Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves is a work that defies explanation. It’s honestly difficult to even call this thing a “novel” in any literal sense. It elicits feeling and emotion so well, and its author’s word choice and usage are so perfect, that it often feels more like poetry. There is even a section in one of the appendices dedicated to poems written by one of the characters. And Danielewski plays around with color and text layout enough to qualify as artwork – not to mention the fact that the appendices also have things like collages and comic strips to supplement the main text. There is so much going on in MZD’s work that I tend to qualify the term “novel” with “experimental” whenever I recommend it to one of my friends, and then kind of grimace when they look at me like I’m some beret-wearing hipster. And if it’s this difficult to even pin down what the thing is, it’s going to be infinitely more difficult to review it.
the narrative lines
Let’s start with the narrative. While the book was written by Danielewski, it is meant to be read in a meta-fiction-ish sort of way. The final product, the reader is to believe, is a compilation by “the Editors” of various fragments written by one “Johnny Truant” – a wayward tattoo artist struggling with his life. However, many of these fragments were themselves compiled by Johnny after their original author (an old man named Zampanó) died. I will call these latter fragments Z-fragments, and the others J-fragments to designate the respective “authors.”
The Z-fragments tell the fictional (within the world of the novel) story of a photographer who moves into a new house only to discover that the house is slightly bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. The rest of the narrative in these fragments consists of this man becoming obsessed with the mathematical impossibility of his new home. To explore this impossibility he sets up cameras around his house and makes a documentary called “The Navidson Record,” and the narrative is told as a kind of academic examination of this documentary. Thus, the Z-fragments compose a long essay written by Zampanó about a documentary that doesn’t even really exist in the world of the novel. Sound confusing? It’s really not that difficult to grasp when you read it, but Danielewski’s intertwining of narratives is not yet finished.
The second set of fragments – the J-fragments – is written by Johnny Truant and tells the story of his coming across the Z-fragments and trying to compile them. Haunting and sort of surreal, these notes of Truant’s show his descent into madness as he tries to understand why an old blind man would spend his life as a recluse just to write an academic paper on a video which doesn’t exist. I don’t want to give too much away here, but basically the bulk of the text is comprised of the Z-fragments, with Truant adding his footnotes here and there.
On top of all this, there are appendices that have been added by “the Editors” that are supposed to tell you more about the characters in the novel. So there are about three narrative lines going on at any one time.
the themes and the style
I’m trying to keep this review as short as possible, so bear with me as I talk about a scant few of the major themes of this novel. I’ll just hit the ones that seem to me to be the big ones. Perhaps the two major themes are mental illness and fear of the unknown. And to get these two across to the reader, Danielewski structures the novel in such a way that the actual layout of the text makes you feel isolated and confused. But this is not to say that the layout is bad. I was never really confused about the story itself while I was reading it. Rather, you can basically see the narrative dissolving and becoming difficult to navigate as Johnny Truant himself falls apart.
Other themes that Danielewski plays with include academia, fiction itself, movies and entertainment, addiction, depression, sexuality, and family life. I think the best way to sum up this work and its themes is to say that it is one of the few books I’ve read that made me feel it was about the proverbial “human condition.” It’s complicated and it’s convoluted, but so is reality. Part of the art of this thing – and why I hold this novel in such high regard – is that it is crafted so that the weirdness of it works. When the narrative is supposed to be about a labyrinth, the text itself is designed to make you flip back and forth between pages and even turn the book around on its side. Thus, the author meshes content and form into one thing, and achieves art.
I am by no means an expert on all things Danielewski, but I have done some research on the man. And by research I mean I looked at his Wikipedia page. His sister is a musician, and she has written a song or two about the narrative of House of Leaves. Let me just say that this kind of interdisciplinary, cross-genre collaboration is, to me, beautiful and cool. One of the proponents of experimental fiction, Danielewski’s oeuvre is the very definition of avant-garde.
I’ve tried to read Danielewski’s other book (Only Revolutions), and I can’t say that my love of House of Leaves was transmitted. I think one of the main things I like about House of Leaves is that it is artsy and experimental and weird and confusing – but there is still a story there. Danielewski’s other novel seems to go too far into the fragmented reality of postmodernism to really be able to tell you a story, and therefore seems like an art exercise more than a novel. So I’m not sure if I would recommend him as an author so much as I would simply recommend House of Leaves.
Ultimately, I think House of Leaves achieves something that few other works have done before: it captures the philosophy of an era, it blends content with form, and it accurately depicts some of our worst fears as humans. While some have derided it for being too overdone, it still manages to tell an invigorating story and keep the reader’s attention. It did for me, and I hope it does for you in the event that you decide to read it. It isn’t an easy read, but it is incredibly rewarding.