Book Review: House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski
Posted on November 20, 2013
2nd Edition, published by Pantheon Books, New York (2000)
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Warning: Depending upon your idea of what spoils a plot, this review may contain plot spoilers. It’s really intended for people who’ve already read the book and may wish to compare notes, or for those who don’t mind hearing a bit about it before diving in. Personally, I think that reading House of Leaves is as much about the process as the outcome, anyway.
I’ve been curious about this book for ages, so I finally bought the fancy version, the one with the pretty collages and drawings at the back — actually, I’ve no idea what the other editions look like, so maybe those theatrical pieces are in all of them — and when I received it, I kind of went “Hmmm, I don’t know about this. Looks trying-too-hard. Looks style-over-substance.” I am a pretty staunch advocate of “form follows function” — to quote Louis Sullivan, who most certainly did not design this House, which would have given both Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright apoplexy … though, having said that, FLW might have appreciated the organic nature of the House’s unexpected and profound interior dimensions: its seemingly infinite caverns that bend the laws of the known physical Universe, whilst conveniently doubling as a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t basement with unlimited storage space. Best part? This basement never gets cluttered! That’s because it eats whatever you set down — admittedly, it loses points for functionality in that regard.
Having said that, if you’ve ever scrambled around your lounge room, breathlessly shoving piles of papers, clothes, shoes, books, etc. into closets and under couches, because someone’s arrived way too soon for the party, I suspect you might wistfully consider the House’s special features, as I have. Also, if you’ve ever had an obnoxious house-mate — too loud, too drunk, too sloppy, too late with rent — who stubbornly refused to move on? Well, say no more! The House knows just how to help with bothersome situations like that.
Despite my hesitation upon perusing House of Leaves when I first received it, I snuggled into my comfy chair and read the whole thing anyway. I have injured my foot, so am rather House-bound myself right now, so I read it in just a few days. It looks daunting, at 700+ pages, but it’s actually a pretty quick read, partly because many pages are left mostly blank. I ended up enjoying the whole crazy funny sad unapologetically-pretentious and rambling whale of a thing. However, my appreciation turned on a dime.
I came to recognise that, while it kept making me smile — the self-mockery, the footnotes, and the lengthy digressions in which legions of artists and critics and others offer their opinions of The Navidson Project (the mysteriously disappeared film at the heart of the book) are clever and amusing — and while it intrigued me to see what the author would do and how he would do it, it also annoyed me like a chronic itch most of the way through.
But then, just when I would think “Okay, enough” the narrative would shift and give way and I would find myself in another as-yet-unexplored place whose mysteries I would feel compelled to discover. I imagine I am not alone in this, but it provoked a bit of self-mockery when I realised how the author had hooked me, by engaging me in the parallel process that I found myself sharing with the characters in the book: they want to stop exploring the House’s caverns, but feel compelled to continue nonetheless. As for me, I read on. And on. And on …
Fortunately, I was only an armchair traveller, and so enjoyed enormous privileges over the Navidson family and their friends: for instance, I was never in danger of being eaten by a growling beast/Minotaur — who either is or is not astir in this labyrinth — or of being thrust into an unholy and eternal Dark, being trapped in horrifically small spaces (be still my heart), being rushed over the edge of an abyss, or — worst of all — being forced to come face-to-face with the utterly shambolic horror of my own mind. Also, I had chocolate to see me through my journey, whereas, poor Navidson’s supplies often ran short. (See above explanation about the House’s tendency to eat stuff.)
What made House of Leaves come together for me in the end, making it finally a decisively-worthwhile read instead of merely a pointless diversion, were the Appendices. Like many readers, I assume, I came to believe that the truth and the heart of the labyrinth/story about the Navidson myth were fundamentally personal, with each symbol of the present being tethered to a signpost of our protagonist’s past, and held fast by Ariadne-like golden threads. The part of the Appendices to which I refer are the Pelican Poems and The Whalestoe Letters, both of which shine light on the shared life history of Johnny Truant (our protagonist and guide to The Navidson Project) and his schizophrenic mother, in lyrical prose and brief jottings of poetry, which collectively answer most or all of the questions posed by The Navidson Project. So, it’s a story read backwards, essentially. I came to believe that the entire Project had been created by Johnny Truant, grown from the fertile blood-and-bone soil of his own tragic past, and that the Zamapano character — whom we are told left a trunk of papers on The Navidson Project behind when he died — had been created by Johnny himself, to act as Virgil to Johnny’s Dante.
That’s my take on it, though I am sure there are many ways to view it (which is kind of the point). The House is the book itself. The House is a house. The House is a labyrinth. The House is God/the Universe/the Void. The House is Me/We/All of Us. The House is the stories others tell about the House. The House is experienced as a Droste effect, endlessly reflecting itself. And the House sprouts another tentacle each time someone tells a fresh story about the House!
Perhaps because of my own background and interests, the most intriguing point the book makes, to me, is that we humans are each our own House, with our exterior proportions relatively stable and measurable, but our interior dimensions incalculable and un-knowable, in large part, even to ourselves. We are beings of un-sounded depths, haunted by our own “creature darkness”. The terrors of the dark-shifting corridors are internal, and the monsters of one’s own “crumbling biology” cannot be escaped. And, even if we are fortunate enough not to have a rapidly-crumbling biology, we do not have to look far beyond the House of Self and Other to find ourselves confronted with the unalterable Fact of being infinitesimally tiny beings on the edge of an existential abyss, confronting an impossibly vast, cold, indifferent, and largely-incomprehensible Universe. In order to maintain sanity and meaning in a world that does not offer up explanations for itself, the dread must be faced down, because our psychic defences against it can hold up for only so long.
Yeah, so, basically, this brings us back to that old standard “OMG We are Alone in a Hostile or Indifferent Universe!” theme. And, as always, love is the only path to redemption. I cannot say why, precisely, these not-so-new messages managed to finesse me, since we’ve heard it all before — the infinite, existential void, the Godless Universe, blah blah blah — but, of course, we’ve heard everything before, so it’s the way the story is told, surely, that got to me and that made me laugh at myself for allowing that to happen. There were many moments in my reading when I was thinking “well, that’s trite-overwrought-melodramatic-cliché” — and yet, overall, it didn’t matter. Also, Danielewski seems fully aware that he is doing all of those things that supposedly make for terrible writing, and yet he chooses to do them anyway, to good effect for the most part. Besides the well-trod dark literary themes, the author hunts and gathers his metaphors unabashedly from every imaginable or unimaginable source, and seems to be sending himself up with the absurdity of his own creation — a great white elephant of a book, if ever there was one.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading House of Leaves, and I respect Danielewski for managing to produce such a paradox of a book: one that seems to undermine and mock itself with every turn of the page, but which reveals itself finally as a coherent and consistent and emotionally-compelling story.
One note to horror fans, since House of Leaves is often talked about as a horror novel: This book is not really scary, overall, although it certainly has its moments. It employs themes and techniques from the horror genre, and references many horror books and films to great effect. But if you like your horror straight-up, this book may not slake your blood thirst or sate your monster hunger.
I was surprised by the little poems. I’d not expected them, and I quite liked several of them, most especially the playful and witty Pelican Poems, which are brief whimsical etchings.
Here’s one of the less-whimsical poems from section F of the Appendices:
Little solace comes
to those who grieve
when thoughts keep drifting
as walls keep shifting
and this great blue world of ours
seems a house of leaves
moments before the wind.