Review: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

It’s time to ‘fess up: I have an English Literature degree. That means I know what the meaning of words like “mimesis” and “bildungsroman” and “post structuralism”. They mean “I want to sound clever so I shall use big words.” Sometimes they also mean “I don’t understand so I shall hide behind big words so people will assume I know what I’m talking about.”

Knowing that was very useful for reading House of Leaves.

“We all create stories to protect ourselves.”

House of Leaves is the story of Johnny Truant, a young man who comes across a manuscript. This manuscript is a critical analysis written by a blind man called Zampano of a film called the Navidson Record. The film tells the story of the Navidson family who move into a house only to find that it is, to use a technical term, downright weird.

So there are at least three stories: Johnny Truant’s efforts to deal with the manuscript; Zampano’s efforts to deal with the film; and the Navidsons’ efforts to deal with the house.

So it’s not a straightforward book by any means. And sometimes that’s fantastic. There are layers of narrative and meaning; it’s like an onion. Or an ogre. Either way it’s full of hints and clues and mysteries. There are references to Yggdrasil, Cherenkov Light, the labyrinth and the Minotaur, all suggesting a meaning just out of reach. It’s like the TV show Lost in book form and I love it.

But sometimes the layers are just in the way. The analysis is supposedly satire but all too often it comes off as straight. Too clever for its own good. Too full of big words in an attempt to seem like a big, dense, literary work. Yet, in contrast, Truant’s story wastes its potential and degenerates into a parade of drink, drugs and derrières.

Lude sure as hell doesn’t understand it. One-because I’ve fallen for a stripper: ” ‘fuck a’ and ‘fall for’ have very different meanings, Hoss. The first one you do as much as you can. The second one you never ever, ever do.”

In truth the best story is Navidson’s. Danielewski’s house is deep and dark and unexplained and Navidson’s exploration of it is tense and has you turning the pages frantically. Not only that but it stays with you. Reading this book won’t scare you; it will frighten you in a deep and dark place. It will remind you of the unknown depths of the world and make falling asleep very difficult indeed.

The house is history and history is uninhabited.

But despite how unsettling and frustrating and frightening this book is, Danielewski claims this is a love story. But if it is, I have the same problem I have with Jane Eyre: one party is elevated above the other and love cannot be found until that party is damaged or maimed somehow. It leaves a fundamental inequality in the relationships of this book and it just feels wrong to me. If it is a love story, I can’t recommend as such.

That said, I have to recommend House of Leaves. Because while the overly-present author, too-clever “satire” of critical analysis and redundant narratives could be as annoying as all hell, this book affected me. It touched me and altered me and changed the way I think. And it’s such a rare book that can do that. So go read it.

But not at night.

“Since when did you bring a gun?” Navidson asks, crouching near the door.
“Are you kidding me? This place is scary.”

5 thoughts on “Review: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski”

  1. Great review. I don’t know the book but it sounds a bit like a less literary, less self aware Italo Calvino. By that I am thinking meta fiction (another of those literature degree words we share). Calvino tends to write in layers, so that the novel becomes aware of itself as a novel, a construct, and continually reminds the reader that it is such. Rather the opposite of what those banal and endless websites advertsiing ‘correct’ writing techniques are all about.

    1. Absolutely, I must admit that Calvino popped into my head a few times when I read this. If On a Winter’s Night A Traveller was on the reading list for my degree and I really enjoyed it (although I probably won’t read any more of his work). I certainly think Danielewski was trying to evoke that meta fiction feel. Are you a Calvino fan?

      1. I wouldn’t call myself one in the sense that I am a fan of Tolkien. But some novelists lend themselves to critical study, and Calvino is definitely one of those. By that I mean his books are enriched rather than undermined by analysis. It’s almost as if he meant for people to write essays about them. They certainly demand a certain level of intellectual consideration from the reader.

        1. I can’t disagree one bit. I always got the feeling that Calvino was steeped in literary theory and built his novels rather than wrote them. As if he used all the isms as Lego pieces somehow. It makes his work sound boring as hell but it actually works for him.

  2. Pingback: Review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell | James T Kelly

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