House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
When I got to the end of this book I thought, what the fuck did I just read? It’s experimental and meta fiction at its finest. House of Leaves, though immensely cumbersome and often times frustrating to read, is well worth it.
House of Leaves centers on a house that is impossibly larger on the inside than it is on the outside. Inside, there is a hallway that expands further and further as Navidson and his team explore it. It is endless, and the dimensions of the hallway are impossible to map. They are always changing and expanding, leading into more rooms and big staircases.
Perhaps most importantly, inside the house there is always an impenetrable black. Navidson explores this with his friends while his wife Karen waits in the well-lit living room for him to re-emerge. Karen waits. She’s angry at her husband’s insistence that he must conquer the depths of the hallway and what lies beyond, and terrified of the darkness that lays beyond that locked door.
Later we meet Zampano who is the next owner of the house. He begins obsessively dissecting Navidson’s film to get to the bottom of what the meaning of the house might be. His narration style reads more like a text-book. He presents his findings with an academic tone, reinforcing his arguments by citing myths, religious happenings, allegory, literature, multiple languages (including Old English, Latin, Greek, and more), and science. His exploration of Navidon’s film is as tedious and obsessive as Navidson’s exploration of the house.
Finally, we meet Johnny, a drug addict who finds Zampano’s book and begins to examine the book and obsess over this mystery as well. Though Johnny appears to the read in the form of footnotes, his voice is perhaps the most distinct: it is real, very distraught, and often very eloquent in his sad introspection.
The thing is, in 700 pages, there is not that much that happens. But there are enough changes in the narration and physical structure of the prose to keep you very interested. And although there are many references which seem impossible to understand (references to ancient myth, etc), the author gives you many clues about what is happening. He also gives you advice about how to navigate the book, the same way the characters may navigate the house.
In particular, there is a section in the book where Navidson and his team get stuck in a labyrinth inside the house. While his team is in a physical labyrinth, the reader is in a literary one. You explore endless footnotes located on different pages, text that is upside down and backwards, color coded words, and more. But the author cautions us against reading too fast to escape the labyrinth. Eventually we will make it out.
For me, the little plot action didn’t matter because I love books that centre on the exploration of the human psyche. What is interesting to me is that the house shifts depending on who is in it. Thus, the house represents the mind of those who enter it. And so as Navidson plumbs the depth of this house, he too delves into his own psyche. This remains true for the other characters, but especially for Johnny who is reading all of this and scrutinizing it at the same time as his own mental collapse.
There are so many elements to this book that are worth paying attention to that it’s almost impossible to review. The same obsession the characters feel is how the reader feels assessing the book. Ultimately, the house of leaves IS the book. The leaves are the pages. We too are in the house. It’s brilliant!
House of Leaves is well worth the read if you can deal with a huge book and are willing to do the work.