Maybe you’re right, Johnny. Maybe you’re right. House of Leaves opens with these words, purportedly put there by Johnny Truant, a young sex lunatic who discovers a manuscript, put together by an old man called Zampanò, about a film that may or may not exist, made by a medium-famous middle-aged photographer named Will Navidson, about a house that he lives in that’s bigger on the inside, all annotated by editors who appear unable to make further contact with Johnny.
As a journalism student back in 2008, I was first told about this book by a classmate who “[didn’t] really read books” but had just picked up “possibly the best book ever”, a horror novel that was seriously so scary. This guy a) really wanted my phone number; b) wrote the name of the book on a yellow Post-it Note; and c) seemed to believe that Navidson’s film was a real movie that actually existed in real life. I did not give him my number (the not reading thing being a bit of a deal-breaker for me), but I did remember the name of the book for years after, and picked up HoL on a whim in a Chapters in 2016, because I will give any book a try, no matter who recommends it.
Designed beautifully, printed in colour on good paper, with plenty of thought put in to layout and typeface, HoL is ergodic literature, with passages meant to turn the reading experience into one as discombobulating as traversing the impossible labyrinth of a house at the centre of the story, and as unsettling as losing your mind, like the people who come into contact with said house tend to do. The book is also full of codes, hidden messages, symbols, footnotes, indices, appendices, fragments, letters, poems, and [missing].
Ever read Television Without Pity? Jacob Clifton used to write recaps for that site – from Doctor Who to American Idol, he would write pages and pages, going off on tangents and analyzing the most random things and basically giving certain shows just entirely more time and attention than they deserved, but his recaps were almost always worth reading because of the time and effort he invested in them.
You know, in some ways, investing your time in solving a puzzle or reading a book is an act of faith – that the journey is worth your time, that there will be satisfactory solution to the puzzle, an answer to your question. Here was my main problem with this book: I do not have faith in Mark Z. Daniewlewski. I think any sentence he liked the sound of got tossed in here as Zampanò’s unfinished “bits and pieces” and “fragments,” and I think that he spent more time inventing codes and encrypted messages than figuring out their purpose, and what they were going to say.
Online, there are pages and pages of discussions, on reddit, on Goodreads, on Danielewski’s own website (where he sells a bronze figure of a cat for $3,300 O_o) discussing the possible meanings behind these secrets (mostly anagrams and acrostics), and for most, there is no consensus. MZD himself refuses to answer any questions. To my mind, if there is no right answer, then anything can be the right answer. And that means that thousands of readers can spend hours online and in university classrooms and in bed at 5am (ahem *whistles*) thinking and talking about your book forever, and you can coyly remark in pretentious interviews about allowing the reader have their own “ah-ha” moment.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what frustrated me about studying literature in high school and university, and is the main reason I dropped English as a major. I just truly don’t believe that Shakespeare put that much thought into every comma placement. I like reading and discussing books, but I don’t like picking their bones dry. Maybe I lack imagination. Maybe I’m just not smart enough to get Danielewski’s genius. Or maybe I’m just a control freak who lives in a nonsense world with no answers and no meaning and prefers the literature she reads to have some semblance of both. Some things just aren’t for everyone, and that’s okay.
Let’s back off the presentation and talk a bit more about the content, though. So it’s a book about an unfinished manuscript about a film about a house. From the top. The book part, organized by the aforementioned Johnny Truant, consists of his findings of Zampanò’s work, in addition to Truant’s explanations, research, and footnotes about his life. To me, this is the weakest part of HoLs. Johnny, like us, is reading Zampanò’s book, and he tells us all about the discovery of the manuscript and the things that have happened to him while and since he put the work together. Mostly, this is drugs with his friend Lude and sex with many, many, so many women, intermixed with existential ramblings and stream-of-consciousness diversions that read like the diary of some freshman who thinks he is both incredibly interesting, and incredibly clever with words. Every time I got to a Johnny footnote I was tempted to stop reading.
On to the manuscript, a detailed description of a movie that may or may not but probably doesn’t actually exist in the world of HoL and the effect it has had on the world after its release. This was my favourite part, and I think I would have really enjoyed reading Will Navidson’s story by itself, either in a conventional format or with Zampanò’s analysis. His detailed descriptions of each scene and accompanying footnotes are fun to read, engrossing, and a very amusing satire of academic writing, although the joke wears pretty thin after 700 pages. I cared what happened to Navidson, his wife Karen, his children Chad and Daisy, his brother Tom, and Billy Reston and the other explorers who try to help them understand what is happening to their house.
Obviously, since this is a book, we never get to actually see the movie at the heart of it, The Navidson Record. But it is described in such detail through Zampanò’s manuscript that it really does feel like you’ve seen it by the end. This terrifying film that probably doesn’t exist, that has inspired so many popular and academic works of criticism and analysis, that so many people are obsessed over to the point of illness and madness. Many people call HoL a horror novel, but I wasn’t able to find it scary it all, because you can’t get lost in the atmosphere or story when you’re constantly turning the book upside-down, flipping back and forth, and generally being forced out of the experience of reading over and over again. Oh, and I would also like to point out that there are two female characters of any note in HoL. One, Will Navidson’s wife, is an ex-model with infidelity issues, who is constantly nagging her husband to abandon his passions. Two, Johnny’s mother, doesn’t get anything to say until the Appendix. There is a third female character of some note. She never gets a name, and is a stripper. Sigh.
Key takeaway: I think a book like this is only as good as the amount of effort you put into it, and I am not invested enough, I do not care enough, to bother.
! Had fun writing this review, though.