It is not light reading, or easy to describe by any means. It was written by Mark Danielewski and has two pertinent stories in the book. First is the story of Johnny Truant, the character who "edits" the manuscript left behind by a blind author named Zampano. The manuscript itself is about a film released called The Navidson Record, a series of twisted home movies about a house whose inner dimensions are larger than its outer dimensions. In the center of the house is a series of corridors, and a spiral staircase whose diameter changes seemingly randomly. The manuscript itself is typset in odd ways, often requiring you to turn the book in odd directions, and at one point, going into braille. It's thrilling, but often times too self-consciously "arty." Very creepy and chilling, but definitely an acquired taste.

This novel is simply breath taking. It is not the best piece of writing ever published, but it is an extremely inventive and entertaining book which will make you think about the reality in which you live in and how you experience it as it happens. The narration of Zampano's manuscript by Johnny Truant is at times very lengthy and lacking in redeming value but, like Patrick Bateman's lengthy discourses on apparel in American Psycho, they lend themselves to character development as well as theme and texture. By far the best aspect of this book is the fact that is the description of visual and spatial qualities of a unviewable film, written by a man who himself is totally blind. This, combined with the narrative format creates a sort of wonderful un-film, a story which could never be put onto a reel but at the same time is only truly fulfilled when the reader transforms the words into the fictional film of which the narrator is speaking.

What surprises me most about House of Leaves is how people shy away from it. I may just be looking in the wrong places, but I haven't been able to find any kind of critical analysis of the book itself. No one seems willing to discuss it with me either, despite all that it is. I hear "It's freaky as hell" or "It's amazeing" {sic} and that's it. Pardon the pun.

Another interesting note: when I attempt to analyze the book in any way, shape, or form, I always end up analyzing the house and the Navidson family as opposed to the piece as a whole.

An I out on a limb here? I feel like a book with this much substance and self-analysis has to have some kind of layering going on . . .

House of Leaves is an excellent read. Agreed, it is challenging at times, but I have encouraged a couple of friends to pick it up.

I suppose I will take the role here of pointing out that it is essentially a novel equivalent to the film style of the "Blair Witch Project".1 Just as BWP utilized its grainy, documentary style to present its story in as real a light as possible, House of Leaves is filled with each and every mechanism available to the world of text to cast the work in a "realistic" light. It is almost painfully footnoted. Every quote, presented fact, or reference lists a documented source with page numbers, publications, authors (most of them fabricated since the story isn't real, there certainly aren't any articles, interview, etc. to source about the events). Regardless, they add an air of authority to the content. And how many novels have you seen with an index? For added "realism" these notes are applied in layers by the "original" author (Zampano), by the person who collected and edited the original (Johnny Truant), and even supposedly by the publishing editor.

The many excursions from the main story line also add to the realism. Zampano's detailed analysis of literary and scientific references seem to add to the authority of the non-fiction aspects of the work. Truant's details of events within his own life add more flavor with his parallel events, further intriguing characters (Thumper and Lude, for example), and the efforts he had to go through to compile/verify Zampano's papers further stamp a true life situation on things.

I also agree with waterhouse2 when he refers to the narrative format as an element that strongly contributes to heightening the involvement of the reader. The many excursions and the often bizarre type layout which mirrors the conditions/events presented to/by the characters within the story is an effect that is meant to be engaging.

As a friend of mine put it when I showed him some of the more interesting aspects of the physical presentation of the words within the book:

"I have seen several books that work with an experimental layout before. I generally find them too painful to read after the first couple of pages."3

I responded with the fact that this book is also engagingly written, not only in having an intriguing story, but with the fact that the "experimental layout" does not really begin until you are already drawn in and participating in the story.

As to Sir Real's observation4: Why aren't there any serious critical examinations of the work? I am not sure, but could it be that the book itself is largely written as a critical work. That would probably throw most serious reviewers off, wouldn't it?

1 There is, of course, the further detail that the story has, at its core, a complete dissertation on a "true" story presented as a documentary film which seems a pretty heavy nod to the BWP to me.

2 E2 nodeshell House of Leaves, 2nd node

3 J.C., 14.01.2001

4 E2 nodeshell House of Leaves, 3rd node

House of Leaves owes a great deal to Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. A common conceit in Borges's writing is the review of non-existent literature[1]; his fiction generally exhibits a blurring of the line between fiction and non-fiction. There is also the rather obvious matter of Borges's obsession with labyrinths[2], echoed in House of Leaves. Zampanò, in fact, is more or less loosely based on Borges: he is a blind old man who writes ``non-fictional'' analyses of nonexistent works.

In addition, the text of House of Leaves pays direct homage to Borges. In particular, I am thinking of footnote 49 on p. 42 (a quote from Miguel Cervantes's Don Quixote followed by an identical quote from a 20th-century writer). The passage quoted:

. . . la verdad, cuya madre es las historia, émula del tiempo, depósito de las acciones, testigo de lo pasado, ejemplo y aviso de lo presente, advertencia de lo por venir
Is precisely that quoted in Borges's ``Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote''. Note the the name in House of Leaves is the same as in the Borges piece.

A quote from `Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius' that may be relevant:

Bioy Casares had come to dinner at my house that evening, and we had lost all track of time in a vast debate over the way one might go about composing a first-person novel whose narrator would omit or distort things and engage in all sorts of contradictions, so that a few of the book's readers---a very few---might divine the horrifying or banal truth.
Those who have read House of Leaves will know what I am talking about.

\1: See, for example, ``Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius'', ``A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain'', ``Three Versions of Judas'', ``Brodie's Report'', and ``Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote''.

\2: See ``The Garden of Forking Paths'', ``The Library of Babel'', ``The House of Asterion'', ``Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth'', ``The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths'', and other works.

Note: All the referenced Borges works may be found in Collected Fictions, ed. Andrew Hurley. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Also track #15 on Poe's cd Haunted. It's not so much a song as some voices and music blended together. Here I've tried to transcribe what it sounds like:

Slightly accented man's voice: Well, now after all that thinking, wouldn't it be fun if we could take a little trip. We will do it. I know a game we all like to play inside that castle; the house. We will play hide and seek.

Little girl: I can hear myself from somewhere in there. (slow music starts) What's happening? (music gets creepier) Daddy! (Adult woman's voice says something unintelligible)

Same man: I thought she was dead.

Little girl: Where are you? (echoes of "dead" and sounds of crying and shattering glass, then more creepy music, pounding, as if upon a steel door, a woman's voice singing an unintelligible song that sounds almost like a hymn, and then a man's voice joins her and it becomes a chant, still unknowable. It seems to be in French, but I can't translate it.)

Same man: Try now, to take the next step. (A phone ringing)

Woman: Hello? Hello? (Another woman's voice answers and says something unintelligible)

The end.

Like many other tracks on this cd ("Hey Pretty", "5- 1/2 Minute Hallway") I am guessing that this song relates to Poe's brother's novel, the above-noded House of Leaves. Unlike "Hey Pretty" (pg. 88, in my version), I can't pinpoint where exactly in the book it appears, however.

Cletus_the_Foetus suggested to me that "I think what the man says is, 'I know a game we all like to play inside /la casa/ -- the house.' He's a Spanish teacher, the same one from Lemon Meringue and Spanish Doll, no?" I'm not sure, but I think I agree...

a house whose dimensions are larger within than without.

i can't believe no one has mentioned the fact that each time the word house appears within the book, it appears in blue ink. this 700 page hypertext ghost story started out being a small project with a small publisher, an obscure paperback, a miniscule advance, no book tour. but suddenly, there was hype. bret easton ellis (the author of american psycho) wrote a phenomenal blurb:

"a great novel, it renders most other fiction meaningless. one can imagine thomas pynchon, j.g. ballard, stephen king and david foster wallace bowing at danielewski's feet, choking with astonishment, surprise, laughter, awe."

danielewski says that he views house of leaves as a play with three characters. these would be the blind old man, the young man, and an extraordinarily gifted woman. they are each telling frightening stories and sad stories, and even sex stories, although they are difficult to see.

i flipped out when i realised this book was affiliated with the rock star poe. i had just stumbled across her album haunted recently after owning the book for about a year, and being fascinated by the shy footnotes* and sdrawkcab words and mirror images and mazey passages. i then found a track on her album called, yes, 'house of leaves' and freaked. then i find out that poe was danielewski's sister, and that her album was a concept recording not based on his book, not a soundtrack for the book, but an intertwining interconnected piece of art. danielewski says, "It’s a parallax view of the same history." but not only was it a sibling affair, but a family affair, or sort of.. if you count ghosts. poe sampled audio recordings of her father's speeches and things after he died, and included them in the songs. danielewski's novel was also highly influenced by his father's background, who was an avant-garde filmmaker. danielewski likens his typographical innovations to techniques used in film.

parts of house of leaves are written in the form of concrete poetry, a subgenre of poetry whereby the arrangement of words mirrors the topic of the poem. for instance, the words to a poem about time might be arranged in the shape of an hourglass. in the book, a character is crawling down a claustrophobic tunnel and so the type shrinks to a narrow strip of words. danielewski says that his view of placing text on the page (as well as being influenced by such masters as e. e. cummings) was largely cinematic. he says he wasn't just trying to be all obtuse and clever in regards to the placement of the word. he was intrigued by the ways a reader navigates a book. he speaks about the elation of reading eighty pages in an hour, because everything is moving so quickly, and frustration because it takes an hour to read ten immensely cluttered pages. his text moves like a hitchcock film, like a camera: zoom in, zoom out, turn corners, speed up s l o w d o w n fade out. it moves the reader all over the place, and also moves them along at a rate that keeps pace with the action in the novel. for instance, in the ninth chapter, (where a group of explorers begins to to discover the maze's vastness) the pages with two long, vertical footnotes, one of which is upside down. a third footnote appears embedded in the text inside of a blue box. these and other many distractions find the reader feeling similarly lost and confused. the actions then speed up in the tenth chapter where the novel reads as quickly as a children's book without pictures. each page contains just a couple of words or a phrase, and the reader flips through them very quickly and frantically.

danielewski uses a different typeface for each of the book's narrators. "there's a reason johnny truant's typeface is called courier," danielewski tells us. "everyone calls it normal type or typewriter face, but it's 'courier', and courier's important because...johnny is a courier of sorts." zampanò's typeface is times, the title page is dante and the editors' typeface is bookman. "and the reason those names came about wasn't purely haphazard."

daniel thinks the structure of house of leaves is far more difficult to explain than it is to read. he is humble, saying, "while I'd like to lay claim to some extraordinary act of originality, truth is I'm only taking advantage of capabilities inherent in everyone. whether it's dealing with magazines, newspapers, radio, tv, and of course the internet, most people living in the 90's have no trouble multi-processing huge sums of information. they may not know it but they're doing it. it's the same as walking or looking for movie times, we're all involved--for the most part unconsciously--in a massive, usually successful, mental juggling act, simultaneously sorting national stories, shopping lists, the sounds of a neighbor speaking a language we don't understand, music we'd like to understand better, the image on a poster, and all this mixed in with our appetites, emotional murmurs, and frequently the sudden appearance of a seemingly random recollection."

in the end, house of leaves is about fear, and its unsettling nature. he wished to address that, so that it wasn't scary anymore. he believes in facing fears and looking underneath anger to a place where we may find solutions and insight. it is also about recovering from fear.

i got this information from clippings, information i already ate up long ago, and a conversation danielewski had with the publishers at random house.

*danieliewski says "the footnotes are more like a chorus, in some ways anonymous, but it some ways very tricky...a nagging voice that goes 'nyah nyah na na na nyah nyah na na na," and makes a little comment." and yes, dear noders, that was a gratuitous use of a footnote.

PS - for anybody who is going to whinge about my decapitalisation, get over it. there is no way you will be able to read this highly experimental book, the house of leaves, if you're going to insist on griping over grammar conventions. this was intentional. let me leave it this way.

WARNING: This writeup contains spoilers about the novel House of leaves. It should be read by people who have already read the novel in question, or by people who don't mind important plot elements being revealed.

This is probably one of the scariest books I've read in a while, but for reasons different from most frightening novels. The book is, on one level, an examination of the effect of traumatic loss on the human psyche and soul. Many of the writeups above describe the superspatial black labyrinth that appears inside the home of one of the characters. The meaning of that labyrinth (and its never seen but sole implied, and horrific, occupant) is what makes the book so frightening.

The Labyrinth is comprised of elements simultaneously familiar and eerily alien; walls, ceilings, doors, floors, trim, all of the trappings of a modern house... but they are all comprised of a matte black material that reflects very little light. There are no lights, no decorations, no furniture, rather a series of jumbled empty corridors and rooms with no features other than doors. (no windows either.) The temperature is always hovering right about freezing. To compound that startling strangeness is the fact that the Labyrinth changes its size, configuration and complexity every time it is entered and indeed, even while it is occupied by the characters of the book who explore it.

All of that is frightening enough, without the additional elements that Danieliewski adds to the Labyrinth. An occasional distant roaring can be heard within it. Sometimes it sounds like rushing air, but other times sounding like the sound of a monstrous animal. Is this Labyrinth occupied by its own Minotaur? Other elements in different layers of the story support this notion, but the Minotaur is never directly seen. Whenever physical objects are ever left behind in the enormous maze, they are frequently found later, ripped to pieces.

Lastly, and perhaps most frightening of all, is that the Labyrinth tends to drive the people who enter it completely insane, and in one notable case, to homicidal mania.

So what does this all mean? One recurring theme in the book is that of loss. Every character who is connected to the Labyrinth and related/similar phenomena has experienced a brutal loss of some sort. Truant's father's death in a fiery truck accident, and his mother being committed to an insane asylum. The death of Zampano's son. Navidson and Daliah. Indeed, even Danielewski and the death of his father. The Labyrinth, and the Minotaur that possibly inhabits it, are symbolic of the damage caused by horrific trauma to the human psyche. The coldness, emptiness, alienation and dehumanization caused by traumatic loss, especially at an early age, are reflected very well by the physical and metaphysical structures of the Labyrinth. Perhaps this is what Danielewski meant to do in the first place; to cry to heaven and to anyone who will hear what death and loss can do to the fragile human soul.

Untitled Fragment

Little solace comes
to those that grieve
when thoughts keep drifting
as walls keep shifting
and this great blue world of ours
seems like a house of leaves

moments before the wind.

--Mark Danielewski

I don't think anyone has mentioned this as well. There is a feature in the hardback edition that is absent from the paperback (I own both).

If you look at the inside covers of the book, you will notice that they are covered with very very tiny text in groups of four characters. As a computer science dork, this struck a chord in me.

I began typing the hexidecimal code into a hex-editor one-character-at-a time. After about 400 or so, I got tired of it, and saved the file. After looking at the header of the file, I discovered that it was a .wav file! Danielewski, or someone else involved with the book, has embedded a sound on the actual book itself!

I have yet to find out what the sound is (though I'm sure it's very creepy). Typing it in by hand is too damn slow, so I'm trying to get ahold of some OCR software to convert it to text so I can just feed it raw into the hexeditor.

I will update this article when I do so.

Another physical feature of the book is to be found in the paperback edition. You'll note that the book describes the Navidson house as "bigger on the inside than the outside". The front cover of the paperback is made slightly smaller than the book itself, though it still has a bookmark tab. It's difficult to tell until you try and use the tab, only to find that it seems to be too small. This was certainly an attempt to bring into the physical world the conundrums of the house.

House of Leaves came to me highly recommended by someone whose literary taste I trust, and I have to say that for the first 500 pages or so I was not disappointed. The genuinely creepy story at the center of the book is a masterpiece of suspense and terror, made all the more horrifying by the framing narrator's frequent delays, interruptions, and (what we assume is his) psychosis. By itself, the account the book gives of the fictional documentary The Navidson Record would have made an excellent novel. But Danielewski wanted it to be something more, and to some extent, he succeeds.

Using a conceit employed in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose and a great deal of Borges’ work, the central story in House of Leaves is based on a lost original that may never have existed in the first place. This emptiness at its center informs the book from start to finish, and despite the proliferation of information, the book, like the continually expanding house it describes, only increasingly reveals the impossibility of meaning and the futility of attempts to locate truth or significance. As a postmodern foray into the ultimate impenetrability of the sign, the book succeeds in a big way. I read a review that I can’t seem to locate again (lost original?) that called House of Leaves an “assault on the nature of the story,” a description I thought particularly apt. The book is also an immensely entertaining parody of academic criticism, mimicking the tendency of academics to pick apart at the insignificant details of a thing while comically (or tragically) failing to account for its entirety.

The book is less successful in its portrayal of its framing narrator. Johnny Truant is a poorly drawn caricature of a drifter/druggie whose obsession with the manuscript he assembles is immensely uncompelling. Perhaps Johnny is uninteresting because his insanity is rooted not in existential despair but in the most banal of sources: his difficult childhood. As such, the narrative's eventual obsession with Johnny's mother feels a little cheap. In all fairness, though, it's possible that an author as intelligent as Danielewski is poking fun at people's tendency to use personal psychology to explain problems more universal in significance. I'll have to read the book again to really be sure what I think of that.

The book's experimental design is at times hugely satisfying and at others annoyingly self-indulgent. The use of multilayered footnotes and voices is immensely effective, adding a dimensionality to an already complex text. And occasionally, when Danielewski only prints a few words per page or turns the text sideways or upside down to emphasize/reveal the architecture of the text, the effect enriches and extends the narrative. But the other half of the time, his use of experimental printing and layout to heighten dramatic moments adds little to the narrative. Like most attempts to treat text visually or cinematically, House of Leaves misunderstands the profound difference between the act of reading and the act of viewing, and rather than addressing this difference, attempts to elide it.

About 500 pages in, the book proper ends and the appendices and exhibits begin. And this is where the book lost me. Unlike some readers, who are fascinated with “decoding” the book and delving deeper into its various “secrets,” I just got bored when the narrative ended. While I can appreciate the denial of narrative as a technique, I still didn’t enjoy the last 200 pages of the book. But that’s not true of everyone. I also have to say that the saccharine ending of The Navidson Record was also disappointing. But, like much with this novel, I can’t take for granted that this letdown of an ending is not structured as such.

Despite its unevenness, I’d definitely recommend House of Leaves to others as a (mostly) superb feat of storytelling as well as an exceedingly clever meditation on the nature of narrative. But at the same time I would also remind people that testing the limits of narrative convention can be alienating and occasionally tedious.

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