Effin' Great Books: House of Leaves

Effin' Great Books: House of Leaves

House of Leaves

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By Mark Z. Danielewski

Genre: Experimental Literature, Horror

This is not for you.

Plot Synopsis

House of Leaves is a very complex book. It's hard to figure out where to start, so I'll start where the book starts.

A tangible
impossibility.
A living
paradox

House of Leaves starts with a letter to the reader from Johnny Truant - tattoo artist, loner - living emaciated and paranoid in a cheap apartment. He writes us how the events that destroyed his mind and life started, with him and his friend finding a dead body. The body is that of a man known as Zámpano - old, blind, obsessed with writing - and he is found lifeless among the remains of his destroyed apartment, although he himself, oddly enough, appears to have died of natural causes. Windows painted black and boarded up, measuring tapes glued all over the floor, half the furniture now destroyed, and among this madness and destruction, the very thing that took so firm a grip of poor Johnny's mind, a black trunk.

The trunk is filled to the brim with writing. Paper, scraps, napkins. As Johnny eventually realizes, it is a manuscript. The manuscript for a book called The Navidson Record, which Johnny discovers, as he pieces it together, is a complex and in-depth analysis of a film of the same name, that Johnny claims isn't actually a real film. This film started out as a home project of Will Navidson - photojournalist, decorated war photographer - to document his family settling in their newly bought house. Things are going well, until something unthinkable happens. By chance, Navidson discovers something unimaginable. A tangible impossibility. A living paradox.

The house is three inches bigger on the inside than on the outside.

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The black square represents existential horror, or something.

There are several layers, several threads, if you will, to this remarkable book. The bulk of the text is Zámpano's The Navidson Record, in which we witness the plight of Navidson and his wife as their relationship and even their very lives are threatened by the menacing house, which reveals itself to contain an unimaginably vast, ever changing labyrinth. This text is supplied with annotations and notes by Johnny Truant who is trying to make sense of it all, trying to decide what is real and what isn't as the cosmic fears and impossibilities threaten to enter his own life. Then there are some unrelated notes and poems by Zámpano which may contain clues concerning the reality and origins of the extraordinary events happening to the Navidson family.

But only half of House of Leaves is about the story. The other half is about how the story is told. You see, House of Leaves, and especially The Navidson Record has a slightly bizarre layout. The layout echoes the events of the story. For instance, when they discover that the house contains a labyrinth and explore it, the book becomes a labyrinth. You'll be reading upside down, searching the pages for footnotes, disregard seemingly meaningless black squares and endless ranting annotations - dead ends, if you will - and generally have a hard time orientating yourself. And the book does this with any remarkable situation it feels you should experience as well.

Except that everything I just told you was false.

Or was it? House of Leaves is a book of questions. If you have been paying attention earlier you'll have noticed that certain things don't add up; Zámpano's apartement was smashed and there was a long claw mark on the floor, yet he himself had died of natural causes. Why are his windows painted black? And most distressing of all, perhaps, why would a blind man write an analysis of a film?
Not only do we have an unreliable narrator - multiple, in fact - we also have an unreliable writer, and even an unreliable reader. House of Leaves and its intricate stories summon many, many questions, which all lead to one bigger question: what is going on? Which is to say: what is true? The book provides many, many answers, most of which - if not all - are absolutely false and contradictory. But it still provides them, it leads you on, lets you believe that there truly is an answer, keeps you going through all the madness, horror, and paradoxes it provides, makes you read it again and again, until you're as obsessed as poor Johnny Truant.

In the end, House of Leaves is only part story. The other part is an experience, a feeling. The feeling of being lost and afraid. Alone in a dark labyrinth.

The experience of being in the House of Leaves.

So, my first review on the Escapist. Criticism welcome! Particulary of the grammatical kind.

"By chance, Navidson discovers something unimaginable. A tangible impossibility. A living paradox" isn't great English (grammar) and the quote you use to the right is different from its source - "A tangible impossibility, a living paradox."

"If you have been paying attention earlier you'll have noticed that certain things don't add up. Zámpano's apartement was smashed and there was a long claw mark on the floor, yet he himself had died of natural causes." I think a semicolon should be used there, ala: "don't add up; Zámpano's apartement was smashed."

Not trying to be an ass, just pointing out any perceived errors.

Also, I find the separated quote boxes odd. I think it would read a little better and look a lot better if it was one large box, making use of [h1,2,3,4,5] etc., etc. to break it up.

I'm not sure if I liked the review, really. I absolutely don't want to be an ass, and you've quite clearly put effort into it. I don't know. It feels a bit too much like a blurb, I guess.

Shio:
"By chance, Navidson discovers something unimaginable. A tangible impossibility. A living paradox" isn't great English (grammar) and the quote you use to the right is different from its source - "A tangible impossibility, a living paradox."

"If you have been paying attention earlier you'll have noticed that certain things don't add up. Zámpano's apartement was smashed and there was a long claw mark on the floor, yet he himself had died of natural causes." I think a semicolon should be used there, ala: "don't add up; Zámpano's apartement was smashed."

Not trying to be an ass, just pointing out any perceived errors.

Also, I find the separated quote boxes odd. I think it would read a little better and look a lot better if it was one large box, making use of [h1,2,3,4,5] etc., etc. to break it up.

I'm not sure if I liked the review, really. I absolutely don't want to be an ass, and you've quite clearly put effort into it. I don't know. It feels a bit too much like a blurb, I guess.

Thanks for your input! I'll fix those things right away.

And you're right, there's no place for the reader to rest his eyes, it's all one big blurb, as you say. I'm not really experienced in formatting my posts with bb code. Perhaps I'll experiment some more.

Ekonk:
Thanks for your input! I'll fix those things right away.

And you're right, there's no place for the reader to rest his eyes, it's all one big blurb, as you say. I'm not really experienced in formatting my posts with bb code. Perhaps I'll experiment some more.

Glad you didn't take any of that as an insult. I find it hard to criticize people, but I've seen you in the forum for a long time and you're (usually :P) very cool and open to debates and the such.

I'm a writer, myself. Have been thinking about dropping some of my stuff on here, but I don't take critique well at all, lol. I'm not as brave as you are.

As a quick aside: I really like how you kept the blue lettering of house from the cover throughout your review. If the headings were just plain black like the rest of the text, it would stand out even more. A nice touch.

Shio:

Ekonk:
Thanks for your input! I'll fix those things right away.

And you're right, there's no place for the reader to rest his eyes, it's all one big blurb, as you say. I'm not really experienced in formatting my posts with bb code. Perhaps I'll experiment some more.

Glad you didn't take any of that as an insult. I find it hard to criticize people, but I've seen you in the forum for a long time and you're (usually :P) very cool and open to debates and the such.

I'm a writer, myself. Have been thinking about dropping some of my stuff on here, but I don't take critique well at all, lol. I'm not as brave as you are.

As a quick aside: I really like how you kept the blue lettering of house from the cover throughout your review. If the headings were just plain black like the rest of the text, it would stand out even more. A nice touch.

But receiving criticism is how to improve! You really should put some of your stuff here. As the great artist Dan LuVisi said about the site conceptart.org: "They will tear you down until you feel like crying, and then build you up again into something you never thought you could be."

...or something to that effect.

And the blue lettering of "house" is not just on the cover, but throughout the entire book. Even the publisher, which is something like "house of books" or something is lettered blue. It's part of the whole "not just the story, but the entire book will fuck you up" attitude that Danielewski had.

I do intend to write more reviews about more effin' great books, and hopefully improve while doing so. Thanks again and do put some of your stuff online. :P

Ekonk:
But receiving criticism is how to improve! You really should put some of your stuff here. As the great artist Dan LuVisi said about the site conceptart.org: "They will tear you down until you feel like crying, and then build you up again into something you never thought you could be."

...or something to that effect.

And the blue lettering of "house" is not just on the cover, but throughout the entire book. Even the publisher, which is something like "house of books" or something is lettered blue. It's part of the whole "not just the story, but the entire book will fuck you up" attitude that Danielewski had.

I do intend to write more reviews about more effin' great books, and hopefully improve while doing so. Thanks again and do put some of your stuff online. :P

I've an anxiety and depression disorder that's lead to suicide attempts and a virtually nonexistent sense of self-worth. You can imagine how well I deal with "it's okay, but..." XP

The way you describe the book actually makes me want to pick up a copy, if only to look at the packaging in detail, lol. Aside from the moral and legal reasons, that obsession with feeling and seeing media first-hand has kept me from ever pirating a book, CD, DVD or game. One of my favourite bands gave out their latest record online, free of charge, in FLAC format. Guess who downloaded it and ordered a copy anyway? :P

I'll think about posting some of my work. Though maybe I'd private message it off to you first. Test the waters, so to speak.

Shio:
I've an anxiety and depression disorder that's lead to suicide attempts and a virtually nonexistent sense of self-worth. You can imagine how well I deal with "it's okay, but..." XP

The way you describe the book actually makes me want to pick up a copy, if only to look at the packaging in detail, lol. Aside from the moral and legal reasons, that obsession with feeling and seeing media first-hand has kept me from ever pirating a book, CD, DVD or game. One of my favourite bands gave out their latest record online, free of charge, in FLAC format. Guess who downloaded it and ordered a copy anyway? :P

I'll think about posting some of my work. Though maybe I'd private message it off to you first. Test the waters, so to speak.

Hmm I see how that could be a problem. :/

Well you should pick it up, I recommend this book to everyone, and especially if you dabble in writing you will probably find it fascinating. It really pushes the boundaries of what a book can do. As a movie, audio book, or even pdf it wouldn't work.

Ah well, if you ever pm me some of your writing I'll try to be at my most considerate, yet still be critical. A delicate balance, I think you'll agree. :)

Ekonk:
Well you should pick it up, I recommend this book to everyone, and especially if you dabble in writing you will probably find it fascinating. It really pushes the boundaries of what a book can do. As a movie, audio book, or even pdf it wouldn't work.

That sort of concept is an interesting medium in and of itself. I once wrote a novlet detailing one man's journey to the moon in a homemade rocket. The whole thing couldn't have been more than five hundred words long. But I took great care and time to make the pages part of the experience -- like House of Leaves; I made some pages transparent, with writing on the page beneath showing through and reading differently as a result, the words grew and shrunk, the text faded when in the distance, and the images I drew to accompany the words were often no bigger than a coin. I wouldn't call it my best or even my favourite story, but it was the most interesting to make.

A shame then that the advent of digital media is seeing the physical one die.

Shio:

Ekonk:
Well you should pick it up, I recommend this book to everyone, and especially if you dabble in writing you will probably find it fascinating. It really pushes the boundaries of what a book can do. As a movie, audio book, or even pdf it wouldn't work.

That sort of concept is an interesting medium in and of itself. I once wrote a novlet detailing one man's journey to the moon in a homemade rocket. The whole thing couldn't have been more than five hundred words long. But I took great care and time to make the pages part of the experience -- like House of Leaves; I made some pages transparent, with writing on the page beneath showing through and reading differently as a result, the words grew and shrunk, the text faded when in the distance, and the images I drew to accompany the words were often no bigger than a coin. I wouldn't call it my best or even my favourite story, but it was the most interesting to make.

A shame then that the advent of digital media is seeing the physical one die.

That sounds rather fascinating indeed! And of course that's true, about digital media overtaking physical ones, but of course making the medium part of the work is possible with things such as movies and games as well. It just hasn't been done a lot.

Ekonk:

Shio:

Ekonk:
Well you should pick it up, I recommend this book to everyone, and especially if you dabble in writing you will probably find it fascinating. It really pushes the boundaries of what a book can do. As a movie, audio book, or even pdf it wouldn't work.

That sort of concept is an interesting medium in and of itself. I once wrote a novlet detailing one man's journey to the moon in a homemade rocket. The whole thing couldn't have been more than five hundred words long. But I took great care and time to make the pages part of the experience -- like House of Leaves; I made some pages transparent, with writing on the page beneath showing through and reading differently as a result, the words grew and shrunk, the text faded when in the distance, and the images I drew to accompany the words were often no bigger than a coin. I wouldn't call it my best or even my favourite story, but it was the most interesting to make.

A shame then that the advent of digital media is seeing the physical one die.

That sounds rather fascinating indeed! And of course that's true, about digital media overtaking physical ones, but of course making the medium part of the work is possible with things such as movies and games as well. It just hasn't been done a lot.

Well, you've sparked my creative urges! I'm thinking I shall start work on an indie game like no other. All this talk of unique experiences has me champing at the bit. Not the "artsy" stuff. No. I wanna make a game that offers something that hasn't been presented before. Sounds even more cocky and far-fetched in writing than it did in my head, lol. But dang it, I wanna give it a go!

Now, to brainstorm!

I loved this book. It was a very hard read and it'll be a while before I pick it up again, but it was a very good book.

The discussion about the minotaur was probably my favourite section.

Yeah, I heard about this book. Not sure if I can be bothered to read it though. Still, it does sound interesting, and I might check it out at a later date.

On an interesting side note, an album was released as a companion piece to this book. It's called Haunted by Poe (who is the author's sister, and who also appeared on Lisa Foiles top five licensed tracks in a game, or something like that). It's a pretty cool album, and I believe that one song in the album has an excerpt from the book read out by the author himself.

The more you know...

 

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