Book Review: "House of Leaves" - Mark Z. Danielewski

in #books3 years ago

Hi Steemians!
I just finished "House of Leaves" by Mark Z. Danielewski - and I need to talk about it!

"House of Leaves" is a novel with many narrative layers. At its core, it's the story about a house where a man called Navidson lives with his wife and two children. One day, the house just starts "changing" - rooms and hallways expanding and contracting in weird ways, creating a labyrinth within a structure that looks to be no different from the outside. Naturally this terrifies the family. Navidson himself documents it all on film. The second layer is now the actual text - a man called Zampanò has seen this film and he retells it within the novel, while also including interview transcripts and other added information. This is what a man called Johnny Truant discovers - and he he writes his own footnotes in the margins. This is then the book as it presents itself to us as the reader - a mixture of all three of these accounts, written down in various forms and formats. Does that sound confusing to you? Well, unsurprisingly it is.

To be perfectly honest, after FINALLY getting through this monster of a book, I'm a little disappointed.

I know some people are hailing this book as a genius piece of literature but honestly for the most part it felt too "gimmicky" and pretentious.

I did like the premise, the idea behind writing a novel in so many layers and the sometimes unconventional text placement on the pages.

Plus, I can definitely appreciate the sheer amount of work that must have gone into writing this, but at the end of the day I'm left asking myself what the point of it all was. The book doesn't have a proper ending or conclusion, which leads me to believe it wanted to be more about the atmosphere of it as a whole. If that is the case, then telling an essentially quite creepy story through so many layers, thereby distancing the reader from it, took a lot of that eeriness away.

Within the book it is often implied that simply reading about The Navidson Record has psychological effects on people and can make them go crazy and whatnot. I would have liked this book a lot more if that had actually been achieved - creating a feeling of constant dread within the reader - which for me unfortunately never happened. Sure, the thought of a house like this existing is creepy. But again - because I felt so distanced from all of the characters, nothing seemed to really get to me.

Overall my hopes for this book were not fulfilled, which is particularly sad because so many people whose reviews and opinions I wholeheartedly trust have raved about this. I won't pretend like large portions of this didn't go completely over my head. But then again, how genius can a piece of writing really be if it takes a lot of extra work and research on the reader's part for its point to be made?

What do you think about this? Have you read HoL? Let me know!

As always,
happy reading!


I have read House of Leaves. Three different times, in fact, and each time I glean something new from its pages. It's very difficult to review, especially now, because the book has reached a saturation point with readership: so many people read it and loved it that the new reader's expectations are sky-high due, in no small part, to the cult following it's acquired over the last twenty years.

I believe House of Leaves does what it sets out to do (if there's a literary analog to playing Silent Hill, Danielewski's book is absolutely a contender), but it accomplishes it by smashing together other tropes of both literary and academic writing. The punchline is that it makes all the sense in the making absolutely no goddamn sense at all.

There's a right way to read House of Leaves, and there are a million wrong ways. The right way, in my opinion, is to focus solely on one story thread at a time. House of Leaves is a nameless editor's completed overview of a journal kept by a potentially-crazy young man who assembled the disparate pieces of a thesis penned about a non-existent film written by (and found in the tightly locked and sealed residence of) an old blind man with a name nobody is certain exactly how to pronounce--and it only gets more confusing from there.

That leaves at least four different plots through which a reader must navigate in order to understand what is going on: Zampano's thesis, Johnny Truant's notes, Will Navidson's film, and the annotations, interviews, and bibliographies as ascribed to real-world people and publications that nevertheless do not exist.

And you thought James Joyce's Ulysses was confusing? ;)

The best (and, in my opinion, only) way to enjoy the book is to decide which thread you want to follow before you begin reading, and then read only that thread. The best stuff is Zampano's thesis, otherwise the main text of the book. Read that, ignore everything else, and experience the story everyone else is writing about.

After that, read the book a second time, only this time focus on Johnny Truant's notes and annotations. His story's nearly as interesting, and just as strange, as Navidson's, and since you'll have already experienced Navidson's, you can simply refer to it from time to time while reading Truant's pieces to get an idea of what's happening in "The Navidson Record" while Johnny's piecing together what happened in his own life, and Johnny's editor is infrequently laying out his thoughts on the matter.

House of Leaves is undeniably one of the most pretentious works of literature I've ever read. You are not meant to simply 'read' it--a reader must give it energy and time nearly equal to that of the man who produced it, and that's asking quite a lot for any book. But it uses that pretension to give readers a look inside themselves as well. The book (and by extension, Danielewski himself) can fuck with you, but only so much as the reader allows them to do so. At any time, we can set the book down and re-join the normal world, and if we continue, we have only ourselves to blame if we have trouble sleeping for a few days after.

Your final question is, "How genius can a piece of writing be if it takes a lot of extra work and research on the reader's part for its point to be made?" I think the best answer is that every reader's experience and expectations for House of Leaves is different. Some people enjoy the riddles and watching the madness unfold; they give in to the book's request to invest more of themselves into it. Others wish Danielewski would just get to the goddamn point and quit running them back and forth through the pages. There is no right or wrong response to House of Leaves, but Danielewski did warn everyone in the dedication.

He wrote, "This is not for you."

To this, there are two possible reactions:

One can close the book and say, "You're right, this isn't for me." Or, one can tell that dedication, "Fuck off, it is so!" Both are allowed. Both are respectable decisions. Neither one is more correct than the other. But don't be afraid to re-visit the book later, especially if parts of it did intrigue you. :)

Your review is wonderfully written, as always, @ivymuse! And it looks like it's getting the attention it deserves from the community too. :)

Thank you so much for your insightful commentary! I'd never thought about tackling this book in parts, as you suggest. I do believe that I want to come back to it at some point, if only to read it once while fully knowing what I'm getting myself into. I'll try to give this method a shot! And if I come up with the same results and experiences, maybe I'll know the book's dedication does apply to me ;)

(Full disclosure: I have not read House of Leaves yet.)

House of Leaves is undeniably one of the most pretentious works of literature I've ever read.

But it uses that pretension to give readers a look inside themselves as well.

This rather matches up with a little idea of mine - that pretension, at the end of the day, is just another type of aesthetic, to be used and exploited at the will of the writer. Even so, pretension's definition, strictly:

characterized by assumption of dignity or importance, especially when exaggerated or undeserved

Can this be said to be accurate of House of Leaves? Is its dignity and importance exaggerated or undeserved? I'd say not based on the sheer swirl of thought and intelligent critique, of both love and hatred for the book. A book has no importance until someone attaches importance to it.

Based on what I've heard of House of Leaves and The Familiar, Danielewski sounds like an auteur - someone of a very singular and unique vision. In this respect his work is bound to be divisive, for the thing about a singular vision is that everyone else is merely looking inside. We can't fully understand it, so we either accept it and find ourselves stunned at the depth of thought or we reject it and call it pretentious rubbish.

I can't wait to read House of Leaves for the first time, myself. I've heard so many good things about it. It sounds like a fascinating novel. The works of auteurs often fascinate me - they are so intricate, such depth of thought behind them. Calling their quality one way or another is impossible because the mind behind it operates on a different... level, or perhaps mode, than yours or mine.

Similarly, I can't wait to read Ulysses for the first time. So many works of art, so little time!

I have heard so much about the book but had never purchased it yet. I hope I like it :)
I want to like it.

I hope you like it too :)

Nice review. I haven't read HOL but it sounds similar in structure to S by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst, which came out a few years later. I really enjoyed S and am wondering how the two books compare. Anyone read both of them?

Thank you! Unfortunately I haven't but it's definitely on my list!

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