Reading Books — House of Leaves

House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski

A rare, serious piece of literature with paranormal activity!


This review is dated May 18, 2014.

If a blackhole were to appear in our minds, would we walk into it, against our best judgment? Even after we confirm its nothingness and endlessness, would we still continue into its depths? Would we bring along others? Would we abandon life as we know it to seek meaning in it?

The protagonist of Mr. Danielewski’s novel, Johnny, a tattoo parlor worker whose tenuous links to life comprise of Lude with whom he has “spent a good deal of time wandering all over this odd city [Los Angeles]. We both thrive in the late hours, appreciate its sad taste and never get in the way of each other’s dreams, even though Lude just wants more money, better parties and prettier girls…” and Thumper, not her real name, a stripper and a frequent customer to the tattoo shop who mesmerized our protagonist, “Her hair reminding me of a shiny gold desert wind brazed in a hot August sun, hips curving like coastal norths, tits rising and falling beneath her blue sweatshirt the way an ocean will do long after the storm has passed…” and calls her pussy “the Happiest Place on Earth,” inherits a blind recluse’s (Zampano’s) voluminous notes about a “film which doesn’t even exist,” in which a family have to reckon with a cavernous deprivation-tank-like hallways and staircases emerging in their idyllic Virginia country house (“House”).

The narrative in the book occurs at different levels – the base is Zampano’s fictitious film, The Navidson Record, where Navidson, an accomplished photojournalist, loosely modeled on Kevin Carter, moves his family of 4 to the House together with a lot of video equipment that he first uses to capture daily life in the House, and then to explore its emerging dark hallways. While the base story has the unremarkable premise of a “haunted house,” complete with Navidson’s beautiful wife Karen, “a cold bitch, plain and simple. A high-fashion model, not much smarter than a radiator, who grew up thinking life revolved around club owners, cocaine, and credit card limits,” and their two young kids, it is done extremely well. The base story is way better than any haunted house story or horror flick, propelling the story forward. The action is nicely punctuated by philosophical asides, mostly appearing as fictitious commentary on the Navidson Record.

The other narrative is the story of Johnny, moving forward from the point Johnny came in possession of Zampano’s materials and also backwards to trace his tumultuous childhood. Johnny’s story appears in his highly personal footnotes as he edits Zampano’s materials into the novel.

As Johnny tries to edit Zampano’s materials comes in contact with folks who collaborated with Zampano, and we start tracing the story of Zampano as well. Though this third story line mostly focus on Zampano’s last years as he worked with a number of volunteer readers and scribes, most of whom happen to be attractive women, to pull together his work.

These three stories of apparently distinct men, Navidson, the famous photojournalist, Johnny the aimless drifter, and Zampano the reclusive literary genius, intertwine amid commentary and discussions of fundamental questions of philosophy. Here are some examples:

On reality versus fiction: “La Belle Nicoise et Le Beau Chien [a fictitious movie] … portrayed the murder of a little girl in such comic reality it was instantly hailed as the belle of the ball in the palace of the grotesque, receiving wares at Sundance and Cannes,… until of course it was discovered that there really was such a little Lithuanian girl and she really was murdered and by none other than the wealthy filmmaker himself. It was a slickly produced snuff film sold as an art house flick. Emir Kustrica’s Underground finally replaced Nicoise as the winner of Cannes Palm d’Or; an equally absurd and terrifying film though gratefully fictitious.”

On physical reality of perceptions: “Can Navidson’s house exist without the experience of itself? Is it possible to think of that as ‘unshaped’ by human perceptions? Especially since everyone entering there finds a vision almost completely – though pointedly not completely – different from anyone else’s?  Leonard [a fictitious commentator] claimed people create a ‘sensation of space’ where the final result ‘in the perceptual process is a single sensation – ‘a feeling’ about that particular place…’”

As well lyric poetry: “Myth makes Echo the subject of longing and desire. Physics makes Echo the subject of distance and design. Where emotion and reason are concerned both claims are accurate. And where there is no Echo there is no description of space or love. There is only silence.”

The layout of the book has some innovative designs which elevates the novel above pure text, adds a visual dimension, but this is a novel idea and a new art form. In House of Leaves different layout designs appear in different sections, never to reappear. I found them a bit forced. Yet the book in its full color edition is aesthetically pleasing.

Finally, the overabundance of footnotes works to convey the sense of the mockumentary, but at certain points they pile up to break the flow of the narrative. With so many different academics or critics commenting on the Navidson Record, I quickly lost interest in tracking them. Perhaps it would have been better to streamline those to a handful and include them as additional characters.

All in all, this is a great book, an artful post-modern narrative structure, with innovative layout designs, but most importantly some great, good old story telling.