House of Leaves

By: Mark Z. Danielewski

What began as the entry into the apartment of a recently deceased man soon turns into Johnny Truant’s battle with sanity. Hidden in a decaying chest, Johnny discovers piles of loose notes documenting the fictional story of The Navidson Record. These notes are the life’s work of the now-dead resident, Zampanò who perished under mysterious circumstances.

In this story, Will Navidson, a successful photojournalist, is embracing the new and unfamiliar project of documenting his family’s life. His girlfriend and their two children move to a new home where he quickly installs cameras in every room in the hopes of capturing tender familial moments. As documented in the film, Navidson soon realizes that something is wrong with his new house. It’s larger on the inside than the outside, and the interior will change at a moment’s notice. When a new and seemingly endless hallway appears out of nowhere, Navidson feels he must investigate. His investigation will ultimately and permanently change his life as Navidson discovers that something stalks the long hallway.

As Johnny works to piece the story together from the beginning, he starts experiencing some strange side effects. He’s losing his sense of time, he never wakes up rested, and he is increasingly more terrified to leave his apartment with every passing day. Most alarmingly, he believes the monster from Zampanò’s story has found him in the real world and is hunting him. He hears growling, smells the cloying scent of decay, and feels the scratches from a creature he can never quite see. As the reader, you are left to wonder if Johnny is going insane or if there was more to Zampanò’s story than meets the eye.

While dining with my mom at a new restaurant, our server discovered that I’ve had a book review blog since 2015. He proceeded to passionately recommend House of Leaves, a book by his admission, he had started three separate times and never finished. Without a hint of sarcasm, he lovingly told us that the book challenged him in new ways every time and that it was a worthwhile read. Getting new recommendations from strangers is such a rare occurrence that I immediately saved the book to my Goodreads TBR and vowed to him that I would read it one day. That day came and I found out exactly what made this book “challenging.”

The challenge doesn’t come from academic prose meant to expand my worldview or the introduction to a radical philosophy designed to change my life. Rather the difficulty comes from the formatting of the text on each page which regularly changes color, direction, and size. This novel will quite literally have you turning the book upside-down and sideways just to keep track of what’s going on. There are also many passages in different languages that are translated in the footnotes.

The footnotes get a paragraph all their own for their level of detail and absolute absurdity. Remember when you were in high school and had to cite your sources for every academic paper? A task that only a true masochist enjoys. Well, imagine a novel where nearly every page has at least one footnote with a source that, most of the time, is completely made up. Author, name of the article, page numbers, etc, all of it a complete fabrication. And Danielewski went to the trouble of doing that for a 700-page book, and please consider that most pages had more than one footnote. I understand that he was trying to make House of Leaves feel as authentic as possible, but I wasn’t scared by this horror novel. I was ready for it to end.

If you want to read a novel about a guy strung out on drugs who continuously, and in graphic detail, has sex with as many women as possible while rapidly losing his mind, then this book might be for you. Johnny Truant regularly exposits incoherent babble that the author tried to make poetic but was just an absolute slog to get through. My favorite sections were Zampanò’s parts where he wrote The Navidson Record because it was engaging to learn about the house and the family trying to discover its secrets. Every time I had to go back to reading Johnny’s perspective, I was flipping through the pages to see just how much I had to get through to reach “the good parts.” That’s never how you want to feel while reading a book. The Navidson parts still had the occasional foray into the unintelligible, but those instances were at least short and had a purpose.

The concept for this book was so wonderful with nearly flawless execution in the very beginning. I found the first 30 pages to be more disturbing than the entirety of some Stephen King novels. That said, it quickly goes downhill as the creepy ambiance is replaced by frustration with the narrator and the feeling that the book is progressing but not going anywhere. I think this story would have been far more effective at about half the length.

This leads me to one of the most irritating quotes in a bad book I’ve ever experienced. At the very bottom of page 545 of the printed Pantheon edition is this simple statement, “Make no mistake, those who write long books have nothing to say. Of course those who write short books have even less to say.” I beg to fucking differ. I got more out of Becky Chamber’s A Psalm for the Wild Built at 160 pages than I ever could out of this nearly 700-page monstrosity. Brevity is the soul of wit. Danielewski never heard of Shakespeare.

Overall rating: 2

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