Saturday, March 13, 2021

House of Leaves

We wish to inform you that the following review will contain spoilers for House of Leaves. — Ed.

During my research for a review of The Beginner’s Guide, I came across a comparison to the books House of Leaves and Pale Fire, neither of which I had heard of until that point. After reading the premise for both, I was more intrigued by the one for House of Leaves, a twenty-year-old novel by Mark Z. Danielewski, and later received the Remastered Full-Color Edition hardcover release as a Christmas present. The sheer size of the book intimidated me at first, but I worked up the courage and dove right in. Finishing it took a little longer than I thought, but I felt strongly enough about my opinion afterwards that I thought I’d do a one-off book review due to the book’s connection with film and the game that led me to it. To that end, I respect Danielewski’s commitment to painstakingly writing and formatting a novel exactly the way he wanted it for the effect he sought over the course of ten years, but it’s a bit overhyped.

To discuss and understand House of Leaves, one must first know how the novel structures itself. There are multiple layers to the story, represented with multiple narrators.

In the innermost layer, you have The Navidson Record, a documentary by Will Navidson about his house on Ash Tree Lane. Will Navidson is an award-winning photojournalist who moves into the house so he can get closer to his family, which includes his wife, Karen, and two children, Chad and Daisy. While filming the documentary about his family, he makes the startling discovery that his house is exactly 1/4” bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. He decides to investigate and things only take a dark turn from there.

On the outermost layer is Johnny Truant, a man who discovered a manuscript by the late Zampanò that academically dissects the film; this manuscript acts as the novel’s middle layer. However, as Johnny Truant discovers, Zampanò was blind and he can’t find any evidence that The Navidson Record or its subjects ever existed. As he reads the manuscript and pieces it together, he finds himself slowly going insane and discovers parallels between his own life and those of Zampanò and Navidson.

There are two other narrators. These are the in-universe Editors who looked over Johnny Truant’s presentation of the manuscript and Pelafina, Johnny’s institutionalized mother whose story is contained within the Whalestoe Letters in the appendices. Each of the four narrators has a different font: Zampanò is in Times, Johnny is in Courier, the Editors are in Bookman and Pelafina is in Dante.

With that established, The Navidson Record and its history are very fascinating and set up a very gripping horror story. The pacing of this part of the book really helps, since we’re first introduced to the house in a more normal state. It’s only when Will Navidson discovers the discrepancy in size between the interior and the exterior that we realize something is very wrong with the house, even more so when a mysterious, impossibly long hallway appears. Navidson’s natural curiosity as a photojournalist kicks in and he explores the hallway, which leads him down winding ashen black corridors until he comes across an impossibly large room that’s bigger than the house itself. Additional explorations follow, though with help from people Will has roped into it, including his estranged twin brother Tom. Each exploration reveals something new about the house and the hallway, including a space-warping spiral staircase and a constant, mysterious growl that hints at the presence of some sinister creature that we never see, but leaves evidence of a violent physical presence.

Beyond an impossibly large and impossibly old house, however, we also see how Navidson’s explorations of the house affect his family dynamic. Though we only get glimpses of the psychological effects on the children, we get the most insight into how it affects his wife Karen. She doesn’t follow Navidson into the labyrinth, but his explorations put a strain on their relationship and take a toll on her sanity. When they ultimately reconcile at the end in a very dramatic finale, the reader can conceivably look back on The Navidson Record as more of a love-horror story thanks to the emphasis on the relationship between the actual horrors of the house and their marriage.

What amplifies The Navidson Record is the book’s unusual formatting, which initially sold me on it. The book starts out normal, with different narrator fonts and the occasional footnote, but there are very early signs that something isn’t right. The word house is always colored blue even if it’s part of a word, like “household”, and is randomly printed slightly off. This choice is unsettling, but the formatting truly gets weird around Chapter VIII, after which you’ll encounter times where the text is mirrored or printed in unusual alignment on the page and you eventually have to physically turn the book in your hands to properly read what’s happening. Sometimes, the text is also shaped like what’s happening. Additionally, every mention of the minotaur and anything directly related are crossed out in red.

I initially loved the idea of the odd formatting, but eventually I felt more mixed about it. A lot of it feels effective in throwing the reader off-balance or increasing the immersion, like rendering a sentence upwards to simulate climbing a ladder or the idea of structuring a chapter like a labyrinth complete with looping footnotes. Since these choices elevate the text and help it stand out from other horror stories, it’s best that readers don’t flip ahead or it won’t have the same effect. Of course, if you’re like me and flip ahead to see how long a chapter is before you commit to reading it, spoiling yourself is unavoidable.

One of the more well-known formatting choices.

Other formatting choices, however, feel borderline pretentious. These include, but are not limited to: Chapter VIII discusses the SOS signal, so the text is broken up into a pattern of three short, three long and three short chunks; Chapter XI compares Will and Tom Navidson’s relationship to the biblical Jacob and Esau, so the text is initially arranged into columns to mimic the formatting of the Bible; and parts of Chapter XIII were burned, represented by bordering empty space with brackets, which in turn makes the section unnecessarily harder to read. Sections like these will either feel like inspired genius or eye-rolling nonsense depending on the reader.

Formatting aside, Zampanò’s supposed recollection of The Navidson Record goes beyond just telling the reader what happens on the screen. He also often gives lengthy academic analyses that either give good insight into the material or just bog down the book. At the beginning of Chapter V, for instance, since the perception of space is very important in the film, Zampanò give a highly detailed breakdown of the word “echo” and even gives mathematical formulas for measuring sound within space. From the footnotes he leaves, we can also gather that he’s very confident about his interpretations of the film, even providing additional analysis within them on occasion and commenting on why he believes other interpretations of the same material are completely wrong while his are right. He sounds knowledgeable based on the things he writes, but it can come off as the real-life author showing off a surface level understanding of many subjects. Unfortunately, we don’t learn much more about his character from his own writing outside of the implication that he has slowly gone insane over the course of writing the manuscript (or at least more insane than he already was when he started).

Instead, we mostly hear about Zampanò through Johnny Truant, the outermost layer and easily the most annoying character in the book. Early on, it’s easy to find parallels between his journey and Navidson’s, with his life and mental state starting out relatively calm and then growing more intense as he gets further into the manuscript. This aspect of his story initially had me interested, but he quickly felt like more of a nuisance. His story continues in the footnotes, which often last between several paragraphs to several pages at a time with little payoff outside of specific insights or revelations into the text. For instance, when Zampanò mentions a water heater in Chapter II, Johnny launches into a five-page tangent about how his water went out and he and his appropriately-named friend Lude made up a fake story at a bar to try and score with women. The only thing interesting about this tangent is the very end, when he reveals that Zampanò had originally only written the word “heater” and he added the word “water” because the situation felt similar to his own, indicating that he’s not above altering the text. This moment reminded me the most of The Beginner’s Guide and genuinely added to the text, but these a-ha moments are sadly few and far between with Johnny.

Due to Johnny’s frequent intrusions, I ended up skipping his layer of the book almost entirely after a few chapters. Some of his footnotes are genuinely good, like when he offers some insight into Zampanò’s words or explains why some of the text is formatted the way it is, but there are only so many pages you can read about sex, drugs and an attraction to a stripper name Thumper before it gets tiresome. It may sound weird for a review of a book to not cover every single thing in the book, but after doing my own independent research into the effect of Johnny’s story on the text, including a rather inconclusive ending, I decided that he ultimately didn’t add anything significant to the text and didn’t go back to finish his story. This includes an entire chapter, Chapter XXI, dedicated to his journal entries that end very abruptly and only add a giant meta twist about the book, as well as Appendix II-E, which reprints the Three Attic Whalestoe Institute Letters written by his mother, Pelafina.

If you want to skip Johnny Truant yourself, he actually has a line in a footnote in Chapter IV that can justify the practice. “The way I figure it, if there’s something you find irksome—go ahead and skip it” (House of Leaves, Page 31). Perhaps just a meta commentary about overanalyzing things, but fitting nonetheless.

Throughout the book, the reader also gets glimpses of a mysterious creature known as the minotaur, implied to be the presence of the house. Its formatting is justified by indicating that Johnny Truant has restored what Zampanò tried to erase and these passages are usually much darker than the rest of Zampanò’s words. While the idea of the creature is interesting, its main function is making the reader question the reality of what’s happening or speculate on how much power it has. I wish it had more of a payoff, but the lack of a physical form keeps it suitably mysterious.

One of the first passages about the minotaur.

After the majority of the book details The Navidson Record, House of Leaves has three appendices for additional material related to the film and the different layers. Appendix I is strictly extra material that Zampanò provided or said he would provide, including a brief outline and all of the chapter titles, some journal entries and images that actually show the scrapbook nature of the manuscript compared to the reader’s experience with the finished book. Some parts of this Appendix explain certain quirks, like why Page 152 slaps a Bibliography on the end of Chapter IX.

Appendix II, on the other hand, revolves around Johnny Truant. Some of it does add to the book, like a series of sketches and Polaroids related to the house on Ash Tree Lane and a couple of collages relevant to his story. The main meat of it, however, is the Whalestoe Letters that take up all of Apeendix II-E and are only included in 2nd Edition copies of the book (though you can also read all of them and more in the companion book The Whalestoe Letters). Since I had skipped Johnny’s story, I largely skipped these as well. From my research, these really only contributed two things to the reading experience anyway: the idea that Johnny’s insanity was hereditary and that the unusual formatting in Pelafina’s letters suggests that Johnny was ultimately the one responsible for the book’s own unusual formatting.

There’s also Appendix-III, but it’s very short and consists mainly of contrary evidence that suggests The Navidson Record really existed after all.

As Danielewski designed House of Leaves as a work of postmodernism, it opens itself up to interpretation and questions the existence of any one part of it. While this certainly fits the core of postmodern work in general, it feels like the author intentionally inserted elements meant solely to send readers on a wild goose chase to try and “solve” the book. For example, at the start of Chapter VIII, there’s a checkmark in the bottom right corner of Page 97, which seems to match a detail made in one of Pelafina’s letters where she tells Johnny to put a checkmark in the same spot in his next letter so she’ll know he’s okay. From additional research, however, I’ve learned that some printings of the book don’t have this checkmark, which could mean that Danielewski put that in later to mess with people.

The writer has provided an example of the page with the checkmark (above)
and the page with Pelafina's corresponding letter (below).  Ed.

Almost makes you wonder if Danielewski used the 2nd Edition
as an advertising vehicle for The Whalestoe Letters.

For another example, the book employs symbols as footnote markers alongside standard numbers after a certain point. At first, these are justified as additional notes Zampanò made in the margins, which Johnny turned into footnotes. Eventually, some angular symbols are incorporated, but you don’t learn until Collage #1 in Appendix II-C that these align with Ground-Air Emergency Code symbols. Exploring the footnotes with this knowledge can be interesting, especially since some line up with actions like applying “Require firearms and ammunition” to sections about explosives or using “Indicate direction & proceed” to direct readers back to the beginning of the labyrinthine Chapter IX. Finding any deeper meanings beyond the association, however, could easily result in false positives.

The writer has provided an image of Collage #1 and #2 Ed.

And, of course, if something didn’t click with you, the line on Page ix, “This is not for you, can easily get tossed around as a convenient shield to deflect criticism.

By design, House of Leaves also features many typos, all of which are apparently intentional. Rather annoyingly, this design means that when genuine mistakes slip through, the book can easily brush them off as mistakes on part of Johnny Truant or the “Editors” and Danielewski has a convenient cop-out. On Page 8, I encountered a stray dot in the text that reappeared on Page 53, as well as ink dots on Pages 126 and 523. At first, I thought the dot must have some meaning, but when I looked at the Amazon preview and noticed no such dot in the same spot, I decided it was a genuine printing mistake and moved on. There’s another genuine error on Page 122 as part of Footnote 146, which consists of a list of buildings of a certain architecture across several pages, where the word Scheepvaarthuis is not only misspelled but doesn’t render “huis” in blue despite being Dutch for “house”. Then, of course, you have the “Editors” not doing their job and writing “[sic]” at every grammar/spelling error outside of Page 539 in Appendix I-A, like the consistent misspelling of “all right” as “alright”. I’m sure there are other genuine errors throughout the book, but these stuck out the most.

I found the mistake so you don't have to.

Based on independent research while reading the book, I noticed that Danielewski had also inserted his sister, singer-songwriter Poe, into the story. In Chapter XV, for instance, Karen contacts famous people, which includes “A Poe t.” During Chapter XXI, Johnny’s journal entries incorporate the existence of Poe’s album Haunted, itself at least partly based on House of Leaves, without calling it out by name. The biggest and most subtle case, however, only exists in the Remastered Full-Color Edition hardcover. In this edition, a string of four-character hexadecimal code covers the inside covers. If you compile this code into a hex editor and then make it into an AIFF file, you’ll hear Poe signing “Johnny, angry” in a two-second clip of her track “Angry Johnny” from the album Hello.

Here's the hexadecimal code so you can do it yourself.

House of Leaves is an interesting book, but easily comes off as acting smarter than it really is, with bloated tangents and academic discussions, even for something apparently meant as a satire of academia. I’d advise reading this book solely for the Navidson Record layer, since it has plenty of memorable moments and actually has more of a conclusion than the rest of the book. If you're not sure it's worth spending money on it, then borrow it from your local library. Otherwise, you may as well play The Beginner’s Guide instead if all you want is the effect of the story and not the story itself.

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