by Kyle P.
Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is the story of a Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist and his family whose lives descend into surreal terror following the discovery that their new house in the Virginia countryside hides an apparently infinite shifting labyrinth. Except that it’s actually a critical analysis of the cultural impact and subtext of the film that documents these strange events. Or it would be if that film existed; instead, it’s the story of an old man near the end of his life trying desperately to compile a work of experimental fiction in the form of said critical analysis. Or, rather, it’s the story of a young tattoo shop apprentice’s descent into madness following the discovery of this work. To put it simply, House of Leaves is weird.
Its outermost narrative follows Johnny Truant, our protagonist who discovers a strange manuscript titled The Navidson Record among the possessions of the recently deceased Zampanó, a friend’s mysterious neighbor. The bulk of the text in House of Leaves is Zampanó’s writing, formatted as a straightforward critical analysis and edited by Johnny. The Navidson Record is a compelling horror story, but it clearly does not work in the form of academic writing; Zampanó’s critical prose is spot on until he lapses into full narrative descriptions of events in the film that the hypothetical reader has supposedly already seen. Johnny, however, is apparently just as aware of the book’s flaws as we are, providing a sort of peanut gallery commentary on Zampanó, his writing, and what any of it might mean.
The critical analysis gimmick is surprisingly a lot of fun, with what is ostensibly fiction being accompanied by footnotes and citations from sources that sometimes do and sometimes don’t exist. Added to these footnotes are Johnny’s as well as Johnny’s editors’, leading to a sort of insane footnote war of citations, corrections, corrected corrections, and eventually multi-page non-sequitur rants, which only gets more confusing as the footnotes start running vertically, upside down and backwards, to say nothing of the increasingly fragmented text itself. Johnny’s role as the straight man in all of this is short lived; in no time, his footnotes begin rambling on about all manner of seemingly irrelevant anecdotes in a schizophrenic tone that shifts abruptly between page long flowery-prose sentences and unrestrained vulgarity.
What works about House of Leaves, then, is not any individual element, but how each story works in context of the others. Every individual narrative provides a unique perspective on the struggles and uncertainties inherent in life. Through all of the avant-garde word salad is a genuinely human story about loneliness, a mother’s relationship with her child, the trade-off between emotional connection and personal independence, and probably a lot of other things that I’m going to need to read the book a few more times to really get.
This is a story that doesn’t so much tug at the heartstrings as it does rend them apart with a soldering iron, but the moments of powerful emotional impact are balanced on both ends with an endlessly self-aware sense of humor and the conceptually terrifying presence of the titular house itself. As much as I love fiction, it rarely manages to draw tangible emotional responses from me, but House of Leaves brought me to the edge of tears, made me laugh out loud, and instilled a raw existential dread in me that I’m still recovering from.
I don’t know if this is a horror novel, a love story, a satire of academic criticism, or what, but I think the answer is that—like the impossible labyrinth its characters confront—it is what you make of it. Whatever it is, it’s really, really good. Read it.