Mark Z. Danielwski’s debut novel House of Leaves is a puzzle within a puzzle within a puzzle.
It is the literary equivalent of a hellish matryoshka. One that may delight you or annoy you, depending on your personal taste. When I randomly stumbled upon the book at Waterstones’ I flipped it open and for me, it was an instant purchase. The layout alone took me by sheer surprise and it convinced me to give it a go.
Little did I know that the content also matches the stylistic choices.
What is House of Leaves about?
It’s the story of a young tattoo artist named Johnny Truant who finds the manuscripts of a recently deceased old man named Zampanò. These manuscripts are a critical essay detailing a movie known as The Navidson Record. Shot in the style of found footage films, The Navidson Record is supposed to be the true account of the ghastly happenings that shook Will Navidson, a famed photojournalist, and his family to the core.
There is a slight problem though. Zampanò was blind. Sooner than you think, you start to immerse yourself in the narrative and you have a clear picture of the movie that Zampanò described in his writings. Questions upon questions keep piling up in your head, as the three intertwining stories collide and collapse onto one another. You will find yourself navigating a jungle of documents and footnotes, jumping from one section of the book to the other as a new clue sheds light on an older story. I personally found myself deciphering a letter by writing down its true content on a piece of paper. House of Leaves is experimental fiction at its peak.
Opinions on the book are divisive. Some praise it for its complexity and for the haunting, heart-pounding yet often tender storyline. Others lament a lack of closure and the protagonist’s portrayal as a juvenile jerk who tells absurd stories that have no real impact on the rest of the book.
While I understand how opinions can be so polarized, seeing as House of Leaves is something unique in the literary panorama, as well as a hard book, I would still like to address the criticism presented by many readers.
House of Leaves immediately sets things straight. It is not a book about truth. Rather, it is all about post truth. Someone on goodreads.com went as far as stating that liking this book means being part of humanity’s downfall. However, this book isn’t the cause of truth’s demise, it just highlights it.
In this contemporary age of sensory overload, with physics theorizing that our universe could be a hologram and videos being easily faked for views, the truth is debatable. House of Leaves fully embraces the concept and uses it to homage and at the same time take a jab at criticism.
When Johnny Truant is introduced he is telling a fake story about birds of paradise. As a reader, you shouldn’t take anything he says too seriously. Neither should you dwell too much on the facts, but rather on the interpretations that are provided by a host of journalists and movie reviewers. You can make your own, too. It’s really up to you to decide what is actually going on. Is it all in Johnny’s head? Or is Johnny himself a creation of Zampanò? Who or what is the mysterious creature lurking in Will’s house? A ghost? A monster? God? The author himself? It doesn’t really matter. Because at the end of the day, it is all in your head and you are just imagining it all. That’s the point. It’s a hard look at the consequence of fiction and reality becoming one.
As a reader, you take an active part in the act of analyzing and scrutinizing the story. Personally, this is one of my favorite books. It’s often suspenseful and some of the imagery is truly horrifying. It has a heart, too, with characters growing and displaying their traumas and their fragility. I especially loved the relationship between Will and his family, in particular how he and his brother reconnect. Even Johnny’s story is ultimately very sad and behind all that bravado lies a broken and fragile man in desperate need of some peace and stability.
This book made me laugh, it almost made me cry and at one point it made me turn around in fear.
If you love horror and you are not afraid of a challenge, pick up House of Leaves and you’ll have a memorable summer read that will stick to you like sand on sun cream.