Ben Heels

Everything I do, all in one place.

Mark Z. Danielewski – House of Leaves (2000)

When I first started reading House of Leaves, I explained it like this:

  • Mark Z. Danielewski is the author of the novel House of Leaves in which
    • Johnny Truant finds and publishes a piece of cinematic criticism written by
      • Zampanò about a film that may or may not exist, created by prize-winning photojournalist
        • Will Navidson, who filmed The Navidson Record to document his family’s move into their house on Ash Tree Lane.

To be fair, my take on the structure was made after reading only 70 pages. It’s not too far off, but as always, there are more pieces to the puzzle, more details, more layers, and more people that can probably explain the book’s structure better than I can. Take Professor Brian Croxall’s diagram for example:

Prof. Brian Croxall (source)

At its core, House of Leaves is about Will Navidson and his family’s move into their new house in Virginia. After years traveling abroad as a photojournalist, Navidson decides to document them settling in and adjusting on film. Cameras are set up in just about every room in the house, Navidson films candid moments and humble scenes with a couple of camcorders, and he and his wife Karen Green record private video journals almost daily. The horrors begin when Navidson discovers that the inside dimensions of his house are different than the outside. Everything that Navidson captures is later edited and released as a documentary called The Navidson Record.

The found-footage film captures the attention of countless academics, critics, and journalists and is written about extensively. For every minute of film there seems to be a hundred pages of secondary material written about it, from “Knock Knock, Who Cares?” to “The Five and a Half Minute Holloway.” The only evidence that these academics exist — and consequently that their writing and the film exist — lie in a few hundred Chicago-style citations. These citations are part of a lengthy and labyrinthine cinematic dissertation about The Navidson Record written by a man named Zampanò, a dissertation called House of Leaves.

Zampanò’s writings aren’t in one piece, however. The pages are torn, bloody, and burned. Passages are either purposefully struck through or are accidentally blacked out with spilled ink. Some parts are just missing. The writings that do survive, though, are assembled by a Los Angeles tattoo artist-in-training, Johnny Truant.

This is where the real book begins.

What we read is Navidson’s life through the lens of The Navidson Record, analyzed by academics, whose writings are compiled and expanded upon by Zampanò in a book called House of Leaves, which is compiled and annotated by Johnny Truant, all of which is published by a final layer of (fictional) editors who only step in to translate or correct any mistakes made by Johnny or Zampanò.

Four and a half hundred words later, this review just barely scratches the surface. Everything that I’ve outlined is explained in the book’s introduction. Needless to say, it only gets crazier. This is a book that must be read with a physical copy. A couple eBooks and amateur audiobooks exist, but they don’t do the text justice. The remastered full-color edition uses different fonts to indicate who’s writing (Times New Roman for Zampanò, Courier for Johnny, Bookman for The Editors, and Dante for Johnny’s mother), the word house is always written in blue (as is maison and haus), Minotaur is both struck through and written in red, and many of the pages have irregular formatting.

Everything about the book’s formatting is intentional and functional. As the characters delve deeper into the house, the reader gets pulled into the text. The house’s spacial distortions melt into the text, leaving only a handful of words on each page and forcing the reader to flip through the text and fall deeper into the rabbit hole. At other times, the reader is brought to a halt by pages filled to the margins with text. The text literally twists and turns, rotates, mirrors, and stretches across pages. Multi-page footnotes have footnotes of their own, and others turn the reader to endless footnote-loops or dead ends, purposefully losing the reader in the labyrinth.

On top of all of the formatting, there are plenty of secrets hidden in-between the lines. Some of the secrets are hidden in subtle or not-so-subtle literary allusions (like how the font for Johnny’s mother is literally called Dante), and others masquerade as typos (“tears her to Pisces”). Another section has the reader decode a letter written by Johnny’s mother: “Pay attention” she writes, “the next letter I will encode as follows: use the first letter of each word to build subsequent words and phrases.”

“Dearest everything and remarkably elegant seraphim’s truth Johnny oh heaven’s near nearing you…” [DEAREST JOHNNY] (620)

House of Leaves was easily the coolest reading experience I’ve ever had. If anything about this book interests you, please give it a try. To reiterate what I said in my Goodreads mini-review: Don’t let any of the crazy formatting or cryptic codes scare you. The majority of the book reads like a regular novel and isn’t terribly difficult, and the parts that have irregular formatting make a lot more sense in context. I thoroughly enjoyed getting lost in Danielewski’s work, and I’d gladly get lost again.

5 / 5 Stars

If you’ve read House of Leaves, or if you’re interested in reading it, feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts.

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