House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski

House of Leaves book cover
Rating 8.0/10
A set of Russian dolls enclosed within an Escher-style literal manipulation

Johnny Truant, wild and troubled sometime employee in a LA tattoo parlour, finds a notebook kept by Zampano, a reclusive old man found dead in a cluttered apartment. Herein is the heavily annotated story of the Navidson Report.

Will Navidson, a photojournalist, and his family move into a new house. What happens next is recorded on videotapes and in interviews. Now the Navidsons are household names. Zampano, writing on loose sheets, stained napkins, crammed notebooks, has compiled what must be the definitive work on the events on Ash Tree Lane.

But Johnny Truant has never heard of the Navidson Record. Nor has anyone else he knows. And the more he reads about Will Navidson's house, the more frightened he becomes. Paranoia besets him. The worst part is that he can't just dismiss the notebook as the ramblings of a crazy old man. He's starting to notice things changing around him…

House of Leaves is one of those cult legends that you may have heard somebody breathlessly try and explain to you, but to be honest, the only way you can even begin to understand the sheer complexity and bizarre, sometimes impressive, sometimes impenetrable, maze of words that Mark Z Danielewski crafted to be his debut novel back in 2000 is to read it yourself.

House of Leaves is a set of Russian dolls enclosed within an Escher-style literal manipulation of the words on the page. At the centre is the Navidson Record; a short film put together by world-renowned photographer Will Navidson as he investigates the physics-defying dimensions of his new house on Ash Tree Lane. Shortly after his family move in, the house starts changing and a door appears out of nowhere. What is through that door and how it impacts the family subsequently becomes the focus of an incredible volume of speculation and literary criticism within the universe of the story, with every nuance of the house, the film and the family analysed minutely.

The second level out is Zampano, who after viewing the film is compelled to create his own definitive analysis of the Record and those who have sought meaning within it. However, the influence of the house isn’t confined to Ash Tree Lane and he ends up dying alone in a barricaded house, surrounded by his notes. This is where the third story begins, and where we as readers join the madness, as tattoo parlour receptionist and writer of meandering monologues, Johnny Truant, finds these notes and gets them published, with his own story and thoughts unfolding in the footnotes.

This is just one way in which this book tries to confound its reader as the narrative ebbs and flows, sometimes providing an academic summary of the films the Navidson family recorded as they explore the force at work inside their house, other times following a path into a discourse on the Minotaur in Greek myth. And there are footnotes everywhere, sometimes real, sometimes fake, and sometimes unravelling across six pages at a time in an endless stream of names which actually contain a code. This isn’t a book for the faint hearted and if you want to go exploring there are mysteries aplenty. In the colour print version you might well come across a red dot just sat in the middle of the page. With absolutely no explanation. And you will never find one.

In addition to the twisted narratives, the text itself has been wrenched from its normal boundaries on the page. It starts off so subtly that you may even miss it at first - a paragraph just sliding out of its confines - but these holes start appearing more frequently as Truant’s state of mind begins to unravel. And then all hell breaks loose with whole pages warped and cut up.

I found the text manipulation to be a fascinating device, and highly effective, however for me the level of writing itself within all the clever trickery didn’t quite stand up to the highly constructed nature of the book. There’s a lot of style, and quite a bit of substance, but I think you are either going to love chasing the footnotes across the pages and wringing meaning from every carefully chosen quote in German or Ancient Greek, or, like me, you’ll just want to get on with the story and ignore the majority of the ‘extra’ material. I could well have completely missed the point of the book, and this has become a cult novel because of how weird it is, and because there is so much hidden inside it, but in the end do I really care why every mention of the house is in a different font from the rest of the text? Or whether Truant is actually real or the imagined construct of somebody else? I decided that my patience had been tested enough, but I am glad to have read it, even if it was a bit of an uphill battle at times.

For me, this sits somewhere between a novel and a piece of performance art. It certainly stretches the boundaries of what you could consider ‘a novel’ to be, and it is a very creepy story at the centre of it, but for me there was too much clutter and I really noticed the presence of the author, as though it was all one elaborate in-joke and I only had the vaguest of clues to try and unravel it with. Johnny Truant’s story in particular for me started getting tiresome the further I got into the book as the charm wore off and he became an increasingly hysterical fantasist.  
 
Then again, everybody who reads this will read it in a slightly different way, and for a debut novel it certainly is a pretty incredible piece of work. Danielewski’s now just released the first in a 27 volume story called The Familiar about cats, so very much an author carving his own path. I’d suggest reading House of Leaves mainly for the novelty of it. Whether I’ll read another 27 books in the same style however remains to be seen.

This House of Leaves book review was written by

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