What can I make of House of Leaves? Where to start? How to say enough without saying too much?
It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read before, and from the moment I picked it up, all I wanted to do was talk about it with someone, anyone. But everywhere I looked, even among my most literary friends, I couldn’t find a single person who’d read it. The compulsion to share this thing I’d discovered was overwhelming, but despite all that, I still have an almost impossible time putting my feelings into words.
At it’s core, most call House of Leaves a horror story. Some call it a love story. I call it a bit of both along with something else entirely. Something unnameable.
Before even the introduction, instead of a dedication the book begins with a warning:
“This is not for you.”
In this way, the book pulls us in with one hand and pushes us away with the other. If it’s not for us, then who is it for, we wonder?
There’s only one way to find out.
The book centers on three main characters: Zampanò, Johnny Truant, and Will Navidson.
Elderly, blind Zampanò spent his life writing a scholarly analysis of a 1993 documentary called The Navidson Record. In the documentary, Will Navidson realizes that the inside of his house is bigger than the outside and decides to tape his increasingly terrifying exploration of the anomaly. After Zampanò’s death, Johnny Truant discovers the pieces of the manuscript and becomes obsessed with completing Zampanò’s work, adding footnotes for clarity or, more frequently, to share his thoughts and discuss his life since discovering it. And if that weren’t enough, Johnny insists that The Navidson Record doesn’t even exist.
The process of reading this book was quite possibly the single most challenging and rewarding experience with a book I’ve ever had. Danielewski experiments not just with narrative construction, but with the very page layout itself. Some changes seem to be for coherence, while others are part of a masterful attempt to manipulate the reader’s emotions.
As the text jumped around the page and the footnotes became more entangled, I was struggling to keep up. I would read and re-read portions, searching for my place, feeling lost and bogged down.
But none of that was without purpose. Ultimately, Danielewski (or should I say Zampanò?) led me to the answer:
“In order to escape then, we have to remember we cannot ponder all paths but must decode only those necessary to get out. We must be quick and anything but exhaustive. Yet as Seneca warned in his Epistule morales 44, going too fast also incurs certain risks:
This is what happens when you hurry through a maze: the faster you go, the worse you are entangled.
. . .
Therefore anyone lost within must recognize that no one, not even a god or an Other, comprehends the entire maze and so therefore can never offer a definitive answer.”
It’s not meant to be possible to follow every thread in House of Leaves on a first reading. You can only go where it’s possible for you to follow. Some passages may feel inscrutable, others obvious.
That confusion and frustration? That’s how Danielewski wanted me to feel. I was just as lost as the characters, just as uncertain. My empathy for Will and Johnny was being thrust upon me. I had no choice because it was as if we were on this journey together.
More than this though, I felt that in reading House of Leaves, I was seeing for the first time what a writer could do with text, how differently a story could be told. It was thrilling and suspenseful and above all else emotional.
Though it certainly appeals to a specific kind of reader, I can’t recommend House of Leaves enough. It’s rocketed straight to the top of my list of my favorite books of all time. It’s something incredibly special that deserves all the energy it takes to get through it.