House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

So I said, All right, book, I’ll play your game. I saved House of Leaves for when I was alone in my apartment between the hours of 10pm and 3am. I don’t think anyone would argue with me if I say that’s the ideal context for reading this book. And you know what? That made it pretty fun.

"Spiral staircase goin' down... Paint yer body red and brown..."

But is it scary? Disturbing is more the word; it’s not visceral. But if you find the image of “the long dark hallway after midnight” to be evocative of dread, this book should affect you.

I could sum it up like this: sometimes to hear a snarling monster is at your door isn’t as unnerving as when you go to discover there’s nothing there.

The other thing that House of Leaves is known for is for its completely off-the-wall postmodernist approach to storytelling. What you’re reading is a dead character’s lengthy dissertation on a mysterious Blair-Witch-like set of tapes (“The Navidson Record”) that constitutes the central horror story. But the writer (Zampano) is clearly losing his mind as the book progresses, and so is Johnny Truant, a twenty-something drifter who found Zampano’s text and has also added on his own personal footnotes… and who is also spiraling into a Lovecraftian madness.

This all adds up to something fellow blogger Nate at TheNinthDragonKing calls, “the biggest structural temper tantrum ever written.”

I’ve read po-mo structurefuck novels (yep, that’s what I call them) before and what’s common among them, good and bad, is that the author can be distractingly present throughout the novel, to a sort of “look-what-I-can-do” effect. But House of Leaves is different. It contains such cacophony of voices barking in from everywhere, the author doesn’t seem to show up in the din. I don’t know who Mark Z. Danielewski is. I don’t know where to find him in this book.

Nate also describes the book as “a big, bold F.U.C.K.Y.O.U.” to Danielewski’s professors. I can kind of see that. To me, House of Leaves is reactive in another way: it’s an academic parody.

Here you have what could have been a plain ol’ horror story (and a pretty good one, still), but by riddling it with character analysis, archetypal references, and all sorts of other philosophical wankery from critics both real and imagined, you show what happens to a text when it falls into the hands of “experts.”

Film critics comment on Will Navidson’s camerawork. Psychologists poke and prod the characters’ very facial expressions to infer their mental states. One literature professor presents the cavernous house as a vaginal symbol to explain why the men are suicidally compelled to explore it.

As you might imagine, some of the commentary is genuinely illuminating, some of it is goofy bullshit, and the rest of it lies somewhere in between. But the fact that there’s just so much of it crowding the story seems, in the big picture, to be a kind of research satire.

Ironic Fact: The book is so thoroughly self-analyzed that you can’t analyze it yourself without feeling very self-conscious and maybe a little silly.

Is House of Leaves the real deal? Yes and no. It’s uneven. It gets unnecessarily tiresome in places and some of its type-tricks are very “so what?” But I’m still convinced that there’s a crazy genius behind it all. Definitely worth a look for something completely different.

House of Leaves works so long as you feel like the obsessor at the end of a chain of obsessors.

8 thoughts on “House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

  1. What a fantastic post…
    I found this book really compelling, then gimmicky, then compelling. The same as you, a bit of it was quite “so what?” but, unlike yourself, I haven’t read many other “structurefuck” novels (awesome word!)…
    So I totally bought into the gimmicky-ness.
    At times I did find it too noisy, but I think it had to be. As they lost it, I lost it. So I think all the noise worked, though perhaps it was drawn out a bit too long in the grand scheme of the book.
    Overall though, I got totally wrapped up in this one. I’m not sure if that’s because I haven’t read much crazy po-mo stuff, or because I don’t read thrillers, or because it’s a genuinely compelling piece of writing.
    I had fun in it.

  2. Yes, I agree with you completely on the noise aspect. The amazing thing is how often the book “earns” its gimmicks by really connecting them with genuine feelings/ideas/etc.

  3. haha, everything I was going to say, Littlegirlwithabigpen pretty much said it. I’m glad you liked it enough, what it is completely mind-boggling to me is how on earth were you able to read it all in one sitting?! Unless you meant, various days from 10pm to 3am that is. Did you find Johnny annoying or was it just me?

  4. Oh, the reading required various days (yeah, that was a bit ambiguous, wasn’t it?).

    Johnny’s footnotes became less and less welcome as the book progressed. While I like the effect of watching somebody descend into madness as they’re essentially reading along with you, I found him overly self-indulgent in many of the ways you mentioned in your own post.

    The Whalestoe Letters in the back, though, made him more sympathetic in retrospect, which is why I’m pondering telling House of Leaves initiates to read that section first…

  5. Not at all, I think there’s something very cool about the experience of finding Johnny annoying then having him humanized and feeling like a bastard for getting frustrated with him.

  6. I was thinking of writing a review for House of Leaves. But after reading yours I gave up. You nailed it. There’s nothing more to say really lol!

    I esp. found your comment about Danielewski’s ‘absence’ really striking. I didn’t feel an absence of sorts. Danielewski was very much there for me, but I experienced it with Bret Easton Ellis in ‘American Psycho’. He pops up once or twice (adding a flaw to the novel overall as it could have been an absolute masterpiece otherwise) but it was deeply disturbing.

    I pondered upon the meaning of the absence for 2 years until it finally dawned on me. The only times I felt Ellis’s presence were the moments of stupid weakness, when Bateman actually sympathises with his victim. So there it is, an authors ‘presence’ for me is the presence of a moral conscience. Without it, the narrative is driven by a disembodied hand.

    Coming back to HoL, I’m like Nate, I couldn’t read it in one go. Somewhere near the middle I freaked out and chucked the thing across the room. It came suddenly, some light switch just clicked in my head. Needless to say after HoL I’ve always searched for a fix simialr to it, but never found it. And I don’t think I ever will.

    I have a theory that Piscean authors are the only ones who can write in this fashion. Both Ellis and Danielewski are both Pisceans. Both are absolutely inimitable.

  7. “Nightmares again. I wake up covered in sweat, in what seems to be a thin sheen of maple syrup.” It’s a winner, isn’t it? I really like xkcd in spite of being able to only understand 2/3 of the strips. Thanks for the link, Nate!

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