Matt Forney
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House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

house-of-leavesPostmodern writing is almost entirely garbage. The linguistic trickery of writers like Jonathan Safran Foer and David Foster Wallace—piles of footnotes, frequent tone shifts, dialect writing, making the ending of your novel a fucking flipbook—is a mirage to disguise their limp prose and limper view of reality. Infinite Jest is a Calvinist anti-drug morality tale disguised as edgy, avant-garde literatureExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a mawkish Hallmark movie in print format.

So you can imagine that I really wasn’t looking forward to reading House of Leaves.

It’s the kind of book I ordinarily wouldn’t bother with at all; I only read it because my friend Zampano (who took his alias from the novel’s central character) urged me to. And while I won’t claim that House of Leaves blew my socks off or anything, for a postmodern novel, it’s actually pretty good. Interwoven in the countless footnotes and citations of Mark Z. Danielewski’s book is an intriguing story of love, discovery and madness, one worth reading.

As I mentioned, House of Leaves concerns itself with Zampanò, recently deceased hermit, ladies’ man and dissident academic. The story is presented through the text of Zampanò’s posthumously published masterpiece The Navidson Record, a book-length dissection of a supposed documentary film of the same name. The narrative of The Navidson Record is intertwined with that of Johnny Truant, a tattoo artist and perpetual washout who takes it upon himself to edit Zampanò’s book and release it for publication:

He stopped. We had reached the door. Now I shudder. Back then, I think I was elsewhere. More than likely daydreaming about Thumper. This will probably really wig you out, I don’t care, but one night I even rented Bambi and got a hard-on. That’s how bad I had it for her. Thumper was something else and she sure beat the hell out of Clara English. Perhaps at that moment I was even thinking about what the two would look like in a cat fight. One thing’s for sure though, when I heard Lude turn the bolt and open Zampanò’s door, I lost sight of those dreams.

The various threads of House of Leaves’ plot—the Navidson family, Johnny Truant and Zampanò himself—are melded together in a seamless fashion, with Truant and Zampanò’s story taking the form of footnotes inserted with Navidson’s text. The book takes advantage of the medium of print to pull maneuvers that are currently impossible with e-books, from color-coding certain words (“house,” for example, is always colored blue) to arranging paragraphs in ways that simulate the ongoing action to utilizing strikethroughs and bolded Xs to highlight areas where Zampanò’s original text was lost. For example, a paragraph in which a character is ascending a staircase is split out across several pages, each one containing only a handful of words. The book is further bolstered by a references section shedding further light on Truant and Zampanò’s lives.

It sounds gimmicky, but these various elements just mesh in a way that fiction of this type usually doesn’t.

The main problem with House of Leaves is its bland central narrative. The Navidson Record is an academic analysis of a documentary film (that doesn’t exist, either in the real world or the book’s world) about a family who moves into a house only to discover that it’s larger on the inside than the outside. This should be a gripping tale, as it encompasses the Navidson family coping with whatever malevolent force haunts their home, delves into the infidelities of Will Navidson’s wife Karen, and unfolds slowly like a good thriller. The problem is that Danielewski writes this portion of the book in a faux-scholarly style, which combined with the odd page layouts makes getting through The Navidson Record a chore:

So much so that back in October when Navidson first came across the tape of Wax kissing Karen he hardly responded. He viewed the scene twice, once at regular speed, the second time on fast forward, and then moved on to the rest of the footage without saying a word. From a dramatic point of view we must realize it is a highly anticlimactic moment, but one which, as the Haven-Slocum Theory argues, only serves to further emphasize the level of damage the house had already inflicted upon Navidson: “Normal emotional reactions no longer apply. The pain anyone else would have felt while viewing that screen kiss, in Navidson’s case has been blunted by the grossly disproportionate trauma already caused by the house. In this regard it is in fact a highly climactic, if irregular moment, only because it is so disturbing to watch something so typically meaningful rendered so utterly inconsequential. How tragic to find Navidson so bereft of energy, his usual snap and alacrity of thought replaced by such unyielding torpor. Nothing matters anymore to him, which as more than a handful of people have already observed, is precisely the point.”

Danielewski’s relatively basic writing skills don’t help, either. House of Leaves was his first novel and it shows: while there’s nothing technically wrong with his prose, he doesn’t write anything that takes you aback or leaps out at you. According to Zampano (my friend, not the novel’s Zampanò), Danielewski’s follow-up novels were all garbage, suggesting he either got lucky with this one or stole the idea from a degenerate he met in rehab.

So what makes House of Leaves worth reading if the bulk of it is dull pseudo-academic drudgery?

Answer: Johnny Truant’s story. Danielewski shines when he relates the struggles of Truant to piece together Zampanò’s manuscript, his pining for his stripper girlfriend Thumper, and his adventures with his buddy Lude. Truant progressively goes insane as the novel advances, culminating in a desperate search for the Navidson’s house, fact and fiction blending together in his increasingly addled mind. Unlike most postmodern novelists, Danielewski actually seems like he’s had sex and used drugs, giving Truant’s tale both realism and verisimilitude. He may be nuts, but he’s a charming kind of nuts.

That’s why you should read House of Leaves. Beneath its pile of contradictory footnotes (Zampanò’s and Truant’s footnotes are noted in different fonts), its bizarre text layouts and the dullness of its central story, there’s a rich mystery waiting to be solved. It’s unfortunate that Danielewski couldn’t keep the quality consistent throughout the novel, but what’s there is intriguing, original and worth checking out.

Click here to buy House of Leaves.

Read Next: Naughty Nomad: Not Your Typical Backpacker Story by Mark Zolo

  • too long in london

    Damn, I remember this book! Weird, but definitely worth the £28 price tag.
    It reminded me of seeing medieval illuminated letters, and it carried off the academic satire genre much better than Infinite Jest ever will.

  • Some standard dialogue with anyone of my English professors:

    Me: “Do you like David Forster Wallace.”

    Professor: “Yes. He was a genius.”

    Me: “Have you read Infinite Jest?”

    Professor: “No.”

    Me: “Never?”

    Professor: “Well, I started it, but I just couldn’t bring myself to read the whole thing.”

    All of my professors gave up on Infinite Jest around the 300 page mark, but claimed that Wallace was brilliant. Ha.

    I really enjoyed the essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, though. Wallace’s mindset and interpretation of reality was fucked, but I do think he wrote some entertaining stuff.

    That’s the problem with post-modern writing, though. Even when I enjoy it I’m like, “What is the message here?” “What the fuck is even going on?”

    Like City of Glass. I read that book during college and I sort of enjoyed it’s weirdness while at the same time thinking, “I feel like anybody could write this.”

    Post-modernism seems like it has no rules. They have thrown out all the rules of plot, character development and story structure so anything is acceptable. If you try to criticize it they dismiss you with a “You don’t understand, man! I’m experimenting with style. I’m breaking the mold!”

    I’m rambling now.

    Good review Matt.