Johnny Truant, a drug-addicted tattooist, finds a manuscript about a possibly fictional documentary called The Navidson Records. In it, Will Navidson moves his family — him, his wife and two young children — into a house in the suburbs, but discovers a door that leads to a dark hallway and, from there, a shifting, dark labyrinth hidden inside. Navidson’s attempts to explore and document the house’s inexplicable interior are what result in the Navidson Records.
In this disorienting horror story where the perspective the narrators in constant flux, it’s never clear what can be relied upon, much like the shifting walls of the house that the story is constructed around. House of Leaves, which was originally published over 15 years ago (in March 2000), lobs at you amplified versions of pretty much every post-modernist writing device, used to extreme excess. The xkcd parody, House of Pancakes, is pretty spot-on. It’s highly fragmented, with layers upon layers of metafiction, told by a series of nested unreliable narrators, littered with faux academic discussion and encoded messages, blends a touch of non-fiction, and accented with footnotes (there are always footnotes in these types of books, aren’t there?). Oh and a quick flip through the book will show that the typesetting is far from traditional. An absolute treasure trove for post-modernist literary academics and obsessive over-analyzing types.
I spent many nights huddled in a corner of a Starbucks reading this book, and to be honest, I was genuinely, maybe not scared exactly, but certainly on edge reading this book. For the most part, I focused my attention on the more coherent main narrative of the Navidson house — an ill-fated exploration that slowly descends into terror and psychological horror as the family attempts to measure, mark or otherwise moor their understanding of the labyrinth on more stable terms. I found it easy to get lost in those shifting hallways and winding staircases.
As for the metafiction built around it, I let most of the (more disorienting) details about Johnny and his neighbor and mentally ill mother and the provenance of the manuscript and other details go by without too much thought. Doubtless, fans of the novel will consider that sacrilege. It’s never clear which characters are real or fake or lying or a product of Johnny’s imagination or of mental illness or a representation of something else. While inventive, trying to get a hold of a story that is obviously not meant to be entirely understood and one that intentionally asks questions that can’t be answered is not something I could really get into, though I realize it’s probably a matter of personal preference as opposed to an objective flaw. You’ll find plenty of people online who’ve been interested enough to try to wade through it and argue endlessly over which interpretation of events is “accurate.”
The even more meta stuff, for example a section which paragraphs lengths (short-short-short-long-long-long-short-short-short) “spell out” SOS in morse code and each instance of the word “House” is printed in blue, I can’t even pretend to appreciate. Some people find these discoveries and details delightful; my response is usually “so what?”
I read this quite some time ago, but it stuck with me. Of course, I found it too gimmicky, with all the bells and whistles that often eclipse the story itself, so I knew I’d be unlikely to pick up another Mark Danielewski novel again. Still, if you like that sort of thing or you want to test out taking a deep dive into very post-modernist fiction, House of Leaves is a good bet. Even if you end up not being a fan of all the meta stuff (like me), there’s a strong enough story in there that it’s worth giving it a shot.
House of Leaves Movie / TV Series Adaptation
And just because this is a topic that comes up a lot, here’s Everything We Know About A House of Leaves Film Adaptation.
Danielewski is holding a book club for HoL on Facebook at the end of the month!
oh interesting! thanks for the heads up, I’ll definitely look into it! :)
I really enjoy this novel. Have you read any of Danielweski’s follow-ups? I haven’t, but am interested (the lengths scare me though!).
I actually haven’t yet. I was curious about his work and thought this story was surprisingly compelling, but not sure if it’s really my style — thanks for dropping by! :)
Glad you felt similar to me in reading this book – the extra layers of mystery were interesting, but didn’t really grip me much, either. However – I preferred Johnny’s story to Navidson’s, haha. Thank you – I’m glad to see someone else talking about this book. :D
Yeah, I think a really interesting aspect of this book is how people come away from it with such different experiences. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! :)
I’m glad to see someone doing a review of this book. At times it seems Danielewski is trying too hard but at least it’s not bland.
Thank you! Yup, I can certainly appreciate why others might like it, and I certainly applaud him for trying something new. Thanks for dropping by!
I liked this book, but I found it ridiculously over-hyped. It seems that most of the people I’ve encountered who like this book aren’t content to say that it was good; they must convince you that it was some *ground-breaking work of art,* possibly one of the best books ever written. As you said, though, it was too gimmicky. There was some substance and a decent story there, but it felt like you had to wade through nonsense to get to it.
Haha, this is so true. It’s especially fun when they are convinced that the reason you don’t think it’s one of the best books ever written is because you don’t understand it. I know you have to separate the merits of the book from the merits of its fanbase, but it’s easier said than done…
Ohhhh, yes, I’ve encountered those people. Like the only conceivable reason you didn’t fall in love with the book is because you’re too dense to get it. It wasn’t complicated, it was just… busy.
I’ve got a copy of this book sitting on my shelf and I keep meaning to get back to it. I’m a fast reader and I find myself really slogging my way through it but everyone online seems to love it. It’s nice to know I’m not completely alone.