Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is undeniably unique. Its quality, on the other hand, is debatable.
It begins with a short introduction from a young man called Johnny Truant who explains how he found an unfinished book in the apartment of an old man who had recently died. The remainder of the book details Johnny’s attempt to assemble Zampanò’s book from the notes that littered his apartment, interspersed with more of Johnny’s first-person narration as he comments on the text and the events of his life.
Unfortunately, Johnny’s story, which takes up approximately half of the book, is a largely uninteresting documentation of his descent into madness. It is an endless parade of bland psychological thriller clichés featuring the “thing” that lurks in your peripheral vision and recurring nightmares. Much of Johnny’s story also documents his many sexual conquests which seems uncharacteristically tacky. I found myself painfully slugging through Johnny’s endless inner turmoil solely to reach the next installment of the fascinating parallel narrative which is documented in Zampanò’s half of the book.
Zampanò’s book takes the form of a scholarly analysis and chronological recount of a fictional documentary that concerns a house which is slightly larger on the inside than the outside. Unlike in Johnny’s segment of the book, Danielewski averts all clichés in favour of his own unique and chilling take on the haunted house. He replaces ghosts with irrational geometry and evokes the vast, cosmic mysteries of Lovecraft’s work but prefers psychological horrors to tentacled ones.
In his analysis of The Navidson Record, Zampanò discusses everything in fascinating detail, from potential symbolic interpretations to the psychology and social interactions of the small cast. Additionally, this serves as an amusing satire of the pretentious and ego-driven prose found in many academic texts.
The author eagerly uses the structure of the text to reflect and accentuate its meaning. For example, one of the chapters in Zampanò’s analysis discusses labyrinths. It is littered with footnotes which require the reader to skip wildly back and forth between the pages, literally forming a maze which is intended to disorient and confuse.
Not only is House of Leaves accompanied by extensive footnotes but it comes with a variety of fictional appendices to flesh out the mythos including a collection of poems written by Zampanò, a series of letters from Johnny’s mother and various artworks inspired by the book.
House of Leaves’ official forum has pages of discussion about the book’s underlying meaning where readers desperately scramble to decode the layers of metaphors. However, the few answers they have found only raise more questions. House of Leaves is overwhelmingly post-modern and as the forums reveal, the search for a definitive answer to the book’s tantalising mysteries is fruitless. Each reader will create their own unique understanding of the myriad of complex symbolism.
Occasionally, Danielewski’s creativity gets the better of him and he’ll indulge in a single sentence that runs from topic to topic, page to page and overflows with colourful language and strange imagery. Most readers – myself included – will find these segments to be overbearing and difficult to comprehend. However, for the most part, the style of writing is straightforward.
For those looking for some simple escapist entertainment, House of Leaves is clearly not for you. On the other hand, this book will be highly enjoyable for those seeking something truly unique and vast in scope and ambition, even if it is far from perfect.
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