I struggled with this rating and review. House of Leaves is different things to different people: for many (many, many, MANY) people it is mind-blowing, complex, and a richly rewarding treat if you take the time to completely parse it. This is not a small undertaking. Entire sections are printed like this —
or this —
and the visual impact of coming across pages like that — intended, obviously, to draw the reader into the mindset of the characters — is daunting. There are oodles of footnotes, endless discussion about how to read them and what secrets lie within, and careful documentation of Easter eggs. These are all wrapped in a pair of linear-ish narratives that dovetail together toward a descent into obsession and madness.
But how did I feel about all of it? Well, I’ll first tell you how I read it so you can adjust grains of salt as necessary. I did read everything: main text, footnotes, appendices, captions. I did not go out of my way to try to decode the symbols or look for coded messages and references, but I did notice some. I took mental notes only and moved on. In essence, I treated House of Leaves less like a cipher and more like a regular book. After I finished, but before writing this review, I googled around for the hidden meanings (top hits are those linked above) so that I could try to assess whether my direct, somewhat lazy method was robbing me of some critical part of the experience.
My conclusion is that it did not. Here’s the thing: the plot of HOL is actually pretty easy to follow, but not only that, it’s kind of derivative. All of the other baubles and tangents and textual design in my opinion were just distractions that obfuscate the fact that the story is pretty basic psychological horror. That doesn’t make it bad — and I’ll get more into that — but as a reader and reviewer, I’m left with the unfortunate inability to even attempt to assess this objectively. The very things that make this book unique and commendable to so many others were, for me, not much more than an annoyance and a headache by the end. And what I ended up learning through my Googling was underwhelming. Selecting certain letters from among the footnotes spell out the authors’ name, some e.e. cummings lite phraseology jumps out from acrostic readings of epistolary sections, blah blah. Don’t get me wrong — there is a TON of stuff to find, and plenty of people enjoy finding it — but what I learned from researching others’ hard work is that none of that stuff really impacted the way I perceived the rest of the book.
So back to the main narrative. As I said, there are two threads. The outer wrapper is that our main character, Johnny Truant, has located the unfinished masterwork of a man named Zampanò. The work, called House of Leaves, is essentially a dissertation about a documentary (or pseudo-documentary) film called “The Navidson Record.” The film is the story of the Navidson family, who move to a new house only to find it is a physical impossibility: it’s bigger on the inside than on the outside. The strangeness of the house begins to take a toll on the mental health of the family members, but patriarch Navidson, being the investigative documentarian that he is, chooses to explore the endless depths of the house’s weirdness rather than just getting out of there. Detailed, impossibly thorough, and chock-full of references to other theses about “The Navidson Record,” Zampanò’s House of Leaves is an academic marvel, except Zampanò himself was an old, blind man with no credentials, and “The Navidson Record” does not exist. There is no such film, there are no such people, and no such similar events have ever taken place. Johnny is fascinated and engrossed, and before long, he sets himself on the task of annotating and completing House of Leaves. And that is the inner wrapper: Zampanò’s House of Leaves, with notes by Johnny Truant.
The biggest issue I had with the story, gimmicks aside, was how obvious it was. I had read so much about how genuinely terrifying the story is, and how everyone who reads it is liable to find themselves unraveling the same sweater o’ madness as the characters within, how it’s a book that utterly consumes you. I just couldn’t get into it. I felt myself thinking, “This is it?” The extent of the layers in the story seems to be this:
1. (definitely-maybe fictional) Will Navidson became obsessed with finding out the mystery behind his haunted house.
2. Zampanò became obsessed with analyzing Navidson’s (definitely-maybe fictional) film, apparently developing paranoia about his own residence.
3. Johnny Truant became obsessed with Zampanò’s work about (definitely-maybe) nothing, trying to solve the mystery of why Zampanò would write such an opus, if “The Navidson Record” has any basis in reality, and thusly finds himself similarly haunted as Zampanò was by darkness, loneliness, and other intangible bumps in the night.
In other, shorter words, crazy begets crazy begets crazy. And all of their crazy is supposed to infect the reader with crazy. Maybe I just don’t have the obsessive personality.
What I do have is disdain for is that super dudely style of writing actual author Mark Z. Danielewski employs in the Johnny Truant sections: the kind that Bret Easton Ellis specializes in, that tries to ape societal expat party boy angst from Hunter S. Thompson but trades actual introspection and social commentary for self-masturbatory stream-of-consciousness vignettes about drugs and casual sex. By contrast, the text of Zampanò’s House of Leaves is excessively dry, in an on-point parody of academic literature. Still, the fictional account of “The Navidson Record” made up for the intentionally esoteric prose, because even though it’s just a story of a family and their haunted house, it’s still a good story of a family and their haunted house. The inclusion of Johnny Truant is an obvious device to break the fourth wall, but it didn’t make for better composite reading.
I don’t NOT recommend House of Leaves. A lot of people have responded to Mark Z. Danielewski’s style and the obvious effort he put into the book. I’m glad I tried it, because I wouldn’t have known until I read it, that it’s just not for me.