House of Leaves

House of Leaves

I heard whispers about House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski for a long time before I actually picked it up. (And no, I didn't put off picking it up because I was afraid I would tear a ligament lifting it (although I really did hurt my ridiculously fragile wrists), at 700 plus pages it's heavy enough to use as ballast on a hot air balloon.) I heard it was terrible and I heard it was unreadable and I heard it was amazing and I heard it was genius and I heard it was scary. In fact I heard it was the scariest book ever written. (Which led to my middle son commenting every time I mentioned something from the book, “That's to make it spoooooky!”) I don't know what the scariest book ever written is but it's not this one. But it might be the most intricate book I've ever read. I ended up describing it as “Interesting in the most tedious way possible.”

So what is it about? Kind of everything. On the surface it is a journal written by a dude called Johnny Truant, who is kind of a lost soul, with a deep psychic wound, who spends most of his time getting drunk or high and having one night stands with pretty much whomever says yes. As the story begins, he comes into possession of tons of writing written by an elderly, blind man who dies alone and sealed into a stinky room. Johnny takes all of the various scraps of writing home and begins to decipher and transcribe them. But as he does he becomes obsessed and starts to suffer from nightmares and night terrors.

The writing he is rescuing is a scholarly piece about a film called the Navidson Record. So you have a documentary, which is a story about a haunted house, and then a critique of the film, and then a guy writing about his experiences with the text of the critique and of course of all of it is actually a novel. If this isn't confusing enough the structure of the story is quite mad. There are are footnotes within footnotes and three typefaces of footnotes, to help you keep track of who is writing what. Some of the footnotes are just pages of lists of names. (As I read them I wondered how many people who read this book read every single word, as I did. And how many of them had a nervous breakdown at the end?) But that's not all. The text itself is every which way. Some pages have the main text, then several footnotes in text boxes, written in varying angles and directions, with one where the letters are mirror image. I can't imagine trying to read this novel while having a cocktail.

At its essence House of Leaves is about a house that is bigger on the inside than the outside, according to the publisher. That's one way of looking at it, I suppose. But it's a phrase famous for describing the TARDIS on Doctor Who. In that universe being bigger on the inside is awesome and leads to rooms with swimming pools, vast libraries, etc, all neatly tucked into what looks like a phone booth. But the house in House of Leaves is much more of a maze; a maze that shifts while people are inside it. Walk into what should be a closet and you can literally travel corridors for hundreds of miles, or follow a staircase that suddenly expands by thousands of miles. It's all madness.

But in the end I am glad I read it. A few years ago I managed to read James Joyce's Ulysses. It took me months and I didn't enjoy any of it. While I was reading House of Leaves I thought of Ulysses and how both works are hard to read. But House of Leaves is significantly easier and more interesting and thoughtful. It gave me quite a lot to think about once I had closed the cover.

Oh, about that scariness? The author sort of sabotages his own scare factor. Every time the book starts be suspenseful or frightening he inserts a ton of scholarly critique, or Johnny starts talking about something completely different and bam, all the tension is lost.

One final thought: you either have to turn the book upside down or read the letters while they are upside down, to get through part of the book. I had fun imagining the expressions of people on the subway watching someone else read the book. Did they think the reader couldn't actually read?

You can read an excerpt here:

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Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is a video that explains the ancient art of creating transcendental granola. The creator goes over all the important elements of making granola such as how to choose a power stone and how to keep the granola from becoming haunted while baking. Good stuff!