Sunday, October 10, 2010

CR Book 26: House of Leaves by Mark. Z. Danielewski

Well, I've achieved my goal of a half Cannonball Read. Not that I'm going to stop reading, but at least I've reached that point.

"House of Leaves" is a sprawling, audacious story within a story within a story... I think I hit all the levels there... that describes a documentary called The Navison Record. Will and Karen Navison have moved their small family into a house in the Virginia countryside and make an odd discovery: the house is larger on the inside than on the outside. Curious about this physical impossibility, Will (referred to as Navison or Navy by friends) brings in friends and family to help him determine how this could be. But the house is not finished playing with its inhabitants; doorways begin to appear in walls where nothing stood before, and soon a full hallway appears in their living room. Navison, a photojournalist who has never been afraid to explore and to capture his findings in film, decides to travel the hallway with the help of some well-know explorers and lots and lots of video cameras.

That's just the first story. On top of that, we have the work of Zampano, a blind man who has spent what would appear to be years compiling notes and references about The Navison Record. And on top of that, we have the footnotes (that tell the life story) of Johnny Truant, a loquacious ne'er-do-well who spends his days working in a tattoo parlor, dreaming of a stripper named Thumper, and his nights getting drunk with his friend, Lude, and charming drunk women with his ability to spin a good yarn. One night, Lude brings Johnny over to check out the deceased Zampano's (Lude's neighbor) apartment, and Johnny finds a trunk full of Zampano's work and decides to take it home.

Johnny's curiosity about the man's work quickly becomes an obsession, and as he tries to finish what Zampano started, his life begins to collapse around him. The shifts in his mental state appear to mirror the changes occurring in the Navison Record. One of the most impressive things about the novel is the way Danielewski plays with structure in order to give you the impression that the book itself is changing, just like the house. As Johnny's life begins to disintegrate, the footnotes become more chaotic; as Navy's explorations of the hallway begin to resemble that of someone wandering a labyrinth, so too do the words on the pages begin to change, moving backwards, upside-down, and so on. As you read, you feel just as lost and confused as Navy and Johnny (and I would assume Zampano, but I didn't get as strong a sense of him as I did the others).

The book is filled with Appendices and Exhibits that are full of poems, images, and extra bits meant to help support (or, in some cases, contradict) the work Zampano did on the Navison Record. But the most interesting addition would be the section titled "The Three Attic Whalestoe Institute Letters," a series of letters from Johnny's mother that not only shed some light on his life, but IMO throw the whole veracity of everything into serious question. After all, Johnny tells us over and over in his footnotes that he's a fantastic storyteller; and he himself states that he's never found any record of The Navison Record even existing (as he states in the introduction); who's to say he didn't just make it all up?

If you go to, you'll find a whole message board devoted to puzzling out the truth behind this mazelike novel. I personally will be rereading this novel... not soon, but I know that I will be revisiting it. I might try to read it a different way next time - ignoring Johnny's footnotes altogether, then go back and read those alone. There's a lot to think about with this one; but no guaranteed answers. Maybe it's because I'm getting older, but I'm ok with not having clear answers. It's the journey, the experience of reading it, that's important with this book.

I've heard this called a horror novel, and that seems a bit misleading, but I can understand how it got that label. I myself actually got spooked enough that I had a nightmare and spent a sleepless night warding off bad dreams. Johnny talks of something lurking in the darkness, and, well, Danielewski creates a very realistic sense of dread that was enough to make me stop reading the book at night. But if you're looking for outright gore and scares, you won't find them here. This book is more about the empty spaces, the darkness in our lives, and what that means.

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