Mark Z. Danielewski
House of Leaves
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2006
Pantheon / Random House
US Hardcover The Remastered Full-Color Edition
709 Pages; $45
Publication Date: 09-17-2006
Date Reviewed: 11-23-06
Ambivalence is not an option.
Mark Z. Danielewski's 'House of Leaves' has had six long years to inspire feelings in readers. The fact that it's been re-issued here in 2006 in, as we are reminded on the cover, "The Remastered Full-Color Edition" suggests that by and large those feelings are very positive, enough so that the publisher has hopes of selling a significant number of copies of this rather expensive hardcover. Strong feelings of any stripe directed towards a large and clearly odd book are useful to help the prospective reader decide whether they want to take the plunge. But to my mind, 'House of Leaves' is not the book a reader picking it up in the store might surmise.
For those who have not stumbled across this novel by Mark Z. Danielewski (pronounced Daniel-lef-ski), 'House of Leaves' is a 709 page tome with a boatload of weird printing quirks, pages and pages of footnotes that comprise a novel-within-the-novel, oddball illustrations (many now in color; more on that later), many appendices and an index over forty pages long. Sometimes billed as a horror novel, 'House of Leaves' does indeed involve many of the appurtenances of that genre. There is a bit of fear to be found here, depending on what actually frightens the reader. There's a sort-of haunted house here as well, and even a monster.
But a quick glance will reveal that 'House of Leaves' is no mere horror novel. No, for some readers it is something far scarier, a work of post-modern experimental literary fiction by an author who is quite familiar with every formatting option on the menu in Microsoft Word, Quark, and the entire Adobe Creative Suite. The result is a book with pages and pages of type set in a manner that is to say the least challenging to read, though not so challenging as one might guess when flipping through the hardcover in a bookstore. The book is so incredibly baroque in format and content that a fair number of book buyers might simply want to own it regardless of whether or not they intend to read it. This is a book that doubles as a printer's version of an art exhibit. One can easily imagine the pages displayed in frames in a gallery. Just to look at and hold, 'House of Leaves' is clearly a thing of beauty.
The new version then, is a joy forever for those who enjoy 'House of Leaves' for its visual and artistic élan. There is not a lot more here in a percentage measurement. But that's mostly down to the fact that the original version was already stuffed. This time around there are a number of gorgeous color plates, more colored text and a bit more text, though not enough to invalidate the reading experience of the first version. "The Remastered Full-Color Edition" lives up to its name, but its an enrichment not an invalidation; pretty much what you’d hope for. And frankly, at $45, it's rather a deal. I hope you got yours early on, because time has demonstrated that as book investments go, 'House of Leaves' is a very wise choice.
As for that reading experience, it is quite the experience, though not the experience you might expect. Yes, Danielewski is a literary wizard, and he brings the full brunt of post-video-game literary techniques to the novel. The building blocks are as follows. You have a "non-fiction" narrative that analyzes a film about a sort-of haunted house, bigger on the inside than on the outside. Danielewski does a masterful job in terms of creating a fantastic edifice that seems real and really scary. Then there is the footnoted commentary by the feckless young man who finds the non-fiction narrative. That young gent calls himself Johnny Truant, and he's profoundly changed by the non-fiction analysis, as are most who come into contact with the non-fiction work at the core of this work of fiction. Got that? It's the old book-that-drives-men-mad trope, employed to great pre-post-modern effect by pulp horror writers like Robert Chambers ('The King in Yellow') and H. P. Lovecraft. (In Lovecraft's case, his created work, "The Necronomicon", has become a post-modern cottage industry, inspiring works by other authors that claim to be "The Necronomicon". The list of authors includes the famed artist H. G. Giger, and that whole graphical element is reflected here in Danielewski's extravagant design.)
Danielewski's parts are assembled with the obsessive detail of the truly consumed. You can spend months reading, researching and figuring out how just the academic footnotes to the non-fiction narrative fit together. But for all the literary skill that clearly went into the making of this novel, it doesn't have the sometimes-annoying feel of self-conscious artsy literary fiction. It's way too single-minded. Some readers might enjoy that difference and others might be tempted to toss the book at the nearest wall, were it not clear that this hefty tome would actually put a significant hole in any wall that dared to get in its way. But the upshot is that 'House of Leaves' takes the reality it describes quite a bit more seriously than the average literary novel. It's both lighter and denser as a result.
As a horror novel, 'House of Leaves' has a nice distanced feel from the horrors being presented, and that makes those horrors seem more real but a tad less frightening than they might otherwise be. Buried like gems within the huge narrative you get bits of first-person story that indeed involve a monster, depressing situations and that house. Danielewski uses all the tropes of the horror novelist but not exactly with the intent to frighten you. There are no visceral scares in here, and no spring-loaded cats, but rather a more mathematical dread brought on by the fact that what is so clearly described is also so clearly incompatible with our world and our sanity. Once again, Lovecraft is echoed with his "non-Eucliden geometry", and effectively so.
More than anything else, and tellingly so, 'House of Leaves' is at core a couple of love stories, and it's here that the novel reveals its greatest power. The intertwined love stories — Johnny Truant and stripper, the married owners of the titular house — are beautifully wrought and in the end quite unexpectedly touching. For all the fear, for all the foofaraw of literary experimentation, for all the baroque edifice he builds around them, the love stories carry the greatest power here, and reflect not just the good ol' boy-meets-girl, but also a love of stories, a love of storytelling. There's a certain joy here that cannot be contained by a regular book, and thus you get 'House of Leaves'.
I'd be remiss were I not to mention another rather important point that makes 'House of Leaves' a lot more interesting, and that is Danielewski's very dry sense of humor. Sure, I just said that the book is primarily a love story, but now let me contradict myself in the best, most post-instant-messaging manner and suggest that at heart, 'House of Leaves' (when it's not being a love story) is a grand comedic satire of academic texts and these days, Internet-obsessed fanalysis. If you enjoy dry as dust and much funnier than dust academic humor, then 'House of Leaves' will leave you in stitches. Particularly if you've read one too many pieces of fanalysis.
Time has apparently treated 'House of Leaves' well. "The Remastered Full-Color Edition" adds very few bells and whistles, but those it does add will likely make it worth the purchase price for the obsessed Internet fan hoping to produce a non-turgid bit of fanalysis. There's more here to love, as the euphemism goes. For those encountering the book for the first time, there's, well, also more to love and a better bang for the buck. 'House of Leaves' is a book that can be approached from a variety of perspectives. It's almost like one of those "build it yourself" reading adventures. No need to read this book linearly, though it certainly rewards such an approach. But 'House of Leaves' will reward a variety of reading styles and experiences. What you bring to this book matters; what you take away is likely to matter to you as well. Your feelings, no matter what they are, will be strong and sure. Your walls -- maybe less so.