The Books: “House of Leaves” (Mark Danielewski)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction

HouseOfLeaves.jpgHouse of Leaves – by Mark Z. Danielewski

Uhm, pardon my French, but this book is a total mind f***!!!!! Has anyone else read it? I LOVED it … if by “loved” I mean: “horrified and riveted”. This is one of the few books that has given me actual nightmares. Spatial disorientation nightmares, which is what the book is all about. The phenomenal thing about this book is that there is a “gimmick” to it, and normally I hate books with gimmicks (or, I hate books that are JUST the ‘gimmick’). But this book is far more than its gimmick. It is a fantastic story, one I could not put down, one that I lived in my dark imagination after I put the stupid thing down, AND it has some startlingly good writing. It is quite an accomplishment. I would love to hear from other people who read this book.

The book is about a couple who uproot themselves from their big city life, buy a house in the suburbs somewhere, move in, and over time, realize that there is something … off about the house. Doors open on hallways which should not be there, hallways that would go off into the backyard if they were real. Meaning: the INSIDE of the house is larger than the outside frame. This becomes more and more apparent as the book goes on, and basically, they discover ETERNITY is inside their house. They could explore it for thousands of years and never get to the bottom of it.

I say the book is ABOUT this couple, but that’s not quite true. The real lead character is a guy named Johnny Truant who works in a tattoo parlor. He has stripper girlfriends, and a rough past. And – he comes across a manuscript written by a blind man who is now dead, named Zampano. Zampano’s manuscript is a scholarly treatise about the “Navidson” house, and the manuscript is found in bits and pieces, with whole sections missing, footnotes unexplained, and Johnny Truant becomes obsessed with the story. It starts to take over his mind. He begins to research the manuscript itself, and he adds his own footnotes to explain other footnotes. Slowly, as you read the manuscript, the footnotes begin to take over the page. Johnny Truant interjects himself, and then, we don’t know when, it is apparent that yet another person has taken over the manuscript, and they, too, add corrective notes to Truant’s footnotes: “Mr. Truant here appears to be dissembling …” It makes you wonder: what happened to Truant? Did he go mad trying to put together the manuscript?

The “gimmick” of the book is that it gives you the feeling that you are looking through a pile of unorganized papers. Some of the pieces of the manuscript were written on scraps of paper, pasted over other pieces of paper. The book’s design manages to suggest that. There are a couple sections where the print appears backwards and you have to hold it up to a mirror to read it. There are some parts written in code, you have to figure it out and break the code. The shape of the words on the page end up being a visual representation of the disorientation the Navidsons feel as they explore their own home. Some pages have one word on it. Some have 3 or 4 but they’re scattered all over the place. All of this could be SO annoying if it weren’t so good: The gimmick fits the book. Mark Danielewski is obviously enormously clever (if you’re gonna read the book, have your Thesaurus nearby!), and to have thought up such a thing, and then to execute it … I tip my hat.

What I love about the book, though, is the voice of Johnny Truant, working out his demons in the footnotes of this other manuscript. Talking TO the manuscript, wrestling with his fear, his past, and trying to make something better of himself. Revealing too much, hiding even more … it’s a terrific narrative voice.

I sincerely recommend this book to horror genre fans. It’s terrifying. I’m making it sound very intellectual
(and in many ways it is) but the vision of the nothingness inside that house, the gaping maw, the abyss revealed behind doors … is one I will never forget.

Here’s a bit of Johnny Truant’s introduction. He talks about how he came across the manuscript, and he hints at how it has taken over his life. I had a hard time figuring out not just WHAT to excerpt it, but how. The book has a very specific look: every page has 5 footnotes, each one in a different typeface. The Zambano manuscript is graphically represented, so it feels like you’re reading Post-It notes, scraps of paper, and fragments.

I always try to pick an excerpt that gives the feeling of the book itself, but that wasn’t really possible with this one. It has to be taken as a whole.

Excerpt from House of Leaves – by Mark Z. Danielewski

With a little luck, you’ll dismiss this labor, react as Zampano had hoped, call it needlessly complicated, pointlessly obtuse, prolix – your word -, ridiculously conceived, and you’ll believe all you’ve said, and then you’ll put it aside – though even here, just that one word, “aside”, makes me shudder, for what is ever really just put aside? – and you’ll carry on, eat, drink, be merry and most of all you’ll sleep well.

Then again there’s a good chance you won’t.

This much I’m certain of: it doesn’t happen immediately. You’ll finish and that will be that, until a moment will come, maybe in a month, maybe a year, maybe even several years. You’ll be sick of feeling troubled or deeply in love or quietly uncertain or even content for the first time in your life. It won’t matter. Out of the blue, beyond any cause you can trace, you’ll suddenly realize things are not how you perceived them to be at all. For some reason, you will no longer be the person you believed you once were. You’ll detect slow and subtle shifts going on all around you, more importantly shifts in you. Worse, you’ll realize it’s always been shifting, like a shimmer of sorts, a vast shimmer, only dark like a room. But you won’t understand why or how. You’ll have forgotten what granted you this awareness in the first place.

Old shelters – television, magazines, movies – won’t protect you anymore. You might try scribbling in a journal, on a napkin, maybe even in the margins of this book. That’s when you’ll discover you no longer trust the very walls you always took for granted. Even the hallways you’ve walked a hundred times will feel longer, much longer, and the shadows, any shadow at all, will suddenly seem deeper, much, much, deeper.

You might try then, as I did, to find a sky so full of stars it will blind you again. Only no sky can blind you now. Even with all that iridescent magic up there, your eye will no longer linger on the light, it will no longer trace constellations. You’ll care only about the darkness and you;ll watch it for hours, for days, maybe even for years, trying in vain to believe you’re some kind of indispensable, universe-appointed sentinel, as if just by looking you could actually keep it all at bay. It will get so bad you’ll be afraid to look away, you’ll be afraid to sleep.

Then no matter where you are, in a crowded restaurant or on some desolate street or even in the comforts of your own home, you’ll watch yourself dismantle every assurance you’ve ever lived by. You’ll stand aside as a great complexity intrudes, tearing apart, piece by piece, all of your carefully conceived denials, whether deliberate or unconscious. And then for better or worse you’ll turn, unable to resist, though try to resist you still will, fighting with everything you’ve got not to face the thing you most dread, what is now, what will be, what has always come before, the creature you truly are, the creature we all are, buried in the nameless black of a name.

And then the nightmares will begin.

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7 Responses to The Books: “House of Leaves” (Mark Danielewski)

  1. annie says:

    I’ve read this book twice, and totally agree with you about the raw terror inspired by that empty place inside the house. So scary.

    I don’t like gimmicky books, either, because usually they don’t have a story. I read one recently that reminded me a lot of House of Leaves that you might want to check out–The Raw Shark Texts. It definitely scared me in the same way–here’s my review:

  2. red says:

    annie – yeah, there has to be a story. Otherwise the gimmick is just … I don’t know, it bores me.

    But this?

    To me, the FORM of the book reflected the CONTENT. Meaning: the content is about worlds within worlds – discovering eternity behind a wall that you thought was your bedroom closet … and what would THAT be like, and how disorienting would it be? And the FORM of the book – with the endless bickering contradictory footnotes talking to each other – getting lost in the tangents and then crawling your way back … To me, it was a perfect balance. I FELT like I got lost in that book – in the same way that that family got lost in their own house.


    Thanks for the book recommendation – it sounds fascinating!!

  3. Emily says:

    Okay, I just ordered it from Amazon after reading your post and some of the reviews over there. But I know already it’s one of those books I’m going to kick myself for reading when I’ve got my covers wrapped over my head after checking for the boogeyman under my bed.

  4. Shade says:

    I LOVED this book and found it so terrifying. I was living alone in a studio when I read it and honestly thought it might drive me mad at times. I gave it to my dad to read, and he thought it was too gimmicky. So I guess a lot depends on whether you’re able to move past that aspect…

  5. red says:

    Shade – hi there! How the hell are ya?? Hope everything is going well for you!

    I am so grateful I picked this book up – despite the gimmick … I wasn’t put off by it, although normally I am – it was a workout reading the book! I remember I was sitting in a bar, reading it – waiting for some guy I was dating … and I must have looked insane – because I was holding the book upside down, I took out my makeup mirror to read some of it – I was writing stuff down on a scrap of paper to crack the code … Like: WHAT is that girl reading??

  6. red says:

    Emily – I’m dying to hear what you think of it! Keep me posted!

    Please blame any and all nightmares you have on Danielewski, not me. :)

  7. Wren Collins says:

    Sheila, I’m SO happy to find this. I’m halfway through the blasted thing & decided to check if you’d read it. What an incredible, horrifying book. Oh my god. The sheer weirdness of it- all that awfulness, and then that section where he mimics the voices of a load of critics and authors (the Camille Paglia bit. Dying). Poor Tom- what a horrible section- and Holloway Roberts- and that almost dispassionate narration in contrast to Johnny Truant going completely out of his mind. Not to mention Thumper. Wow.

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