House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

4 Apr

 

A few years ago, when I was working in a bookstore, one of the books we couldn’t keep on shelves was called House of Leaves. It is an experimental book by Mark Z Danielewski and has achieved what can only be cult status.

I had never read it.

At the bookstore I worked at, there was a waiting list for the book. The publisher would only send two or three copies at a time and I was never quick enough to grab a copy. I would try to find the book in other bookstores, only to find it absent from the shelves.

So it was with pleasure that I found a copy of it at a bookstore in Montreal. It felt odd being able to actually hold the book. I’ve been waiting to read it for a long time.

It is, perhaps, one of the most bizarre books ever written. It is a story within a story and it defies traditional concepts of writing and words. Let me explain…

House of Leaves is really two stories, a story within a story (and within another story as well, but that comes after). The first story concerns the set up of the novel. Johnny Truant, a layabout working at a tattoo parlour, is called at 3am in the morning by his friend Luze. Luze is sure that Zampano, an old man who lives in the building has died.

They find Zampano’s body, but Johnny finds something else as well. In an old trunk, Johnny finds a book written by Zampano called The Navidson Record. The book is written on pieces of paper, envelopes, on the back of stamps, on ticket stubs. Assembled by Johnny Truant, it is a dizzying book.

The Navidson Record is an account of the events found in the documentary of the same name by Will Navidson, a Pulitzer Prize winning photo journalist, who moves his family into a house and sets up cameras because he wants to document a family making a home, a family becoming one with a house.

But there is a problem with the house on Ash Street. Soon, rooms start appearing in the house that were not there before. And, more confusing, the house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

The house is growing.

Through out The Navidson Record, there are footnotes by Zampano. But here’s the thing: the film The Navidson Record doesn’t exist. Neither do Will Navidson or his wife Karen Greene. None of the books that Zampano refers to in his footnotes exist, except for a select few. None of the people Zampano interviewed about the documentary The Navidson Record exist. The entirety of The Navidson Record is a fabrication.

But it has affect Johnny Truant nonetheless.

Sprinkled through out The Navidson Record, we also get to read Jonnhy Truant’s words which become more and more disturbing and unhinged as we forge through the pages of House of Leaves. Soon we are not sure what is real and what is not. As Johnny falls more and more into the darkness, we learn that his mother was house in an insane asylum called Whalestoe. Johnny wonders if he is succumbing to the disease that stole his mother from him or if all this is real indeed….

Sound confusing? You bet. This is a sprawling monster of a novel. I haven’t had to work at reading a novel in a very long time. Normally I want to be entertained; be the story happy, comedic or dramatic or sad, entertainment is my primary goal when I read a novel.

But between the shifting narratives, the shifting typeset, the numerous footnotes and everything else, the book is a chore. But a good one. While I’m reading it, I feel like I’m being let into this secret world that has been hidden from the general public, finally released to the light.

I know that sounds odd, but it’s the tone of the book. It’s this dark, brooding work of fiction that redefines what fiction is.

House of Leaves was followed up by The Whalestoe Letters. It consists of letters to Johnny from his mother while she was in the asylum. Though the letters are included in an appendix to the book, more letters and codes to break are included in the self contained version. So of course I got a copy of The Whalestoe Letters too. You can’t have one without the other right?

House of Leaves is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It is also an overly large book, both in scope and size. Twice the size of a regular hard cover and clocking in at a whopping 700 plus pages, the book is a chore and the mere size of it will put of most people.

Added to that the shifting narrative, the weird storylines, the confusing typesets making it almost impossible to read. This will put off more people. But those few who are able to persevre and read it will read something truly close to genius.

House of Leaves is one scary book. It frightened me and made me incredibly uncomfortable while reading it; which is the point, I think. It is also a love story about what people are willing to do to save the lives of those they love. Or protect them from danger they have no control over.

So yes, House of leaves is a chore, a monster, a challenge. But one that has to be conquered in order to appreciate it’s haunting, bizarre beauty.

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