Jamie's Reviews > House of Leaves

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
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Aug 15, 08

Read in April, 2006

House of Leaves is really a weird book. So weird, in fact, that any discussion of it pretty much has to be dominated by its structure. Basically, there are 6 “layers” to the story, each of which the reader is directly or indirectly exposed to:

* Layer 1: Photojournalist Will Navidson and his family move into a new home. To procure content for a documentary he wants to make on the experience, Navidson sets up cameras everywhere a la some reality TV show. He soon discovers that, impossibly, the house is bigger inside than it is outside, and that it contains an entrance into a city-sized --maybe even planet-sized-- labyrinth. The maze is constantly shifting its dimensions and it kind of wears down and eats people who enter it.
* Layer 2: Navidson uses his film footage to make a series of films about the house, the longest of which, The Navidson Accord, becomes a kind of underground Internet and art house sensation.
* Layer 3: An old, blind man named “Zampano” somehow writes an overly academic study of The Navidson Accord documentary, replete with obtuse footnotes and references. It is Zampano’s document that constitutes maybe half of the real-world book that the reader is plodding through.
* Layer 4: A Los Angeles tattoo parlor employee named “Johnny Truant” finds Zampano’s document after the old man dies and begins reading it. Truant starts to go crazy and makes copious footnotes on Zampano, the Navidsons, his dwindling sanity, and his own debaucherous lifestyle. These footnotes comprise roughly the other half of the novel. But it's not like Part I and Part II. Truant's footnotes are literally footnotes -- comments on the text called out by a number and printed at the bottom of the page.
* Layer 5: An ucredited editor makes further notes about all of the above, including Truant’s own footnotes. So you sometimes get the editor’s footnotes on Truant’s footnotes on Zampano’s footnotes on the manuscript about a documentary about a family moving into a crazy house that eats people. But wait, we’re not quite done yet.
* Layer 6: In the new and expanded version of the book that I read, Johnny Truant’s mentally unstable mother adds another level of complexity by writing letters to her son, commenting on and adding a different perspective to many of the things Truant discusses in his footnotes.

Did you get all that in one read-through? If so, you’re a freak. If not, take another look so you can appreciate the complexity of what I’m talking about here. This is one challenging (in a good way) book to get through, what with its demands to keep track of two ping-ponging storylines. Truant’s footnotes would often start right in the middle of one of Zampano’s sentences and go on for several pages about his life of drugs, sex, and sickness before dumping the narrative right back where it was before he interrupted. Zampano’s parts, in harsh contrast to Truant’s, are stuffed with academic language, long passages in German or Latin, and obscure references to essays, books, and other sources.

The other noteworthy thing about The House of Leaves is its typography. This novel really pushes the written word to its limits as a medium by how it uses white space and the orientation of the text to correspond to what’s going on in the story at the time. For example, in one part Zampano is describing an expedition into the gargantuan innards of the house. While he writes about how the endless passageways twist and turn back on one another and constantly shift so as to obliterate any sense of direction, the words on the pages actually change orientation so that they are presented sideways, upside down, or even backwards. In another section that describes an incredibly large open space above the characters’ heads, the pages contain only one line each at the bottom, above which is nothing but empty white space. There's other weird but meaningful stuff, like using blue font for every instance of the word "House" and tying that back to larger meanings. It’s really cool stuff.

You may notice that I’m not saying much about the actual story or characters in the book. That’s because with the possible exception of Will Navidson, there’s not much there to talk about. The story is kind of interesting, but it’s nothing that couldn’t be handled by a short story rather than a 700+ page novel. It’s pretty straight forward and not very complex in terms of plot or character development. It’s also not as scary or thrilling as you might expect from something shelved, as it was for me, in the “Horror” section of the bookstore.

The thing about The House of Leaves, though, is its bizarre structure and its avant-garde typography. Those, along with the sense of mystery that they create, are the main things to appreciate and applaud about this book. I’m not saying that the story isn’t cool or interesting in parts, but it’s not what’s going to get you through this tome. And I do recommend that you do get through it. You’ll probably be glad you did.
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Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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Tracy Reilly I disagree, respectfully, that we must discuss structure. You can pull out any detail: 5/16ths of an inch? God is an equal sign? And discuss it endlessly, if you have a hankerin'.


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