I first read House of Leaves during the summer of 2007. In my AP Literature class my senior year of high school, we had to choose outside reading books each quarter from an approved list that our teacher provided, and we were allowed to do “modern” literature for one of those quarters. House of Leaves fell into that category, and was actually one of my teacher’s favorite books, so she didn’t try to hide the fact that she wanted us to read it. However, from what she said about it, it seemed like a fair bit of work, and—even though my interest was piqued—I decided to skip it as a school project and pick it up later when I had the time.
I decided I would have the time that summer, and encouraged a bunch of my friends from the class—who were also interested in the premise of House of Leaves but felt they couldn’t devote the time it deserved during the school year—to read it with me and form a little book club. Well, the club never got off the ground, but several of us did buy House of Leaves and I know at least a few actually got around to reading it.
House of Leaves, to put it mildly (and please excuse the language) is one helluva mindfuck of a story. It’s really several stories for the price of one, and is told in a very creative, albeit sometimes hard to follow, way. I’ll try to break it down:
Johnny’s Story: Johnny, for all intents and purposes, is more or less the narrator, and an unreliable one at that. He’s a young tattoo artist living in LA and is searching for a new apartment when his friend Lude alerts him to a newly vacant apartment in his building, which used to be owned by a now-deceased old man named Zampanò. In Zampanò’s apartment, Johnny finds an old trunk filled with the pages of a manuscript, which turns out to be an academic study of a documentary film called The Navidson Record. Johnny soon finds that there is no indication anywhere that such a film has ever existed. (Dun dun dunnnn…)
Johnny, still intrigued by Zampanò’s manuscript, begins to work on putting it back together. He adds quite a few footnotes to the manuscript, some merely indicating he couldn’t find certain material previously referenced, others functioning as journal entries about his own life that are often completely unrelated to The Navidson Record. As Johnny is increasingly consumed by the bizarre story, these journal entries document his eventual descent into madness.
The Navidson Record: Zampanò’s study of a documentary made by Will Navidson, a famous documentary filmmaker and photographer. After decades of travel and innumerable accolades from critics and laypeople alike, Will decides to make a documentary a little closer to home: specifically, one about him and his family, and how they come to inhabit their new home in Virginia. On returning from a trip to Seattle, the young family notices some startling changes to their house. First, in the master bedroom wall, they discover a door to a closet-like room where there had previously been merely a blank wall; this closet opens up on the other side to the children’s room. Upon investigating the new room, Navidson discovers that—impossibly—the interior of the house is a quarter of an inch larger than the exterior.
They also discover a door in their living room wall that opens onto a cold, dark hallway. This hallway should extend into their yard, but from the exterior of the house, nothing has changed. Navidson records this incredible anomaly in a short video he titles “The Five and a Half Minute Hallway,” filming through the door and then, in a single shot, climbing out a window on one side of the house and back in on the other side to show he is walking through the space where the hallway should jut out into the yard—but does not. The exploration of the space this dark hallway leads to becomes the main focus of Will’s life, to the exclusion of all other pursuits.
The Whalestoe Letters: Originally published separately from House of Leaves, The Whalestoe Letters is included as an appendix at the end of my edition. The Whalestoe Letters is made up of letters to Johnny from his mother, who was institutionalized when he was a young child.
Whew, okay, now on to the actual review! That summary above, though long, is really just the bare minimum—you’ve really gotta read this book (probably a few times) if you want to understand it. The Wikipedia entry is substantial, but still doesn’t do it justice. (Also, there are spoilers, so no cheating.) It’s a very complicated, very intimidating book and was clearly a labor of love (and also possibly insanity). Even if I didn’t like the book—which I do—I would be forced to at least respect it.
But I DO like the book. Especially The Navidson Record. After reading the entire thing through once, I often skim through a lot of Johnny’s interludes on rereads, because The Navidson Record is the part that really interests me personally (the elements of horror and thriller are irresistible to me, whereas Johnny’s story is more drama, and I’m just less into that). But after finally reading The Whalestoe Letters all the way through on this most recent reread, a new dimension has been added to Johnny’s story for me.
I can definitely call House of Leaves a “breakthrough” book for me, in the same sense that Pride and Prejudice was—the breakthrough being that things described as “literature” are not necessarily ponderous and horrible. Even though I would obviously not put the two in the same category of literature, they both represented to me that just because a book isn’t fluffy doesn’t mean that it’s going to make you want to jump off a building.
The bottom line here is that this book, while definitely not for everyone, is worth a try for anyone who a) is into experimental literature, b) likes complex stories with hidden messages, c) enjoys a good horror story, or d) all of the above.
- Allways: An Interview with Mark Z. Danielewski (themillions.com)
- My Opinion On A Book, The House of Leaves (ashleysenti.wordpress.com)
- Top Ten Books I Wish I Could Read Again For The First Time (Top Ten Tuesday Rewind) (nothanksidratherread.wordpress.com)