Wednesday, March 31, 2010

House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski (2000)

Reviewer: Elle Ewok

Rating: 4 Pierogies

Review: House of Leaves is often described as the literary equivalent of The Blair Witch Project. This is accurate in more ways then one. First, it was released in parts on the internet thus gathering a cult following before being published as a book. Secondly, the book revolves around a home-shot horror film of unknown authenticity. House of Leaves is also known for its unusal layout, formatting and structure (and puzzles) making it oft described as "experimental" or "post-modern."

I found myself vacillating from loving the book to finding it insufferable. I still cannot decide if it is absolutely brilliant or self-indulgent, pretentious hipster fare. In the end, I think it is probably a bit of both although the flashes of brilliance that are apparent make this a book I would definitely recommend.

Johnny Truant is a tattoo parlor employee living in LA and a likely future beneficiary of Obamacare as he is someone who spends all his money on drugs and booze while complaining that he doesn't have health insurance. He is a hard-partying loser in my estimation although I guess some people may find his lifestyle cool initially. An old blind man named Zampano dies in the apartment next to his friend's apartment and Johnny ends up doing the post-mortem apartment cleanout. He finds a manuscript that is in pieces. The manuscript is essentially an academic paper deconstructing a home-shot film by a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer named Will Navidson called the Navidson Record [The character of Will Navidson is based on Kevin Carter and his famous photo of the toddler dying in the Sudan white a vulture waits in the background. The paper is complete with source footnotes and analysis of the film from famous academics and writers. The problem is there is no evidence that The Navidson Record exists and all the footnotes and quotes by famous people are fake. Johnny Truant then decides to put the Zampano's writings together and essentially edit it into a book. The rest of the book is the resulting academic paper about The Navidson Record written by Zampano and Johnny Truant's personal story told through copious footnotes.

The academic paper written by Zampano explains the content of The Navidson Record. This is pretty cool actually. Will Navidson and his girlfriend and children return from a trip to their newly purchased Virginia farmhouse only to find a closet where none existed before. Measurements of the house confirm the impossible, the inside of the house is larger than the outside. Then one day a doorway manifests in the livingroom leading to an enormous and seemingly endless space of dark and cold rooms and hallways. Will Navidson records all of this and the following explorations into the space and ultimately makes a documentary out of it - The Navidson Record. The exploration affects different people differently (madness, illness, psychosis) and not everyone survives. It is a cool concept and the allegories, imagery and symbolism of the house will leave you thinking for days after you finish the book. The academic paper though also has chapters of dense academic analysis that will probably bore many readers to tears although I think these sections are beneficial in decoding the meaning of the book. The source footnotes (and footnotes within footnotes) get pretty annoying after awhile and the bizarre layout (meant to mimic the clausterphobic and agoraphobic spatial disparaties of the house) can get pretty annoying too. Some may think it is simply gimicky and I am not positive I would disagree with them.

Johnny Truant's personal story is told through random long footnotes he interjects into Zampano's paper. It is clear Zampano's work is having very negative affects on Johnny and we basically witness his descent into total psychosis. Whether it is caused by Zampano's work, an evil force, epilepsy, mental illness or drug abuse is for you to decide. Johnny is an unreliable narrator and him interjecting his ramblings constantly can get, well... annoying. Most of his stories are about him having one night stands with strangers in graphic weird detail. This got SUPER annoying. I had no idea there were so many supposedly gorgeous women in LA just dying to have causual anonymous sex with a total loser. Who knew? I wondered if I was reading a commentary on emotionally damaged people seeking love in all the wrong places or a fratboy's creative writing seminar paper. In the end, I think the author salvaged this portion of the book for me with some good insight but he almost lost me there.

This is a book is littered with weird comments and images. Random marks abound. These are all hints of somesort to the meaning of the book. I will probably have to read House of Leaves 5 times to catch all the hints, clues ect. which is pretty cool I guess. It is fun to try to search for hints and solve puzzles.

One part of the book that entertained me significantly was Zampano's academic paper itself. I don't know if it was the author's intention to lambaste the the world of academia but holy moly did this book clearly point out everything that is wrong with the world of academia and those who inhabit it whether it meant to or not (endless self-important analysis of largely meaningless subject matters. Do we really need thousands of academic papers on a horror movie? Go do something to improve society - make shoes dammit!).

Finally, it is important to note that there are appendices and exhibits of poems, pictures and writings at the end which shed light on the story. The Whalestone Letters (which were originially published separately but now are included in House of Leaves as an appendix) are particularly revealing. They are letters from Johnny Traunt's mother to Johnny from her residence in a psychiatric ward. I had a major "AHA" moment when reading these letter. A Keyser Soze moment and it was cool. A footnote halfway through the story directs you to read the Whalestone Letters however I waited to read them until the end. I wonder how different it would have been had I read them where the author intended. Rather than having an AHA moment at the end, it would have been a slower more incremental revelation. As it stands I'm glad I waited to read them until the end.

Okay, so in conclusion yes I recommend this book. It is interesting and unique and fun. A poem included in the appendices is the only reference to the book's title that I can recall. This poem also sums up a large part of the meaning of this book (P. 563):

"Little solace comes
to those who grieve
as thoughts keep drifting
as walls keep shifting
and this great blue world of ours
seems a house of leaves
Moments before the wind."