Book Review: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Book: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
Published: 2000, Random House
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 662
Where I got it: my wonderful local library
Buy It: Amazon

Summary (from Goodreads): Had The Blair Witch Project been a book instead of a film, and had it been written by, say, Nabokov at his most playful, revised by Stephen King at his most cerebral, and typeset by the futurist editors of Blast at their most avant-garde, the result might have been something like House of Leaves. Mark Z. Danielewski's first novel has a lot going on: notably the discovery of a pseudoacademic monograph called The Navidson Record, written by a blind man named Zampanò, about a nonexistent documentary film--which itself is about a photojournalist who finds a house that has supernatural, surreal qualities. (The inner dimensions, for example, are measurably larger than the outer ones.) In addition to this Russian-doll layering of narrators, Danielewski packs in poems, scientific lists, collages, Polaroids, appendices of fake correspondence and "various quotes," single lines of prose placed any which way on the page, crossed-out passages, and so on.
Now that we've reached the post-postmodern era, presumably there's nobody left who needs liberating from the strictures of conventional fiction. So apart from its narrative high jinks, what does House of Leaves have to offer? According to Johnny Truant, the tattoo-shop apprentice who discovers Zampanò's work, once you read The Navidson Record,
For some reason, you will no longer be the person you believed you once were. You'll detect slow and subtle shifts going on all around you, more importantly shifts in you. Worse, you'll realize it's always been shifting, like a shimmer of sorts, a vast shimmer, only dark like a room. But you won't understand why or how.
We'll have to take his word for it, however. As it's presented here, the description of the spooky film isn't continuous enough to have much scare power. Instead, we're pulled back into Johnny Truant's world through his footnotes, which he uses to discharge everything in his head, including the discovery of the manuscript, his encounters with people who knew Zampanò, and his own battles with drugs, sex, ennui, and a vague evil force. If The Navidson Record is a mad professor lecturing on the supernatural with rational-seeming conviction, Truant's footnotes are the manic student in the back of the auditorium, wigged out and furiously scribbling whoa-dude notes about life. Despite his flaws, Truant is an appealingly earnest amateur editor--finding translators, tracking down sources, pointing out incongruities. Danielewski takes an academic's--or ex-academic's--glee in footnotes (the similarity to David Foster Wallace is almost too obvious to mention), as well as other bogus ivory-tower trappings such as interviews with celebrity scholars like Camille Paglia and Harold Bloom. And he stuffs highbrow and pop-culture references (and parodies) into the novel with the enthusiasm of an anarchist filling a pipe bomb with bits of junk metal. House of Leaves may not be the prettiest or most coherent collection, but if you're trying to blow stuff up, who cares?

My thoughts: House of Leaves has been on my to-read list for at least 4 years now but the sheer weight of the book has always had me putting it off. Since I joined my local library recently and a group I belong to on Goodreads was planning to tackle it for one of our October group reads, I finally put a copy on hold at the library. I've read a few reviews in the last week since I began the journey of reading it myself. Many people have said they don't understand why it is considered scary. To those people I say, what were you reading? I wasn't having nightmares or anything, but I was certainly spooked. Sure, if you only pay attention to the editor in the book, Johnny Truant's, asides about his own life, it's not scary. The retelling of The Navidson Record, which is what House of Leaves revolves around, had me completely engrossed most of the time. There were parts that read like a textbook, making it a little difficult to follow and absorb, but for the most part I flew through this book. Poltergeist is one of my favorite movies ever, so a story about a house that is essentially alive and changing form inside gets two thumbs up for me.

I wasn't really a fan of how much work it was to read House of Leaves at times. There were sections where words were strewn about the pages and I wasn't sure where exactly the next line was or I had to reread a couple of times in order to piece together what was going on. There was a stretch of pages that had only a word or a single line on them. Even though it adds to the suspense and somewhat schizophrenic feel of the novel, I couldn't help but think of how much paper was wasted on that. The use of photos, collages, letters etc. was a fun effect but there were pieces that I didn't really understand what they had to do with The Navidson Record or House of Leaves.

Like I mentioned earlier in this review, reading House of Leaves was like a journey because it took such an effort to read and there are quite a few story lines to follow. I liked it but I could have done without all of Johnny Truant's stories. None of them had anything to do with The Navidson's, other than him going crazy while obsessing over The Navidson Record just like Navidson became obsessed with his house. I think I would have much rather just read the whole account of The Navidson Record and the mysterious house on Ash Tree Lane that sucked people and objects into its depths, getting them lost and driving them slowly insane.

The verdict: 3 stars 


  1. I've had this book on my shelf for 2 years!! A friend recommended it very highly but I was just really intimidated by it. I will get to it at some point but I think your point about how much work it takes to actually read it is a little off-putting and I think was kind of why I keep pushing it to the side! Great review. When I finally get to it, I'll have to let you know what I think!

    - Jamie at The Broke and the Bookish

  2. In an interview somewhere Danielewski said that one of the things he was interested in when writing House of Leaves was how people would read it, with all the footnotes and sentences leading to no where, where would each reader go.

    I really liked the pages with just a sentence or a word on it, but more because i thought it was a really cool way to create suspense.

    I could have done with less Johnny, too.