Book: House of Leaves
Author: Mark Z. Danielewski
Type of Book: Fiction, horror, ergodic literature
Why I Consider This Book Odd: Well, because it is ergodic literature. Full stop.
Availability: You can get a copy here:
Comments: I’ve been away for a while, fellow odd bookers. I sometimes get hung up on a review or discussion and because I am not-quite-right, I cannot move on until I have addressed the issue. I think the problem is that in many ways discussing House of Leaves is not unlike discussing Finnegans Wake. There is an arrogance and hubris involved in thinking you can really get a handle on the entirety of either book. I’ve flirted with the House of Leaves before, but not until recently did I read the entire thing, from beginning to end in one go. By the time it was over my book was in tatters (and I was paranoid enough at the time that I wondered if the book construction was meant to echo the house’s obliteration), I had book fatigue and I barely remembered why I loved it so much in the first place. I left it, didn’t think about it, read some lighter fare and gradually let myself like the book again. Hence trying to review it and sensing that perhaps I understand it but wondering if I am full of shit.
This book. Oh dear lord. I have a wretched habit of bending the page when I find a passage meaningful to me. It’s a foul, filthy thing to do, and as a bibliophile, I hate myself for it, but I was never an underlining or highlighting sort of gal. The hell of it is, I went back to the dog-earred pages and read and read and half the time I had no idea what it was that grabbed me the first time. I comfort myself in my wasted effort that the book was in miserable condition by the time I was through – spine destroyed, pages loose, the front end page fallen out completely. I have no idea what I loved when I was reading it so it stands to reason that this is going to be less a review than a discussion of why I like this book and if it is messy and incoherent, it won’t be the first time and it won’t be the last. All I can say is that when a book is half footnotes, I don’t think it is a cop out to quote chunks of text that speak to me or explain my points.
In this discussion, I need to emphasize two things: 1) In my opinion, Johnny Truant’s story is the reason to read this book and it may seem weak not to address all the text concerning The Navidson Record. But it’s my party, and to be frank, all the details are the trees and Johnny is the forest and I think to analyze all of the endless references and throwaways that Danielewski uses in this book, you miss the humanity of it; and 2) I refuse to change my text color when I use the word “house” or refer to anything having to do with the Minotaur. Just not gonna do it. It seems forced, affected and precious when anyone other than Danielewski does it.
So, with that out of the way, a plot synopsis: An old, blind man by the name of Zampanò dies and in his apartment, Johnny Truant finds an in depth analysis of a documentary film called The Navidson Record. The book recounts Zampanò’s analysis of the film, interspersed with numerous foot notes from Zampanò, Truant and an editor. There is an unnerving catch, however: The film does not exist. Zampanò’s in depth analysis, including copious research, is of a film that does not exist and the resources he quotes do not exist. The analysis becomes so entrenched at times that the reader wonders if the real catch of the book is the “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” minutia that often goes into academic research. The level of introspection given by fictional research into every element of this fictional movie gives the book so much self-referential claustrophobia that the reader finds herself going mad as she reads it, which, of course, is the entire point.
The written analysis of The Navidson Record tells the story of a family that moves into a house in Virginia. The house is seemingly sentient and able to change itself on the inside without affecting the outside measurements of the house. It creepily rearranges itself internally, becoming larger than the outside proportions, finally creating a hallway that leads into a maze. A search party is sent into the maze with disastrous and appalling results, but at the end of the failed missions, the house collapsing then righting itself, The Navidson Record is a love story, wherein an icy and adulterous model, Karen, finds herself fighting to save her relationship with Will Navidson. Yes, I think it is a love story. I realize just about everyone who has read this book may disagree with my assessment, but the enduring themes of this book are, in fact, love. Maternal love fighting through mental illness, self-love fighting through emotional collapse, and romantic love enduring the unthinkable and impossible.
But for me, as I say above, the reason to read this book is to know the tale of Johnny Truant. Johnny tells the story of his life in footnotes to The Navidson Record, letters from his mother from the Whalestoe Institute, a home for the mentally ill, and a diary he kept during and after his immersion into The Navidson Record. Johnny is a drug abuser, and as the son of a mentally ill woman who died institutionalized, it is hard to say what causes Johnny to drift, then dive headfirst, into mental issues of his own, but Johnny is the heart of this book, the love story of Will and Karen and the peril they live through notwithstanding. Johnny’s story of his life, as he reveals it piecemeal, in a manner that makes it hard to know him if you skip a word, is the reason why I continued reading when I felt I just couldn’t take another damn five-page footnote.