Maciek's Reviews > House of Leaves

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
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Sep 10, 12

bookshelves: big-tomes, books-which-say-aloha, horror, owned-books, own-in-hardcover, read-in-2012, experimental-fiction
Read from June 23 to 28, 2012

Everything has been said but not everyone has said it yet.

- Rep. Morris Udall at the 1988 Democratic convention

I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality.

- James Joyce in a reply reply for a request for a plan of Ulysses

The thoroughly well-informed man--that is the modern ideal. And the mind of the thoroughly well-informed man is a dreadful thing. It is like a bric-a-brac shop, all monsters and dust, with everything priced above its proper value.

- Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Reading House of Leaves reminded me of an essay I've read by David Foster Wallace, who was quoting someone on the output of the ever prolific John Updike (may both rest in peace): "Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?". This is a reaction one might have when first exposed to House of Leaves (of course sans the "son of a bitch" part). This is Mark Z. Danielewski's first novel, and he devoted 10 years (that's like 10 whole years!) to write it - and like so many first novels it is full of what the author wanted to show off about his knowledge: House of Leaves is the book which will jump up to you and scream in your face, "look at me! Hey, would you look at me? Do you have an X number of hours to spare to decode me, boy?". Many might find that they do not wish to spare the hours required by this tome; to them the book issues a warning right at its beginning, stating that "this is not for you.". However, as we know such warnings are like catnip for curious cats - I mean, seriously, who would have stopped reading right there? Have we all forgotten about all these horror movies where protagonists go exactly where they should not go, ignoring all the warning sings, because they want to "check things out"? I see what you did there, House of Leaves.

The story is this: A man named Will Navidson moves with his family into a new home on Ash Tree Lane, somewhere in Virginia (just next to West Virginia where they set all these hilbilly horror movies). Navidson, a recognized photographer (a documentarist of war) is accompanied by his wife, Karen - a former fashion model - and two children, Daisy and Chad. Some stress has been plaguing the family of the Navidsons, so they decide to change environment in hope of restoring family dynamics (Remember The Shining? Remember how it ended?). Only when they move in they discover that the house has changed: it appears bigger on the inside than the outside, by a fraction of an inch. But that's not it! Soon a mysterious new hallway appears. What does Navidson do? Take the kids and run out of this scary house like normal people do? No, of course they stay - I mean, if they didn't we wouldn't exactly have much to read about. Like a good horror protagonist, Navidson does exactly what the genre demands of him.
He goes exploring. now, that can possibly go wrong...or can it?



While this might not sound like the most original or compelling thing on the planet, you have to understand that House of Leaves is all about the execution as opposed to content. Althought the novel has everything and the kitchen sink in it, it's all about how these things are put together.

See, House of Leaves is a narrative which does absolutely everything to be as unconventional as possible - the story of Navidson, his family and explorations of the house are not narrated by him or the traditional third person omniscient narrator - that would be much, much too simple. The narrative is reminiscent of a Russian matryoshka doll: all we know about Navidson comes from The Navidson Record, which is the name of the documentary film Navidson has made about the house, consisting of the tapes he filmed there. Now, since we are dealing with a recorded narrative, there must be somebody who put it together for us - and there is. We never get to see the actual Navidson Record - what we get is an academic analysis of it, made by a man named Zampano. Zampano did an impressive amount of research and created a definite analysis of The Navidson Record - analyzing every scene in great detail, offering every possible interpretation, and making footnotes, lots and lots and lots and lots of footnotes. Another reviewer called the amount of footnotes in this book "retarded" and I can't really disagree. Even footnotes have footnotes. So, this Zampano feller must be really proud of what possibly is his life's worh, right?

Well, he can't really be - he's dead. What he wrote about The Navidson Record is discovered in his apartment by a man named Johnny Truant who was out of housing and out of luck, and with nothing better to do went to see the dead man's apartment. Here's the kicker - Truant knows that the decribed film cannot possibly exist, as he finds not even a mention of it anywhere outside Zampano's notes - and Zampano could not even see the film; he was "blind as a bat". Zampano himself described the Record in his analysis as having been classified as a hoax by most experts. Nevertheless, Johnny is drawn to Zampano's analysis and begins filling the blanks he left behind - a process which starts messing with his head (that and all the drugs he does). Johhny also inserts lenghty footnotes into the text, footnoting Zampano's footnotes and producing his own - many of which are unrelated to The Navidson Record (or are they?) and are concerned mostly with his cruising around L.A. and reminiscences of trips around the world, working junk jobs and sexual relations with at least a thousand hot babes. Now, although Johnny is the closest of what this book has to a protagonist, he is not the narrator either - the whole text has been put together by anonymous Editors, of whom we know nothing, and who claim to have never even seen or met Johnny - all matters concerning the text have been discussed via correspondence or in rare instances on the telephone. Thank God all of these at least have their own font!

Can it get any better? Yes, it can. The important aspect of this novel is how the text is arranged on the page. Well, at least that's what we're supposed to think when we're reading it. At first the text appears like any other academic journal, but as it progresses...footnotes appear upside down, words are posed to reflect what's occuring in the narrative (you know, when someone climbs the text is in the upper portion of the page, when someone goes down it's in the lower portion, when there's little space it's all crammed up, when there's lots of space it's all spread out, etc, etc, etc.). And is House of Leaves the book which will make you use the mirror to decipher it? Oh yes. Oh yes, dear reader, you are holding that book.

XKCD, a popular webcomic, does a pretty accurate impression of th structure of House of Leaves - with pancakes. Here's how it looks like.



There is a fair amount of humor in House of Leaves. Danielewski really hams it up here: the whole book is a fictional analysis of a fictional document which is a fictional study of a fictional film. But that is not all. Danielewski hams it even further, making the only expert on the non-existent film blind (and dead), and gives the task of analyzing his work to the most unreliable of all characters, Johnny Truant, a Bret Easton Ellis-ish character whose junkie lifestyle is such that half the time he is not sure he is even there (get it? Truant?). The footnotes? Oh God, the footnotes. Footnotes in this book often have their own footnotes (often concerning material appearing hundreds of pages later) and are a giant sandbox for Danielewski to play in. Most of the material he cites...does not exist (is this even a surprise by now?) and he goes ham with being creative with that. The Feng Shui Guide to The Navidson Record is cited when describing the house's interior, and a dismissal of something as crap is quoted from an article titled..."Crap", from New Perspectives Quarterly. There's a ton of examples like these in the text, and I am completely sure that D's grocery list is there, too. He has his fun with those who read these scrupulously - at one point Zampano footnotes an abysmally long list of names, which goes on for absolutely forever...to which Johnny Truant supplies his own footnote and states that the list is entirely random and made just for the kick of it. At another point Zampano claims that the Weiner Brothers cut a whole sequence from the theatrical release of The Navidson Record because it was too self-referential...but don't worry, you'll get it in a DVD release! And this is in a book where half of it is a commentary on the other half. Near the end Johnny starts wondering that maybe he too does not exist, which drives the poor boy nuts - along with the readers. If there was a troll of the year award when this book was published, mr. D should definitely have won it. His aesthetic is that of excess; with all its immense superabundance of all things it is reminiscent of the Pierce Brosnan James Bond films, especially the first one - GoldenEye - where Brosnan engages in an unforgettable tank chase through St. Petersburg, undoubtedly the finest moment in the Bond franchise and arguably one of the finest scenes in contemporary cinema. The moment where he hits that statue and drives with it on top of the tank alone made it worthy of at least two Oscars.



Also, House of Leaves has a section with fake interviews with real people about The Navidson Record which is flat out funny and very well written, as the author manages to capture the personas of his interviewees: Hunter S. Thompson begins by stating that "it was a bad morning", Steve Wozniak is jolly and Stephen King wants to see the house. There's even America's most famous literature critic, Harold Bloom, who calls the interviewer "dear child" and quotes at lenght from his famous work The Anxiety of Influence (which is another joke inside a joke - Bloom's book is about the relationship poets have with their predecessors - it is a source of anxiety and troubles their originality - pretty spot on for a book which is a commentary on a commentary. More on it later).

Some readers wrote that this is the scariest book that they have ever read. Comparisons have been made between House of Leaves and The Blair Witch Project. Remember that movie? It's the one with a group of students who get lost somewhere in the woods of Maryland and can't find a way out. Of course they are in the woods because they're investigating a local legend of the Blair Witch - so lots of creepy stuff happens in that forest. Blair Witch has singlehandedly resurrected the genre of film known as the "found footage" - the viewer knows that these students have disappeared in these woods, and all that has been found of them is this video. The studios spend millions promoting it with the emphasis on the thin barrier betweeen reality and fiction, making many people wonder - is it real or not? Blair Witch has essentially brough back such filmmaking into the mainstream, allowing for movies such as Paranormal Activity to achieve success and become franchises; it has also aged quite badly, as now most kids with camcorders and Adobe programs can essentially film if again. Film lots of woods; rustle the leaves a lot; wait for the night to fall and make some scary noises. Voila! You've got your own movie. This approach did breed some interesting offspring, such as the intriguing YouTube series Marble Hornets - creepy and addictive!

House of Leaves takes the Blair Witch approach with the Navidson Record, but the constant footnotes and interruptions make it impossible to lose track of the fact that you're reading an analysis of an analysis of a film. It's like watching The Blair Witch Project with audio commentary, when the director and cast describe their experiences on set as the movie plays along. Imagine watching this suspenseful scene, where the heroine is all alone in a tent in these dark and creepy woods - at night - and she hears these creepy noises outside the tent which are getting nearer and nearer...and then you hear the crew speak: "so yeah, Hank was just running around this here tent to create the suspense, and then out of nowhere came this big moose which bit him right in the ass! Boy, you should have heard him yell. We had to cut the audio and redub it in the studio. Hank: yeah, I almost lost my balls." This is a pretty accurate feeling you get when you're reading House of Leaves - it never relaxes its grip on you, never fully allowing its reader to forget that they arereading and letting them start experiencing. You could say that Danielewski's is the biggest enemy of his own text: his analytical approach often kills the tension, as the reader is constantly aware that he/she is being toyed with. Many readers will feel that they are not experiencing the descent into madness; it's the writer who drives them mad with his big, if repetitive, bag of tricks.

But then, he is doing it consciously, and it works; it detracts the reader from noticing his weaknesses - The Navidson Record is really a pretty blank mish-mash of horror influences: shades of Poe's classic tales; A Descent into the Maelström is the one which immediately comes to mind, and of course Lovecraft; the whole book screams his name. Of more contemporary authors and their works Shirley Jackson and Stephen King come to mind: The Haunting of Hill House and The Shining can be seen as possible influences, particularly the latter with its genius loci/troubled family theme, and is perhaps its most famous example.

Zampano's analysis of The Navidson Record - which is an analysis of a nonexistent work - reminded me of Stanisław Lem's two volumes of similar topic. In Imaginary Magnitude (1973) he collected introductions for nonexistent books; A Perfect Vacuum (1971) is a collection of reviews and criticism of nonexistent works of literature. In Provocation (1984) and Library of the 21st Century (1986) are both collections of reviews of books which do not exist. Lovecraft (to whom this book oves an obviously great debt) invented whole universes and mythos, and Necronomicon is an account of their existence.Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut's famous satire quotes heavily from The Books of Bokonon, a sacred text of Bokononism. In The Blind Assasin, Margaret Atwood also employs a fictional text of the same name, which plays a crucial role. Jorge Luis Borges wrote of nonexistent works in his fiction: a good example is his short story Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote. In 1988, Jerzy Kosinski wrote The Hermit of 69th Street, a fictional novel which is largely composed of quotations from real texts or utterances, all of which are sourced and credited to their respective authors - in no way a small feat, and it does make House of Leaves look a bit pale when you realize that mr. D is simply making up the vast majority of his referrences as he goes on.

Johnny Truant is awfully like a Brat Pack protagonist, straight out of novels by Bret Ellis or Jay McInerey. Of all the women Johnny interacts with, Danielewski has to commit the biggest cliche and make him be most devoted to a stripper - a whore with the heart of gold. A lot of this novel can be seen as autobiographical - Danielewski traveled to Paris, therefore Johnny has lived in Paris and traveled around Europe; sources are quoted in German and not always translated, and also in Latin and other languages; one can only imagine what the author must have felt when he was discovering LitCrit 101 and browsing academic journals. And he does include all that he can possibly think of: at the end of the novel the reader will find poetry (most of which is pretty bland) which is claimed to have been written in various European cities (dates are given, too) and illustrations/photographs. At the very end, the reader discovers a section devoted to Johnny's mother - letters she sent him from a mental hospital, sort of a reversed Flowers for Algernon. The damn thing even has an index! Ona can imagine Danielewski sitting in his chair, back to the reader, petting his cat and laughing devilishly, hiding behind his post-modern armor. You thought it was funny? Well, you don't know my art. What, you didn't thought it was funny? Well, shame on you, you missed my joke! He has cornered all the corners. He holds all the guns in a Mexican standoff. He cannot lose; he always wins. He's the Steven Seagal of writers.



Unlike Seagal's films (especially the latter ones), House of Leaves definitely shows the author's talent and devotion to the project. His sister also contributed - she's called Poe and her album is titled Haunted, drawing inspiration from this novel. Danielewski's work is opaque just enough; it's not translucent, making the reader see right through it, but allowing too see one's reflection; much of how this work will be read and understood depends on its reader, if not all of it. Some will see the most horrifying book of their lives; others will be bored; others will be genuinely interested, and some might even be fascinated. Who is right? Who is wrong? Does it even matter? Although House of Leaves does sound better than it actually is (but then what does not?) it still fulfills an important task: it provokes an emotional and intellectual response in the reader, making him think about literature, art, and life in general. Few of those who will read this book all the way through will be indifferent towards it. To talk about it, one has to expand and go beyond the book itself, towards one's outside knowledge and interests. Just like the book is not containted in itself, and is composed of quotations, other accounts and records. It is an excellent platform for discussion on influence, interpretation and meaning, and literary and structutal tradition. To think about what it means to track allusions in a novel. Literature as an art and history depends on us being able to do something with these allusions, have something to say about them - how we, as readers, make sense of them when we're looking at the evolution of the art form. This is why studies of literature consist also of historical and cultural studies, and students read from a historical range of works which represent major historical periods and movements, and have to learn, acknowledge and understand the literary tradition. Novels depend on novels written before them; this one is just a bit more virtuosic representation of this fact.
And the funniest thing I left right for the end - because of its crazy layout the book is smaller on the inside than it appears from the outside. Get it? Hats off!

Meanwhile, you can check out the nice and condensed version and analysis at the same time: Torching Leaves

This is a long review.I declare that I have oficially ran out of words that Goodrea----
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Reading Progress

06/25/2012 page 100
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06/27/2012 page 313
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Comments (showing 1-47 of 47) (47 new)

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Maciek Thanks, Shannon! I wanted to read it for a long time and am finally getting around to doing it! I am really excited for this book.


Maciek It does sound interesting! Thank you for the recommendation.


Aloha A Greater Monster looks interesting, Shannon. I'm passionate about House of Leaves, so I'm going to add A Greater Monster. I'm hoping it gives me the same book high.


Dustin Hi, Maciek! I am very much looking forward to hearing your thoughts on House of Leaves! I should be reading it relatively soon..


Maciek Hi, Dustin! I will be most certainly reviewing this book. I am way behind my reviews, but wanted to read this one for a long time, so will review it after I finish! I hope you'll enjoy it!


Dustin Oh, I'm sure I will enjoy your review, Maciek!


Maciek Thanks, Dustin!


Dustin You are very welcome.:) I love your reviews!


Maciek Thank you Dustin! I finished this book and will try to write a review later today or tomorrow.


Dustin Oh, wow! Congratulations!!!


Maciek Thanks, Dustin! I will try to write a review very soon so I'd let you know what I thought of it.


Dustin You are very welcome.


Aloha Congratulations! Now, I will prepare my quiz for you.


Maciek Aloha wrote: "Congratulations! Now, I will prepare my quiz for you."

Thank you! I bet you make up the questions.


Aloha And I'll make up the answers, too. If you don't get the right answer, I'm going to make up some punishment for you.


Maciek You are such a bully!


Aloha *SMACIEK!*


Maciek Ouch! You only prove my point!


Aloha What do you think I was doing? *SMACIEK!*


Maciek Baking pies? Waaaaah!


Aloha Kielbasa pies.


Dustin Ohh, you guys are too funny!!:)


Dustin We're still waiting, Maciek..:)


Aloha He's afraid I will put him in the stew pot for his review. I'm sharpening my knives right now.


Dustin :) You might be right, Aloha!


Maciek She will put me in the stew pot anyway. She's a cannibal who hides in my closet!


Trudi Great review!!!! for a weird and awesome read. So thorough and complete, the best I've read for House of Leaves. You win the cookie! :)

...also, love how you end it. Perfection.


Maciek Trudi wrote: "Great review!!!! for a weird and awesome read. So thorough and complete, the best I've read for House of Leaves. You win the cookie! :)

...also, love how you end it. Perfection."


Wow! Thank you, Trudi, for your kind words! And for the cookie, too! :D I had a lot of fun writing this review and would have gone on for even longer if not for the word count. It's a fun book to write about!


Trudi haha! were you really cut off like that mid-sentence? I assumed you were poking fun, not only at the wordcount but it felt very "Navidson" -- like you suddenly stopped existing, or had said too much ;)


Maciek I was poking fun but I really ran out of words in the word limit, which made it even funnier :D


Moira Russell OMG, brilliant, brilliant review. Wow.

reminiscent of the Pierce Brosnan James Bond films, especially the first one - GoldenEye - where Brosnan engages in an unforgettable tank chase through St. Petersburg , undoubtedly the finest moment in the Bond franchise and arguably one of the finest scenes in contemporary cinema. The moment where he hits that statue and drives with it on top of the tank alone made it worthy of at least two Oscars.

I remember seeing that flick in the theatre (yeah I am old) and the audience going from awe to out-loud laughing to awe again at how totally OTT it was. Great comparison.


Maciek Thank you, Moira, for your kind words! I'm glad you enjoyed my review of the book! I didn't see GoldenEye in the theatres - I think I first saw it on VHS when it came out on that format. It's probably my favorite Bond film just because it's so Bondish, and that tank chase is pure gold!


Moira Russell Oh, you really capture it, in all its flaws _and_ greatness, yeah. Very well-done!

It's probably my favorite Bond film just because it's so Bondish, and that tank chase is pure gold!

AND has a great theme song, Tina Turner FTW. We actually still go "I am invincible!" around the house at fitting moments.


Maciek Thank you, Moira! I had a lot of fun writing about this book. It made me think about all this stuff and this is always a good thing!

Oh, yes, Tina Turned did a great song for GoldenEye! I think it's my favorite Bond song. It's slow, sly, sexy and seductive in its tempo, and her voice is just perfect for it. It really sets the mood for something special.


message 35: by Scribble (new)

Scribble Orca But are you really not just Navidson writing a review of a film that doesn't exist analysed by a narrator who is edited by the author....on a virtual repository of books filled with digital presences?

I really liked your review. Definitely have a look at David's Death by Zamboni.


Maciek thank you for the comment! I'm the video camera which everybody forgot.

Thank you for the recommendation! Funny, this is the second time I get a recommendation of his books - my GR friend Shannon recommended his other novel, A Greater Monster. Sooner or later I'll have to find both and give them a go!


message 37: by Scribble (new)

Scribble Orca If you approach him he might oblige - tell him I sent you. :D


Maciek LOL! I am not known for stalking authors on here but these books do sound good!


Dustin Hi, Maciek!! Great, engaging review, thank you so much for sharing. I'm even more intrigued by the book now.:)


Maciek Hi Dustin! Thank you! It seems that everybody gets something out of this book. I hope that you will, too! Be sure to write a review and tell us what you think! :)


Dustin Oh, I will, Maciek. I've come to really enjoy writing reviews, and I cover all the books I read now.


Maciek That's great to hear! It is my goal to also review each book I've read - or at least those I thought about after finishing them.


message 43: by Dustin (last edited Sep 10, 2012 10:14AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dustin Thank you! I'm happy for you, too. I still need to write one for Adam.


Maciek Thanks, Dustin! Here's to you writing more, too! :)


Dustin You are very welcome.:) It's good to see you writing reviews again, as I hadn't seen any in quite awhile, prior to this one.
And thank YOU.


Maciek I have not had time recently but now I'm getting back on track with my reviewing! Hope to see more of yours, too! :)


Dustin Awesome! Please feel free to drop by my page anytime and check them out, leave a comment, etc..:)


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