House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Mike’s review

This is the second time I’ve read this book. First time was relatively soon after I’d moved to Oakland. It was much better then. I feared riding the train because I was certain the tunnel would shrink around me. Like literally. I saw it moving. So this book has this power, but this time it was mostly tedious. I don’t know if it’s because I’m older (and less willingly suffer self-indulgence) or because I had a better idea of its tricks the second time around, but I had to force myself to finish for the most part.

If it weren’t for the laundromat (and only owning 2 work shirts which require pretty frequent washing), I would have quit the book after 100 pages. Which made me feel funny because I’ve idolized this book since I first read it, like would see it in the bookstore and be afraid to pick it up. I highly recommended it to my brother when he was here and he bought it. I also sent my first copy to a girl I wanted to fuck, I think. And now I have to ask myself if they read this and what they thought.

Far and away, the best pieces are the sections written by Zampano. Anything Johnny writes is ridiculous. I don’t remember Truant’s words being so flowery the first time through. I know this is something I would have been more willing to put up with in a romantic early 20s fugue state. I know honesty isn’t one of the books specialties, but Truant said something about Zampano’s book giving him (Truant) a larger vocabulary. But Zampano keeps it fairly simple and Truant was using ridiculous overwrought vocabulary at 14 (supposedly, allegedly).

In fact, I so little remember Truant’s language to be flowery that I remember going to a reading of Danielewski’s when his next book came out. I knew nothing of the book and had I known Only Revolutions was poetry, I may not have made the (quite long) trip in to Booksmith in San Francisco, but I did and I was severely disappointed that Danielewski could use language in that way, which, looking back, was probably the same way in which Truant uses language.

There’s no narrative continuity and it drove me bats. e.g. Tom keeps leaving, but is still at the house the next day. e.g. How are we suddenly at the bottom of the stairs with Holloway when Navidson was just about to descend, not having a fucking clue what was up with Holloway?

It was enjoyable to go from watching Bret Easton Ellis loathe David Foster Wallace on Twitter to seeing him sort of laud (or at least name check) him in the blurb he wrote for House of Leaves (and I know blurbs aren’t usually the most truthful, thought out things and will often be exaggerated because a publisher/agent says it must be done, but the irony was still fun (I think if you pointed this out to Ellis he’d say something along the lines of, “So fucking what?” which is pretty badass)).

I’m also not sure that this is the same version as the first one I read. I remember none of the appendixes. But they may have been there before. Which brings me to this: (let’s first acknowledge that Danielewski creates space shifts in the reader’s physical world by fucking with where words sit on pages and footnoting footnotes) it was quite disorienting to go from decoding (first letter of words only to make new words in the mother’s appendix letter) to regular reading again. Most of these letters were tedious, but I did find that effect quite effective.

I also don’t remember the insinuation that Zampano and the house and the monster and all of it were really products of Johnny’s mind, left warped from his mother’s absence. Which is kinda dumb. Oh, it’s all in his head! I don’t know, seems like a cop out. And I know up front you’re told none of it is real and Zampano made it all up, but to add another layer of falsehood pulled me further away from the possibility that this inside out twisted space could exist. Part of me really wants to believe it’s possible and anything written by Truant seemed to pull me away from that possibility.

It’s hard when disappointed the second time through with a book you idolized so hard. I feel like I’m being especially hard on House of Leaves because it lost me a little bit in a few places. The truth is, there were still moments of utter terror. But it wasn’t the same. I don’t know if I’m remembering the first time inaccurately or if the book isn’t as good as I thought it was or if I’m just more jaded and less patient now for experiments like this one. I’m glad I don’t have to write about the merits of this book because those are more than likely spot-on, but the experience was not what I’d hoped for.

Recently read an interview with Danielewski (AV Club, maybe?) in which he said he was open to a film adaptation. Here’s how to do it: Class/lecture about Navidson Record, film is studied in class so you can cut from Navidson Record to class to student in class troubled by lecture. Perhaps they also study Zampano’s book and can use subtitles/ticker of book notes, possibly colored and located throughout the screen. Long section of all black. Not the pseudo-blackness where you can’t really see that movies use now, but actual blackness.

Today happens to be Halloween, but I only coincidentally finished this book yesterday. Started a long, long time ago. But I will be going to the Library today and picking up Joe Hill’s Horns, which probably has something to do with the season.

Valerie’s Response

Your bringing up this book is such a psychic vaccuum for me. It pings on a lot and I would like to respond point by point but time is limited to what I have before me til a baby screams. So I will just say this:

I read this book about 2004ish. A friend at the occult publisher I worked for loaned it with a light recommendation (we all read at that time a lot, lot lot — we culled submissions by the hundreds, which made us very quick to judge a work, I admit I became a bit cynical and closed but also less attached to hallowed books — so while I note your disappointment in this work’s contents after your thoughts of it the first time, turning it into a bible of sorts, then seeing it thru older jaded eyes, is familiar).

Like it reminding you of the tunnel, this reminds me of a time and place. I would read this on breaks at work, in my car or at my desk in a very quiet cubicle farm. Yet the book had the power to transform the physics of space through the page, extremely disorienting as well as, like you say, offering moments of complete terror.

I was journaling books at the time because I was reading so much, yet when I go back to find that book I don’t see any evidence of reflecting on it. I know the book was quite large, so I imagine it took some time, like weeks or months to read, yet I didn’t record a word. Maybe because it so frightened me I didn’t want to remember.

I can’t recall much about the plot at all, only that the primary character Johnny irritated me as much as I felt fondness for Zampano. I thought Johnny juvenile, I think, possibly too male? Vaguely remembered impressions… What is Navidson Record? Sorry, I could google that…

I do remember being scared shitless then impressed about the blank pages and some of the other typographic miscellany which added to the unhinged mental effect the book wrought.

So I might like to revisit this book, and will seek it out online or the library or something. Wonder how this work would transfer to ebook/kindle format. Might be awesome.

Mike responds

I’m not sure if I’m older and more jaded or just a better reader at this point. I wanted to pretend like dropping out of college didn’t affect me and my reading comprehension, but I’m sure it did and I’m sure it’s taken me longer to figure out a few things than it should have. I feel cheaply duped in part, I think. I feel (sometimes) that words themselves should be more than enough to achieve what you want. Like sometimes, when writing (or reading) the use of boldface or italics will make me cringe. But, I also have a story in Scenic Utah that uses some of these typography tricks. I’m a hypocrite.

I don’t recall Johnny irritating me at all the first time through, but the second, he was the worst! Like horrendous! One of the blurbs says the book is sexy and this was one of the most terrible things about the narrator, his recounting of his sexual escapades. I know he needs to exist on one level, but I also wish Danielewski had not used him. Definitely too male. Like in a mainstream media sort of way male. Like GQ magazine.

The Navidson Record was the (fake) film which Zampano wrote his book about. That seems like a confusing sentence, but I don’t know that there’s a better way to explain.

It would work quite well as an ebook, but I think I remember reading Danielewski was hesitant to do so and I felt very young.

I may have dreamed that Danielewski was a large man with a big beard, a la Les Savy Fav last night. I don’t remember what he was doing though.

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