Review of House of Leaves

HouseOfLeavesI would have never known of the existence of this book had it not been for a certain writing project of my own. I was telling an editor friend about a novel I am writing. In my upcoming novel entitled The House Sitter, writer and haunter Brad Johnson watches over his friend’s house for a few months while he and his family are away on vacation.  While staying in his house, he decides to work out a lot of his demons by doing an ambitious amount of writing. However, he has a rather idiosyncratic writing process – he haunts things.  He studies an object, reflects upon it in an eerie way, let’s his imagination go wild and then – Presto! He has written an eerie story about the object while haunting it at the same time.  However, sometimes the object can turn around and haunt him back.

Brad finishes three short stories, all pertaining to the house.  The themes in each of his stories reflect upon his personal demons.  They are stories within a larger story.  In one story, a young boy falls down a laundry chute. Rather than being treated to a twelve- drop inside a straight metal chute, he encounters tunnels and chasms filled with possessed animals, bizarre demons, and other animated horrors.

At this point, my editor friend interrupts me and says, “You have to check out House of Leaves!”  She explained that the themes to my upcoming novel are similar to what’s inside this long and ambitious work by Mark Danielewski.   She is mostly referring to Brad’s story of mysterious tunnels occupying on house.

Well, I searched though the Amazon.com library of ebooks – and I found nothing.  No House of Leaves. How foolish of me to think this book would be available in electronic format! If I had only known about its rather unusual layout, its reliance on footnotes, its back-paging and forward–flipping style.

I purchased the paperback and unwittingly stumbled into a genre that has only recently been defined. Dare I say post-modern?  This genre is known as Ergodic literature.  Espen J Aarseth in his book Cybertext—Perspectives on Ergodic Literature writes:

 In ergodic literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text. If ergodic literature is to make sense as a concept, there must also be nonergodic literature, where the effort to traverse the text is trivial, with no extranoematic responsibilities placed on the reader except (for example) eye movement and the periodic or arbitrary turning of pages

It is a book where the reader can easily get lost in a labyrinth of literal twists (the words flowed down in a spiral at one point) and non-linear flow (the reader will be led to a footnote that just might go on for a page or two before being set free to return to the place s/he left off. Where was that place again?) (1) (Yes this is a footnote! Go to the bottom of the page. Dooo it!)   And guess what? This book is about a labyrinth that exists inside a dark hallway within a house. Sometimes it’s a one-level hallway that is few meters long. At other times, it is a space of unfathomable lengths and depths.  HouseofLeaves2

I found that House of Leaves does have some similarities to my upcoming novel The House Sitter. They both contain stories within stories. They both have unreliable narrators that write in a diary. And they both, at one point or another, deal with houses that have expanding passageways that defy the physical boundaries of the house itself.

But this is where the similarities end.  Although House Sitter possesses a fair amount of complexity, it is far simpler than the other.  Pretentious at times, House of Leaves is a labyrinth of convolution. But as the theme unravels, the reader understands that this convolution points to the very essence of the book.

When I finished House of Leaves, I was imbued with the uncanny ability to utter both “huh?” and “wow!” in a single breath.  Baffling yet intriguing, the “huh-wow” effect prevailed from beginning to end, through the smooth and the rough, and believe me there are plenty of rough passages to tread through.  At times I asked myself “Why am I even bothering to read a book where I sometimes have to turn it upside-down to understand what I am reading?” At other times I exclaimed “How cool! Twenty five pages in a row where there were only four words on the page!”

 

WordsDown

Huh-wow, huh-wow, huh-wow.

WordsInvert

But I refused to hold the book up to a mirror for the parts where the words were inverted.  Some things I just won’t do.

The narrator of House of Leaves is Johnny Truant, a sex-obsessed and drug-addled tattoo parlor employee. Well, Johnny boy here seems a little unhinged.  Zampano is a blind author who has recently died.  He has left behind the scattered remains of a literary project.  Notebook pages litter the floor.  Words are scribbled across napkins. Truant embarks on the project of assembling the notes into a cohesive whole, adding his own comments via footnotes.  The result is an exhaustive critique of The Navidson Record – a documentary film of a family that lives in a home with a mysterious hallway that exceeds the boundaries of the house.  Will Navidson, the homeowner, sends explorers, equipped with video cameras, into the hallway.  They are lost for days. Will himself ventures into the dark and claustrophobic hallway on several occasions. At one point, all the walls and floors disappear. It appears that he will forever be trapped in “nothingness.”

It seems as if every academic snob and pretentious critic has an opinion of this film.  Journals of art, science and culture have published critiques and analyses of the film, their accounts carefully researched and documented by Zampano and later complied by Truant in footnotes. The thing is – many of these publications do not exist. Neither do many of these critics. Nor does the film. There is nothing! “Nothing” becoming a terrifying something is common theme in this book.

Truant goes off the deep end trying to assemble this piece.  He breaks down in fits of anxiety, experiences depersonalization, and ends up locking himself away in his apartment, alone with these pages.

So, what the hell is going on here?  For me, this sums it up = you feed it and it will grow. Spend a taxing amount of energy on something small and in the end that which was minute will be enormous. It will be overwrought with complications, possessed with a polarity to suck you in.  Spiral

The Navidson hallway and the staircase within reflects the mindset of its occupants. Feed it fear and it will grow terrifyingly large. The film The Navidson Record is overanalyzed. As a result, the book that was written about it sprawls manically in all directions via footnotes and references. Truant, the one left to sort out all this mess, gets pulled into the void of, so much so that at one point, he discovers that he is part of this book. People he hasn’t met have read about him from his journal that was never published.

But I shall say no more. Perhaps it’s dangerous to overthink this book.  (Ohh, I said more!) The less said the better. (Yes! Less, please!)  Anything more than a modest analysis may cause the reviewer to be sucked into one of the abysses the book warns against. (No, not that!)  Or maybe it doesn’t warn again such voids at all! (Stop it!).  Maybe…

No, I won’t “fall” for it.  I will not be sucked in. The book is what it is and that’s that!

I liked it even though it was a pain in the ass to read. Why did I like it? If I go searching around my brain for the answer, you will never see hear from me again.

But I mean to continue on, with this blog, and with my novel The House Sitter.  At least I know where the hallways of that house lead.

Until next time!

Daniel W Cheely

WordsFootnote2

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