When I first began to explore “postmodern” fiction there were two books that were immediately recommended to me, though I initially chose to read neither. The first was Infinite Jest, which frightened me; and the second was House of Leaves, which I was worried would frighten me on another level. Well at this point whenever the particular friend who happened to recommend both of these books to me decides to key me in on another book I should read, I should listen to him.
The simplistic review of House of Leaves is that it is not a scary as the internet would have you believe, nor is it as daunting, but it is totally unique. It is a novel that can be described as in the same genre as “found footage” films. House of Leaves, when you open the cover of the book, is not written by Mark Z. Danielewski, but is instead written by Zampanò, a man who has apparently spent the final few years of his life endlessly studying a mysterious film/documentary/art piece called The Navidson Record. More on that later. I finished the book in exactly one week, but really in four sittings, as work got in the way. Upon reflection, both while reading it and now after finishing it, it is easily the most exciting, page-turning novel I’ve read since The Shining, which was around three years ago. I was hooked into the story instantly, the plot being so deliciously simple yet complex: A family moves into a house that begins expanding, but only on the inside. What excited me most was my own wondering how Danielewski could possibly make such a thing scary, or even unsettling. I believe he succeeds at it, but not for expected reasons.
Danielewski gets your heart racing and the pit of your stomach unsettled with the structure of the novel. At the precise moment in which your nerves are about to break you are suddenly throw into fifty pages with only a single word or sentence upon them, causing you to sporadically race through them as fast as your hand can turn the page in order to find out what is going to happen. The desired effect happens quickly: the reader is disoriented, flustered, and, much like in a movie, potentially worried about some form of jump-scare. The further into the book you proceed the more labyrinthian the structure of the story becomes, reflecting both the infinitely changing structure of the house, and the continually unstable mental condition of the man who is reading the book alongside you: Johnny Truant.
The reader is acquainted with Truant through his introduction to the book and telling of how he came upon it and its author, Zampanò. As you read the book, as written by Zampanò, you continually encounter footnotes and corrections made by Truant. He fusses over Zampanò’s use of languages without translation and the general pompousness which comes through in his writing. While at times amusing, the nature of this type of novel does becoming tedious in tense moments where Truant interrupts the narrative with a long footnote which can only be called Pynchonian in its use of dense wording and overt sexual themes. Simultaneously, House of Leaves can quite easily be read as a critique of academic writing, and Danielewski makes his point in spades with Zampanò’s incessant interrupting of his own narrative to go down a rabbit hole concerning an absolutely pointless comment another academic made upon a line from a character in The Navidson Record.
The book is almost like something Haruki Murakami would write; meaning that as it progresses one can make sense of less and less things. In the end I’m not sure if it is correct to call the novel “horror” as upon reflection, what I feared was never there to begin with; it was instilled in me that there was something to fear by the reviews I had read beforehand. I’m not entirely sure that marketing the book as “horror” doesn’t actually do it a disservice. It becomes easy to dismiss the structure of the novel as “gimmicky” when it is approached as something that is trying to frighten the reader. The response becomes something along the lines of, “The book can’t scare me with the writing, so he structures it in an unexpected way to achieve the same result.” I don’t think House of Leaves is trying to scare you; I think it is trying to tell you something. It is a novel that examines what it means to encounter the Other, the impossible. Danielewski repeatedly has his characters put their own faults onto the Other or onto other characters, only to see them consumed by it because they cannot handle face the deconstruction of themselves.
Do not be pushed away from the novel by mediocre philosophical musings from a random blogger, as such themes are not pivotal to enjoying the story itself (but I do feel add to it in a meaningful way).
I highly recommend House of Leaves. The moments where it gets caught up with its own goals are overshadowed by a tremendous story and an entrancing structure.
Recommended to: Those bogged down in novels that all feel the same and are desperate to find something new, those who enjoy Thomas Pynchon but feel he could do with some more plot here and there, and those who have avoided it because they generally don’t enjoy horror novels.
Avoid as if you’re going bald and looking for a hair piece and you see one in a window lit up, entitled The Trump: My mother, those who think footnotes are a gimmick, and those who despise the idea of turning a book upside down to read a page.