House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski is a book about a book about a movie. Confused? Well, let me break it down for you. House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski is about a book written by Zampano, and later edited by Johnny Truant, about a video documentary called The Navidson Record by Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist Wil Navidson. If that still confuses you, read on, because it’s going to get a whole lot more complicated…
House of Leaves, the one by Mark Z. Danielewski, is essentially 3 stories in one; a story about the film The Navidson Record, which is the topic of Zampano’s novel, the story of the writer, Zampano, and the story of the editor, Johnny Truant, who found and published Zampano’s manuscript.
The novel starts out with a cryptic introduction by Johnny Truant, the self-appointed editor of Zampano’s novel, explaining how he acquired the strange manuscript by Zampano, and how it has strangely affected his life.
Before he died, no one really knew Zampano, the strange recluse who lived in the same apartment building as Lude, Johnny’s closest friend. When the apartment’s landlord opened Zampano’s apartment, they were amazed by the state of the place; overflowing with material possessions, as if Zampano never disposed of anything, his windows all boarded up and sealed so that no light from the outside could ever penetrate the room. Perhaps the most amazing thing in the room were the reams and reams of paper filled with all sorts of writing by Zampano. Later, Johnny learned to his astonishment that Zampano was completely blind. Intrigued, Johnny takes the written material home with him to sort or read through at his leisure. However, upon reading the material, Johnny quickly realizes that Zampano’s manuscript is much more than the innocent ramblings of a reclusive old man.
Johnny discovers that Zampano’s manuscript is a detailed study and content analysis of a documentary created by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Wil Navidson, about his unusual house in Virginia. The Navidson Record, as Wil Navidson called it, started out as an experimental film about a family’s shared experiences of moving into a new home. Navidson mounted cameras in every room, with motion sensors, which would record how his family – himself, his partner, and two children, slowly became familiar with their new surroundings and made the new house their home.
However, the nature of Navidson’s documentary changed when one night, after being away from their new house for a few days, they came home to find a mysterious addition to their house – a door and a room, connecting the master bedroom to the children’s bedroom. The room was completely bare, and dark, with dark gray colored walls. The doors and room were not there when the Navidsons left the house, and they certainly did not hire a contractor to build the strange room while they were away. Confused, to say the least, Wil Navidson (Navy) examines the rooms and takes measurements, only to later discover that somehow, the measurement of their house from the outside does not equal its measurements inside. No matter how many times he takes its measurements, using countless instruments, and later with the help of experts, the inside of his house always came out bigger than the outside.
The strange closet in the master bedroom was just the beginning. After a few days, the Navidsons discover a new hallway in their downstairs living room, a hallway, which, over time, became even bigger and more complex. The Navidsson Record evolves from a documentary about a family settling in to their new home, to a documentary about a bizarre house whose interior was constantly changing. The Navidson Record is a collection of expeditions and eerie experiences of different people who explored the strange rooms of the Navidson house, as well as random interviews with its residents. The documentary was later bought by a major film franchise and released nationwide.
With countless footnotes, interviews from different experts and scholars, philosophical and abstract discussions and hypotheses, Zampano’s pseudo-intellectual content analysis of The Navidson Record reads more like a doctoral dissertation than a novel. Zampano cites a myriad of sources involved in Navidson’s project – sources that Johnny learns, either do not exist, or have never heard of Zampano, Wil Navidson, or The Navidson Record. Stranger still, Johnny learns that the movie/documentary The Navidson Record, doesn’t even exist.
Throughout the novel, through random footnotes, Johnny Truant slowly reveals his own troubled past and equally troubled present situation due to his growing obsession with Zampano’s manuscript and the Navidson House, which may or may not even exist. Johnny Truant, an apprentice at a tattoo shop spent a rough childhood moving from one foster family and boarding school to another. As an adult, he did odd jobs all over the country until eventually settling down in California. Before finding Zampano’s manuscript and locking himself up in his own room, Truant would spend his days and nights boozing and shooting up in clubs with his friend Lude, or having sex with random strangers. After discovering Zampano’s manuscript, Truant becomes increasing disturbed by nightmares and hallucinations. He becomes unstable, and his actions impulsive and erratic.
The story of The Navidson Record, and the story of Truant’s life in the footnotes of Zampano’s novel becomes even more strange because of the physical structure of the book. With its width and thickness, House of Leaves looks more like a textbook than a novel. Zampano’s manuscript is filled with footnotes, written every which way; at the foot of the page, as the name implies, but also on the side of the page, sometimes running 8 pages long, upside down, right smack in the middle of the page enclosed in a box, and sometimes even written backwards. Footnotes which list down different parts of a house, another that lists what seems to be every single architectural structure in the world, and yet another which lists down every known architect. To make it look even more like a textbook, there are 3 appendices consisting of poems, random quotations, pictures, illustrations, and letters, and countless index pages at the end. There are whole chapters dedicated to academic discussion on the nature and origin of echos, mythology, the Bible, and architecture.
To call House of Leaves non-traditional would be an oversimplification. It has normal pages with fixed margins, with writing from top to bottom, but it also has pages where there are only a few words typed on a page, where sentences are written only in one corner, where sentences are written horizontally, then vertically; words that go up, words that go down, and even words that are upside down, in different color and sizes, and even sentences that are crossed out. All this to make the readers feel the confusion, terror, or disorientation being felt by the different characters at different times.
I can write a separate blog on just the physical peculiarities of this novel, but then, it would be better for you to discover it for yourself.
House of Leaves has been categorized as horror novel, though it’s not scary in the traditional sense of the word. The idea of a house whose interior is a vast, dark, ever-changing, labyrinth is indeed terrifying, but House of Leaves dwells more on the unknown, the unknowable, its characters’ psyche, and plays with its readers’ imaginations. Also, more than a horror novel, House of Leaves focus on concept of self, society, and the dynamics of family relationships.
House of Leaves seems daunting at first with its 740 pages, but with its appendices, index, and pages with just a few words/sentences written on it, the whole novel would probably come out to just under 500 pages. For me, the most interesting part of the whole thing is The Navidson Record, the movie documentary that doesn’t exist. Truant’s constant interruption of Zampano’s narration with his random, unrelated problems, nightmares, hallucinations, sexcapades and growing neurosis was, by far, the most annoying part of the novel. I even suspect that most of Truant’s experiences, good and bad ones, and especially his sexcapades, are completely made up.
Aside from being categorized as a horror novel, House of Leaves is also categorized as post-modern. It’s post-modern in its treatment of its material, storytelling syle and physical presentation. I found this novel quite fascinating, but to be honest, I really could have done without the chapters on technical subjects, the flood of footnotes, the academic discussions on abstract concepts, and Truant’s constant interruption. While reading particularly long analysis of symbols and meanings in The Navidson Record, or Truant’s nonsensical ramblings, I found myself questioning the author’s choice of presentation. More than once I found myself wishing that the novel was a straight-forward horror story about a house that is constantly changing and the people living in it.
Despite my complaints, I enjoyed reading through this book and discovering its many secrets, and I was surprised that I finished it in just 2 weeks. I can’t help but compare House of Leaves to J.J. Abrams’ S/Ship of Theseus, which is also non-traditional and post-modern. However, compared to House of Leaves, S/Ship of Theseus is a walk in the park. House of Leaves is dark, complex, and disturbing, and like Navidson’s house, it is a whole lot bigger than it seems on the outside.
House of Leaves (2000) – Mark. Z. Danielewski
Pantheon Books; 740 pages
Personal rating: 4/5