House of Leaves cover art

Written by: Mark Z. Danielewski
Published by: Pantheon

House of Leaves contains text that you may recognize from a song by the musical artist Poe. This is the least of the oddities you will discover in these pages.

It is at best a work of literary genius. It is at least an experimental text with interesting adjuncts and lexicography. The truth, as always, is somewhere in between. It is reminiscent of Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer for its complex narrative layering. Appendices contain poems, collages, sketches and photos, quotes, and a series of letters from Truant's mother in an insane asylum written to Truant.

The premise of the layout is a kind of frame story: Johnny Truant has found an incomplete manuscript written by an old blind man named Zampanò. The text is ostensibly either an academic discussion of a non-existent film, or a novel. Truant is never certain. House of Leaves at large is annotated both by Truant himself and by the "editors." The film in question, "The Navidson Record," is supposedly a documentary made by a photojournalist who has moved into a house that is not what it seems. The least surprising thing about this house is that its internal measurements are in fact larger than its external dimensions. The strangeness progresses from there.

Much has already been made of the book's textual experimentation. There are colored passages, stricken words and phrases, meandering, circular pages, even pages with black blocks or single words. Surely modernism and postmodernism have already liberated writers (and readers) from the tyranny of formal textual style, resulting in readers who are not easily wooed by textual caprice. In other words, if there isn't a real reason for Danielewski's textual tricks, they could become more irritating than effective in any way. So is the layout of the book merely a marketing ploy to ensnare gullible graduate students, or does it underscore some theme of the book and serve a real purpose within the story? The answer is yes. And no. The textual explorations serve to emphasize the degeneration of the characters' sanity, as well as providing a kind of visual representation of the ideas of labyrinth and degeneration apparent in the novel. However, Danielewski almost goes too far. At a certain point, the reader is left thinking, "Yes, we got it. Thank you. Now can you make me fear the character's loss, fear, and disorientation with your prose, and not just with your layout?" There are so many valid and interesting things going in in House of Leaves, that the author's play with the layout almost obscures his real virtuosity--a shame.

The characters themselves are well-done. There are reasons to love and to dislike almost every character in the book--brave Reston, brilliant Navidson, high-strung Karen, and so on. The only exception is the main narrator, Truant. His character degenerates over the course of the novel, reflecting his increasing alienation from himself and from his world. He is either a pathological liar, rabidly insane, or both.

The fear is almost always atmospheric, internal, and situational, as opposed to reliant upon such things as monsters, gore, or the usual horror tropes. There is a "monster" at large, but the facts surrounding this creature, without giving too much away, are handled deftly enough that the real tension is not fear of imminent attack, per se, but rather the internal processes of the characters' minds. It is the exploration of the uncanny that is the real heart of this novel, and how the uncanny can affect, or be created by, our normal lives. The average stock horror novelist today could stand to learn something about real fear from Danielewski, and from Charles Godwin's discussion of the uncanny that flavors House of Leaves.

This book is many things: a sociological treatise on the dissolution and construction of marriages, the self, and the family; an adventure tale; a mystery; a novel of psychological suspense; a coming of age tale and a search for reliable identity; an academic argument about filmmaking; even a love story. It is, in short, about life, in all its labyrinthine glory and, yes, fear.

Grade: B+

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