Review: House of Leaves (Novel)

Posted by Peter Hall - June 20th 2007 @ 8:45 pm

Written by Mark Z. Danielewski, 2000
*This is a long review, I know.  Read the book.

House of Leaves - Large Cover

The best way to describe the experience of putting eyes to the pages of House of Leaves is to spoil the ending of my favorite Clive Barker story; "In the Hills, The Cities".  Barker’s great short concerns a couple who get lost driving across the annals of Eastern Europe.  They happen to view a truly rare sight, one the outside world has likely never seen.  Two twin cities, populations in the thousands, literally assemble themselves into two fully functional giants, hundreds of feet high.  It is the ultimate feat of human engineering, a gargantuan man made communally out of comparably insignificant men, women and children.  When Mick and Judd witness Popolac, the second of the two cities, for the first time the sheer sight of it renders their individual lives meaningless.  Mick is oblivious to the silent death of Judd as the colossus crushes the cottage they sought refuge in.  Completely consumed with the awe inspired by this unimaginable triumph of mankind, Mick can do nothing but desperately clamber up Popolac’s foot as the city-giant passes.  He, like countless others before him, will surely die in the journey, but the knowledge that he is a part of something whose existence is incomprehensible is too seductive.

With House of Leaves Mark Z. Danielewski accomplished the same thing the city of Popolac did.  It isn’t a human composition so large one’s eyes have to completely scan their field of vision more than once to see its entirety, but I cannot help but think the experience of seeing that is just as mind boggling as the complexity of trying to wrap your head around Danielewki’s novel in one go.  This beast is just that god damned impressive.  In fact, I’d go so far to say I’ve never read a novel so distinctly impressive that I felt stupid in its presence.

I refuse to imply it is the best literary work ever written – it has more than its share of problems and is far from any such accolade – but the ambition of it and the raw scope of the mammoth shadow this thing casts inspire nothing but the utmost respect.  Danielewski flat out embarrasses other contemporary authors with his recklessly brilliant narrative.  If House of Leaves had hands and legs, it would walk around bookstores, physically ripping other novel’s in half and using their shredded remains to build a soft bed for itself to sleep in.

And I haven’t even uttered a word as to what it is about yet.

The nameless ‘editors’ present the soul-baring writings of Johnny Truant, who compiled a chest full of a dead, blind man named Zampano’s notes into the critical analysis (complete with foot notes and bibliographic citations) of a documentary film called The Navidson Record, which chronicled a photojournalist’s family’s discovery that their house contains a doorway to a mind defying, endless labyrinth where time and space have absolutely no meaning.  As if the jaw dropping level of detail and the constant intersection of all those narrators wasn’t complex enough, the presentation of everything is meticulously designed to further smother your ability to comprehend it all: Sentences literally colliding with others, paragraphs spaced in Morse code, pages containing only single words, multiple languages and countless, wholly fictitious document citations, interviews and entire essays.

It is these presentation liberties that prevent me from completely falling for the work.  Some of the choices really hit their marks…others, not so much.  The decision to make every appearance of the word "house" blue, for example, eventually gives any encounter with the word a noticeably ominous feel, evolving the character of the house into something both fascinating and fearful.  On the other hand, sentences written on top of sentences on top of other sentences, rendering them painful to decipher, contribute little to the overall feel of the novel.  Unless you count it as an intentional reminder that all of this masterwork is but a novel.

Thankfully, Danielewski’s writing chops more than make up for any aesthetic ptifalls.  The writing, from every single point of view, is universally phenomenal.  The character of Johnny Truant, who regularly tacks his own engaging story onto Zampano’s notes, is now one of my favorite literary characters.  Period.  He embodies an entire generation so effortlessly it is frankly daunting.  The plight of the Navidson family is heartbreaking and genuinely scary.  The critical picking apart of the fictional documentary is magnificent, painting such a vivid picture of the film that it genuinely depresses me whenever I remember it isn’t actually real.

There is an unquantifiable energy one can feel when reading this book.  Its towering (or cavernous, if you take the house’s stance) scope will bestow rushes of reader discovery that makes one want to scour every corner of every page.  Both of the plots – Johnny’s withering state after becoming obsessed with making sense of Zampano’s notes; the happenings of The Navidson Record – build with remarkable momentum.  So much so that the novel establishes such a forceful sense of gravity relatively early on that it begs the question as to whether or not the end can truly satisfy.

Which, I admit, it does not.  Regardless, you want more.  You will crave more.

Which is also the beauty of it.  The entire book is about life and people’s uninhibited inability to fully understand all its mysteries.  It only makes sense that you, the reader, are never fully allowed to understand the house and its rapturous effect on all who come in contact with it.  But you can experience it after-the-fact.  Like Mick in the face of Popolac, you can sense there is something brilliant going on here, sense that the existence – or hope of the existence – of something this complex is a wonder you need to be a part of.

Read House of Leaves.  If you don’t feel an undeniable compulsion to talk about, to share this book with someone else, I will personally pay for your copy.

That’s not just a promise, it is a challenge. 

comments are closed
  1. June 21st, 2007 | 9:30 am | #1

    When I first met my girlfriend and her roommate, I think one of them was still reading this. They were describing all its little oddities and, despite conceding that it doesn’t offer any answers, seemed insistent that it just has to be read anyway.

    Everyone who reads this book seems to regard it as one of those things you just have to make sure you experience, like seeing a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Me, I suppose I’m just about ready to venture into this other time warp, so I’ll have to borrow a copy.

  2. June 21st, 2007 | 9:31 am | #2

    Oh, and good review.

  3. Christine
    June 21st, 2007 | 10:39 am | #3

    This review was worth the 3+ hours it took you to write it. Bravo.

  4. Barry
    June 22nd, 2007 | 4:48 am | #4

    You write he best reviews i’ve ever read. I’m so glad i found your blog. This book sounds impossibly cool and I will have to check it out.

  5. June 23rd, 2007 | 2:24 pm | #5

    Thanks all, I really appreciate it.

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