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Books: House Of Leaves

Note: This review is part of the Booklist 2005 Project.

Wow, the Booklist 2005 Project is working out great for me. It's led me to three of the best books I've read in years: Cloud Atlas, Oracle Night, and, most recently, House Of Leaves. In fact, House of Leaves has hit the "favorite books of all time" list, right up there with A Prayer For Owen Meany and The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

House Of leaves is a bit hard to describe -- not only because if defies description, but because it's one of those "revealing anything about it reveals a lot about it" books, and you want readers to go into it cold if at all possible. It is often compared to The Blair Witch Project, as both are about fictitious documentary movies that start out mundane and then abruptly veer into the weird and supernatural.

Another reason why House of Leaves is hard to describe because it contains an almost sadistic number of levels. Let's start at the innermost one. Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Will Navidson decides to make a documentary about his family's move into a new home, and, to that end, wires the whole house up with cameras and audio equipment. Later, after the house's bizarre qualities have been revealed and documented, Navidson splices together his footage into a full-length motion picture called The Navidson Record. Several years after the movie's release, a man by the name of Zampano writes a scholarly examination of the film, drawing on the documentary itself as well has hundreds of secondary sources to completely analyze the events depicted. Zampano never publishes his work, but it is found posthumously by a young punk named Johnny Truant, who then heavily annotates the manuscript, supplementing the tex not only with additional information about Navidson and Zampano, but about his own life as well. Truant eventually gets this version of the book published -- complete with all of Zampano's and his own footnotes intact -- and this is the book that we, the readers, are supposedly holding: a book about a book about a movie about a house. And then, having built all that up, the foundation is removed: one of the things that Truant reveals in his footnotes is that Will Navidson and The Navidson Record don't actually exist.

I'm one of those people who loved The Blair Witch Project, because I totally bought into it. One of my superpowers is the ability to completely suspend my disbelief when the circumstances warrant it, and I managed to convince myself that I was watching an actual, terrifying, found documentary film. A know a lot of people who hated Blair Witch, and I sympathize with them. I can't imagine enjoying the film if I hadn't swallowed it hook, line, and sinker -- it would have seemed pretentious, gimmicky, and obnoxious.

I've heard a lot of people use those same three words to describe House Of Leaves. And it seems like half the people who start the book give up on it before the end. Again, I understand completely. I would have done the same thing, if I hadn't been utterly ensorceled by the premise. Despite the fact that author Mark Z Danielewski put four layers between me and the house at the heart of the book and went on to emphasize that the house was fictional even within the context of the story itself, I was still riveted. I read House of Leaves every chance I got: before going to bed, on lunch breaks, even at stop lights when I had the book with me in the car. In the first case, when I'd read House of Leaves at night, I would often lay awake and think about the book for a while before drifting off to uneasy sleep. I mean, I'm not kidding: I loved this book. And I'll probably read it a second time before the year is through.

As with movies, there's an order of magnitude between books I'd rate a 9 and those I'd give a 10, some magic line that separates the "great" from the "holy smokes amazing!" It's not for everybody, but, for me, House of Leaves fell squarely in the latter category.

Posted on May 25, 2005 to Books


I confess, I'm in the half that gave up on it. I admire your ability to become so ensorcled!

In the copy at our jail library, some inmates put the (pretentious, I thought) blank pages to use as drawing paper. I found their art more interesting than the story.

Posted by: nichole on May 27, 2005 5:32 AM

I've been meaning to read House of Leaves for a while. Appearantly the author's sister is the musician Poe - and there is sort of a companion CD to the book - called "Haunted."

(link to amazon entry)

Again, it could be like the book, and there's multiple levels of reality going on here...but the album is very good in it's own right. The cool thing is she interweaves the father's voice and excerpts from the house's answering machine and suchlike into the music. Very cool.

If you like the "meta-reality" genre I suggest you check out "A Heart-Breaking Work of Staggering Genius" if you haven't already:

Posted by: Adam Verner on May 27, 2005 7:08 AM

Perhaps you're already aware of this: this book has a soundtrack. The singer Poe is Danielewski's sister. Her album Haunted, a brilliant concept album, contains overt references to The House of Leaves. I haven't read the book, so I can't comment on how closely the music intertwines with the story (if at all), but I find the idea fascinating. And, as I say, the album is great. Check it out.

Posted by: J.D. on May 27, 2005 7:18 AM

I read the book all the way through, knowing it was fiction through and through. I have yet to understand why someone would put a book like this down.

Posted by: Rbt. Ledgerwood on May 27, 2005 7:20 AM

Drat. That's what I get for opening too many things in NetNewsWire -- Adam beat me to the punch.

(p.s. I didn't care for A Heat-Breaking Work of Staggering Genius. Sound and fury signifiying nothing, and all that.)

Posted by: J.D. on May 27, 2005 7:20 AM

I'm glad you enjoyed it. After I read your thoughts on Cloud Atlas, I knew that House of Leaves was right up your alley. I've been looking forward to your thoughts on it ever since you posted that you had started it.

I agree completely that it's riveting, and I could hardly contain myself during the climactic scenes in the house. It's one of only 3 or 4 novels I've fully reread. Which edition did you get? The B&W, 2 color, or full color w/ braille plates?

Posted by: chris r on May 27, 2005 9:31 AM

I love that freakin' book. Right now, I'm reading Jeff Vandermeer's "City of Saints and Madmen". It too uses multiple levels of pseudo-non-fiction to describe a full realized fictional place. Not as good as HoL, but similiar and lots of fun.

Posted by: dunsany on May 27, 2005 9:32 AM

The next time you read it (I've gone all the way through twice and this review makes me want to pick it up again) add this layer: Johnny Truant is a fucking liar who lies about everything (I mean EVERYTHING). It works surprisingly well, especially if the question "Dear Zampano, who did you lose?" means anything to you...

Posted by: rhorsman on May 27, 2005 10:27 AM

Personally, I am not that into books that try to tell stories on "meta-levels". They often read as too self-conscious and I am not absorbed in the story (similar to you, I can suspend disbelief at the drop of a hat - which makes me vulnerable to phone solicitors). House of Leaves dragged me in from the very beginning. In this case the multiple stories were just that - "stories" - and they were each extremely absorbing to me. What I enjoyed the most is the fact that I could not quite grasp the descriptions of the inner-aspects of the house, but could grasp them enough to hold my curiousity. Its similar to the feeling I get when I try to consider space and infinity.
Anyway, I've been thinking about re-reading the book, but reading each of the different stories separately. We'll see if its as gripping.

Posted by: Russell Bradbury-Carlin on May 27, 2005 11:28 AM

So the nightmares and apartment measuring fixations haven't started yet?

Posted by: josh on May 27, 2005 2:59 PM

Oh, yes. And the lying awake at night waiting in dread for the walls to begin to move.

Posted by: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little on May 27, 2005 5:31 PM

I read the book non-stop also, but didnt care much for it in total. unlike my friend who was moved by it enough to buy a second copy with the word minotaur in red (instead of house in blue) and keep it in his 'fridge.

Posted by: Thomas on May 29, 2005 10:47 AM

I totally loved the book, and started reading it after I heard the Poe CD. Now, when I listen to the Poe CD, I get creeped out. So I can't listen to it when I am alone at night.

I also suggest this book to people, without being able to describe it well. The Blair Witch Project is a great analogy! I am glad I stopped by to read your review.

I saw that someone suggested reading The Heartbreaking Work of a Staggering Genius... I had tried reading it, and at first it appealed to me on many different levels. Then it seemed like eveything he was writing was the same thing over and over again and I never finished.

I liked the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. The only reason why I mention it is because there was a lot of diagrams other text-ural oddities. Plus, the story was really interesting.

Posted by: Michie on May 31, 2005 12:31 PM

Here's a spooky story.

I've owned the book for a while, but not read it yet. The other week, a good friend of mine told me that he was reading it, and it was freaking him out. A week later, he told me that he'd been reading it quietly, and had suddenly had a terrible and spontaneous nose bleed, the first in years.

Of course, I had to start reading it immediately! A week or so into the book, I was reading in bed, getting to the part where the layout starts to break up. I put the book aside, went to sleep - and woke up choking on my own blood. Yep, a spontaneous and vigorous nose bleed.

We're both thoroughly spooked now!

Posted by: tom on June 1, 2005 8:30 PM

I've read House of Leaves a few times now, and every time it gets better, and slightly more intense. It's such a great book, though, despite a few moments where you think long and hard about claustrophobia.

Poe's companion album not only serves to make the story better, but is also great on its own.

Thanks for the review - I'm going to have to dig it out and give it a fresh read.

Posted by: robyn on June 5, 2005 7:25 PM

Just a funny note, 'truant' in French basically means 'small-time gangster' or just 'criminal'. I guess that was intended.

Posted by: Manu on June 5, 2005 8:38 PM