House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski is a bit of a tough novel to define. It is a labyrinthine book riddled with footnotes that weave throughout the text, multiple unreliable narrators, and frequently disorienting formatting. I’ve heard it labeled a horror novel before, which in a way it is—it does deal with the perversion of physical laws and a terrifying journey into an oppressive, unknowable void. It is also a scholarly text, breaking down and examining a documentary film. It is also a man documenting his personal descent into lust, alienation, and obsession. It is also a collection of letters sent from a mother to her son. It is not technically all these things at once.
I suppose the best way to proceed is to break down the narrative frames as simply as I can. Johnny Truant, one of our narrators, is a young man who works in a tattoo shop. When looking for a new apartment, his friend takes him to see one in his building where an old man, named Zampanò, has recently died. Inside Johnny discovers a trunk full of papers; a manuscript for a book about a documentary film called The Navidson Record. Johnny takes it upon himself to compile Zampanò’s notes. House of Leaves is Zampanò’s examination of The Navidson Record, including all of his footnotes, as well as many footnotes and entries by Johnny, detailing his life as he puts the text together. Sometimes he interjects to briefly clarify something, other times he goes on personal tangents for many pages. Editors interject further to clarify Johnny’s footnotes. One of the appendices at the back of the book is a collection of letters from Johnny’s mother, sent while she was institutionalized in a mental hospital. The reader’s understanding is aided by each perspective being printed in a distinct font so they can keep track of who is writing.
As you can see, there are many narrative layers to this story. Fortunately, despite continually weaving between them I never found the book especially hard to follow. After Johnny’s introduction, all of the footnotes and different narrative threads orbit around The Navidson Record, so there’s always that through-line working as a foundation. It’s also pretty much in chronological order, with some exceptions, which helps too. It is still, however, a lot to take in at once. My reading of the book had me going through in sequence, for the most part following footnotes when they came up, then backtracking to where I was before, and so on.
Having finished it only once I definitely feel this is a book that would benefit from repeat readings. Not just to catch things I have missed, but also to come at it from different angles. Despite being woven together, for instance, Johnny’s entries and The Navidson Record could be read individually. I’m curious what experience a reading like that could yield; not jumping back and forth, but reading one then the other. Unlike conventional novels, I don’t believe this book could ever be read exactly the same way twice.
The story of The Navidson Record itself was the most intriguing facet of the novel. It follows Will Navidson, a famous photojournalist, and his family after moving into a country house in Virginia. Not long after they have settled in, Navidson discovers sudden changes in the house: somehow the interior dimensions have become marginally bigger than the exterior. Despite this being impossible, and bringing in more expert friends to have a look, this fact becomes more undeniable. Soon after, a door appears on the ground floor that should logically only lead to his yard. Instead, it opens to a long, dark corridor that leads into seemingly infinite adjoining rooms, vast chambers, and a spiral staircase that descends almost impossibly far down.
As more and more people are brought in to investigate this bizarre, impossible place, we learn more about it and the effects it has on the people who venture inside it. Along with the narrative elements of The Navidson Record, Zampanò speaks about the documentary academically, complete with footnotes citing other academics who have examined the film and extensive sections analyzing elements of sound design, shot composition, and deeper dives into mythological comparisons and the nature of natural phenomena like echoes.
In Johnny’s notes we learn that as far as he can uncover no such documentary as The Navidson Record exists, despite the numerous references to experts, scholars, and movie industry analysis of the film in Zampanò’s account. Nevertheless, reading and compiling Zampanò’s book seems to be having deep psychological repercussions for Johnny, causing him to suffer from hallucinations and panic attacks that parallel the effects the strange house has on the explorers of it. Often he recounts the sexual exploits, as well as frequent drug use, that he embarks upon to try and escape/remedy his growing desire for isolation and fear of an unknowable presence that seems to assail him. Gradually, and with the help of the appendices, we also learn about the troublesome past that has shaped him (if he can be believed). His entries frequently devolve into long passages of stream of consciousness.
The trickiest aspect of this book is the formatting, which at some times creatively uses white space and arrangement of the text to reflect developments in the story, and at other times constructs a disorienting maze of footnotes that take the reader around the margins and back and forth throughout a chapter, often simply leading you back to where you started. At many points I felt like I was making no progress at all, despite continuously reading. This did get a little frustrating, but it was only one particular chapter that did this egregiously. The novel also contains numerous secret codes, hidden messages, and other Easter eggs (so to speak). A few shed some very important light, while others have more nebulous meaning that begs for speculation—if you can find them. Those that I’ve come across or been told about are not so big that the novel feels incomplete without them, but nonetheless they add to the mystique and wonder that the book as a physical object evokes.
Reading House of Leaves was not like any other reading experience I’ve had. It felt like a project; a literary challenge to be overcome rather than a more leisurely experience. In researching for clarity on certain points in the text, I couldn’t help coming upon popular theories about the book. Once finished with my own reading, I simply had to disagree with them. That’s not to say my interpretation is more “right,” I’m sure there is still much more to explicate from the text, but I think it is foolhardy to proclaim a definitive “answer” for this book.
Like the impossible labyrinth in Navidson’s house, this book makes the human mind scream for meaning to be found, but I defy any one interpretation to pin it down definitively. It is what it is, and the effect it has on the individual reader matters more than a singular “solution” to what it is. With its wide array of footnotes and analysis, Zampanò’s work is in its own way a satire of over-analysis too. It is continually trying to work out meaning from The Navidson Record, with a lot of intellectual expounding, but ultimately comes up with nothing certain. The way real-world analysis of the novel mirrors this is kind of uncanny.
I recommend this book to anyone with a love of literature who is up to the challenge of unorthodox formatting, dizzying perspectives, and metaphysical horror. However, it is understandable that for some the structure and undertaking may be unappealing. Regardless of how much I do love the book, the format did at times negatively effect my engagement with the text.
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Featured image source here.