Monday, September 26, 2011

House of Leaves, a Review (Spoiler-Free)

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. (p.563)"

Defining Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves is like asking a five year old to describe the Riemann Hypothesis.  House of Leaves is, on its fringes, a story about the Reader.  In the Introduction by Johnny Truant, we're flat out told that what we're reading is a product from a manuscript he found in the room of a dead man named Zampanò.  The manuscript, as it turns out, is a scholarly work based on a documentary Zampanò has become obsessed with: The Navidson Record.  And if House of Leaves is about anything at all--its heart, its cornerstone, its foundation--then it's about The Navidson Record.

Will Navidson is a critically acclaimed photojournalist.  Years of life spent away from his long-time partner Karen Green, a former cover model, and his two children, Chad and Daisy, has the Navidson family barreling towards non-existence.  Will and Karen decide to purchase a quaint Virginia house and settle down and work on their family.  Will seeks to finish his career with a simple documentary on their new lives in their new home.  He installs video cameras throughout the house, motion sensors to pick up when activity is going on, and settles in for a calm retirement.

But everything does not go as planned.  The house seems odd, and one day, for no apparent reason, Will and Karen discover a new closet situated outside their bedroom door.  Baffled, Will gets the floor plans and begins going through measurements, confused.  And when he discovers that the house measures larger on the inside than it does on the outside, the groundwork is laid for the rest of the "movie."

The Navidson Record is as tantalizing as it is terrifying.  The house on Ash Tree Lane is creepy and dark.  Navidson, an explorer at heart, sets out to understand the house and its unnerving black (and apparently unending) labyrinth of hallways that appears in its center.

Zampanò's manuscript exhaustively covers the film, from its subtle and serene beginnings to its haunting and stunning conclusion.  His work is littered with footnotes, and as Truant tells us at the onset, many of these footnotes' references simply do not exist in real life.  Keeping this in mind, the remainder of the manuscript makes for a fascinating exploration of the film, sometimes mind-numbingly so.
"As I discovered, there were reams and reams of it. Endless snarls of words, sometimes twisting into meaning, sometimes into nothing at all, frequently breaking apart, always branching off into other pieces I'd come across later--on old napkins, the tattered edges of an envelope, once even on the back of a postage stamp; everything and anything but empty; each fragment completely covered with the creep of years and years of ink pronouncements; layered, crossed out, amended; handwritten, typed; legible, illegible; impenetrable, lucid; torn, stained, scotch taped; some bits crisp and clean, others faded, burnt or folded and refolded so many times the creases have obliterated whole passages of god knows what--sense? truth? deceit? a legacy of prophecy or lunacy or nothing of the kind?, and in the end achieving, designating, describing, recreating--find your own words; I have no more; or plenty more but why? and all to tell--what?" (p.xvii)
But still yet, in an even further removed frame, the Reader understands (again, at the beginning of the novel, so as to keep SPOILER-FREE) that we're also reading Johnny Truant's annotations of Zampanò's manuscript.  Truant's story begins in the Introduction, and as it unfolds throughout the footnotes, we discover how the manuscript affects him.  Truant is a mesmerizing POV, as one of the first things he tells us is that he's unreliable.  And as we read, both the manuscript and the footnotes, we're constantly left puzzling over what's been altered, if anything.  This, as the Reader will undoubtedly understand, is disorienting and intentional.  And as we come to understand Truant's background, especially concerning the Whalestoe Letters, what's real and what's not comes under even more scrutiny.

To me, the most interesting part of the book deals with the darkness inside the house.  Danielewski a la Truant a la Zampanò paint a vivid picture of the blackness, the absence of light within the house.  
"The walls are endlessly bare. Nothing hangs on them, nothing defines them. They are without texture. Even to the keenest eye or most sentient fingertip, they remain unreadable. You will never find a mark there. No trace survives. The walls obliterate everything. They are permanently absolved of all record. Oblique, forever obscure and unwritten. Behold the perfect pantheon of absence." (p.423)
I know what dark is.  I live in the state with the largest cave system in the world.  I've been to the depths of the earth and had the lights extinguished, propelled into absolute darkness, a blackness so thick that one can't help but despair.  And yet, the darkness within the house seems darker.  This has definitely played upon my mind at night as I've roamed the halls of my own house, and I confess to a quickened pulse a time or two.

Another part that must be addressed is the bizarre formats used.  This was the primary reason I wanted to read the book, and after finishing, I enjoyed the way the book was presented.  The Reader has to flip the book, turn it sideways, and go through mental hoops to read certain passages, but it definitely adds to the story.  I read the full color edition, which is the author's preferred edition, as it includes over two-hundred pages of appendices, filled with more fascinating puzzle pieces (and if you read the book, I recommend following the instructions to see the Appendix before continuing on with the novel) and I can't imagine reading this book any other way.

So what is House of Leaves?  It's a book containing four stories, one woven story, some spelled out more than others, some flat out ignored.  It's meta.  It's contained.  It's puzzling.  It's erudite, so keep a dictionary very close.  It's compelling.  It's tedious.  It induces smiles and wicked grins, but groans and sighs.  It's beautiful.  It's art.  It's a love story.  It's disgusting and leaves one needing a bath.  It's definitely not for the faint of heart or those offended by crude sex.  It is a remarkable read, leaving the Reader satisfied and immediately ready to dive back in again to see what's missed, but at the same time worn down and betrayed.  If Danielewski intended this, then he succeeded.  I enjoyed House of Leaves immensely and would love to discuss it with someone (thankfully there are forums devoted to it).  It's easy to recommend.


celawerdblog said...

Great Review! I really want to read this book.

contemplatrix said...

so glad you enjoyed the experience. you're right that it begs for further conversation and more than a few re-reads.

I think I liked the Navidson Report part best..


Stefanie said...

I've heard this was a good book but never knew what it was about despite having bought a copy a few years ago. Obviously I haven't read it yet. Your review makes me really want to! Must go dig it out.

logankstewart said...

@celawerd: Thank you! I hope you enjoy it whenever you get to it.

@L: Holy moley, after scouring around on the forums I've came across so many fascinating theories about what's going on in this book. Mind-blowing stuff, I say.

@Stefanie: Hope you find your book, and also that you enjoy it whenever you get to it. This was a good book, and after finishing it, it's still hard to say what it's about... ;)

Kristopher A. Denby said...

You have no idea how many times I've held this puzzle in my hands at the book store and put it back on the shelf in favor of something lighter, easier.

At this time in my life, when I re-shelve books in disappointment or close them in disgust after only 50 or 100 pages, I'm trying to get back to basics and read books that are well told stories with characters in them that compel you to turn the page to see what they might do next.

House of Leaves has always seemed to me interesting, fascinating, but also a bit of a gimmick. Some day I've no doubt that I'll try it, but in the face of the mounting stack of unfinished, disappointing works of fiction that litter my shelves I think I'll stick with the easy stuff for now.

Thanks for the review, Lo.

The Sound and Fury of Kristopher Denby