Saturday, October 29, 2011

Review: House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski

Oh, House of Leaves. One of the few books to ever truly scare me. For months I slept with the lights on, and to this day I sometimes have to turn my bedside lamp on in the middle of the night just to make sure my walls are still there. I refer to this book often enough, I figured I should actually attempt a review of it.

Let me first try and describe what the book is about, but bare with me here because shit gets complicated. We start with Johnny Truant, an aimless young man living a life of drugs and loose woman in L.A. Mr. Truant is a touch fond of purple prose, but you can make it through that you'll fine he is a fascinating character. He appears at first to be a bit of a loser, but as his narrative progresses you realise that he’s actually very intelligent. It’s not obvious (trust me, nothing in this book is obvious), but it adds some fascinating layers to how Johnny comes across.

The book opens with Johnny’s friend Lude calling him in the middle of the night. An old guy in Lude's apartment complex has died, does Johnny want to come and go through his stuff? In the old man’s apartment Johnny discovers a rambling behemoth of a manuscript entitled ‘The Navidson Record.’ ‘The Navidson Record’ is basically an extended academic analysis of a series of films by award winning photographer Will Navidson. Except, as Johnny tells us, neither Will Navidson nor the films the paper discusses actually exist.

You still with me? The bulk of House of Leaves is basically ‘The Navidson Record.’ (Or rather, Johnny’s transcription of it, and if you thought unreliable narrators are bad try unreliable transcribers…) Will Navidson and his partner Karen Green move with their two children to the countryside to make a fresh start. Things go swimmingly at first, until they go away one weekend and come home to find a closet has appeared in their house. Then they realise their house is slightly, just slightly, bigger on the inside. Then a hallway appears, one that’s deeper than should be physically possible. Then an entire buttfuck insane labyrinth appears and the house itself starts to turn on its residents.

The Navidson Record is interspersed with extended footnotes from Johnny, and we see that as things get worse for Navidson, Johnny’s grip on reality is slipping.

I always preferred The Navidson Record to Johnny’s parts of the book. The way it was written really appealed to me, and I’ve never come across another book that does the same thing. The closest thing to it would be all those “found footage” movies. The Navidson Record is describing what happens in the footage Will Navidson filmed of his house going nuts. We never get to see inside the character's heads, but we do get the narrators thoughts on what might be inside their heads. It sounds like it would cause a disconnect between the readers and the characters, but I didn't find it to be so. And you know how I am with characters. Because it’s written in a faux academic style the narrator also examines the symbolism of certain shots, or he references books other people have written about Will Navidson (all made up). It might be because of my academic background, but I dug the hell out of this approach.

Danielewki hands the reader nothing. The book is littered with clues and riddles, but you have to find them yourself. There’s one scene in which a terrified Johnny blurts out some gibberish, which I dismissed as gibberish, but which I later learned was a latin phrase written out phonetically. There’s another section where the first letter of every line spells out a new sentence, or there’s the fact that every instance of the word house appears in blue, and every mention of the mythical minotaur has been struck through. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. This might seem a little gimmicky, but it works in the context of the book. Johnny is slowly going mad (because of the Navidson Record? Or is he just following in his mother’s footsteps? Speaking of his mother, what’s her connection to the old man who wrote the Navidson record? The mysteries in this book will quickly spiral out of control if you let them…) and his mounting paranoia is reflected in his desire to “hide” the truth.

There are those who say that House of Leaves is postmodern for the sake of being postmodern, and all style with no substance. I disagree. Underneath all the crazy typography is a real story of love, family and trust. Especially trust. Strip away all the crazy formatting and you'd still have a pretty amazing story waiting for you. And maybe a few sleepless nights.

This book I found in a dead guy's apartment. Or bought.

1 comment:

  1. Hi! I was looking up a review of this book, and found yours to be very've swayed me to read it, although I will definitely do so with the lights on... I don't find that many books really and truly scare me, so I am looking forward to the possibility that this one might! I look forward to trawling through your other reviews, too! Come and check out my new blog at :) Kalystia.