustrating me like crazy.

    As for the 'house of leaves', the end page mentions the Norse tree Yggdrasil. The enormous tree that holds up the world, its branches stretch to the heavens, and monsters live inside it. THAT, or Danielewski is messing with us with puns, "Its the house where NOBODY LEAVES!" spooky ;)

  2. Oh my goodness, I hope it's the pun. But well spotted! Further thinking required.

    The digressions come at the worst possible moment. I'm so excited you're reading it though, do you like it? Where are you up to?

    1. Reading it on your recommendation!

      Navidson has gone in to the house to save the three mountain climber/adventurer guys. I've read a few of the appendix pages too (out of order, since the book kind of suggests it).

      So far I love the idea of the changing rooms and the spaces between them really exciting and interesting, the idea of a monster within it with big claws not so much XD. The way of using footnotes etc is very novel. Wonder why no one else really does it?? Oh, and Johnny Truant is a horrible horrible person.

  3. I hope you like it then (I kinda love it)!

    Hang in there with the monster, it's not as much of a downer as you think it is. I was bit bummed out by the mundanity of it, but many things make up for it (I would say what, but it would probably spoil things).

    Probably no one else uses it because no publisher wants to take that risk. Mark was really lucky. That sort of format is really expensive to produce.