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House of Leaves
Mark Z. Danielewski's first novel is confusingly entangled, needlessly and blatantly gimmicky, and unabatedly makes use of shock value in order to impress the reader. It tells a story that at times is difficult to follow, and deals with a subject matter that does not make that much sense to begin with. It has often been compared to the film The Blair Witch Project, a movie which I did not like at all. The book contains endless stretches of seemingly meaningless text, and I considered putting the book down and forgetting about it more than once. That being said, I give House of Leaves five out of five stars. The bottom line is that no matter how much I wanted to put the book down, I found that I could not.
Let me start at the beginning. House of Leaves is superficially a horror story which has drawn comparisons to Blair Witch both because of its creepy subject matter and its quirky, original, pseudo-non-fiction style. House of Leaves has also rightly been compared to Stephen King's more surrealistic, intelligent novels. Both Blair Witch and King fall into the horror genre, and I suppose House of Leaves does as well, but I am a little uneasy categorizing the book in this way. After finishing it I could not help ask the question: "Why did Danielwski write this?" Did he want to write a scary story? A thought-provoking, life changing novel? Did he want to create a non-conforming piece of work that flies in the face of accepted literature conventions? Or was he just trying to capitalize on the success of Blair Witch and in the process make a few bucks by giving readers what they want?
At the center of House of Leaves is Johnny Truant, an apprentice at a tattoo shop who discovers a bizarre book written by a blind man named Zampano. The book is about a documentary film called The Navidson Record, a film, by the way, which does not really exist. The Navidson Record, in turn, is about a family which moves into a Virginia home on Ash Tree Lane, only to discover that the house is more than a little strange: the inner dimensions are large than the outer ones. Got all that so far?
Danielewski's writing is an odd combination of "real" (in the Blair Witch sense of the term) non-fiction-complete with footnotes, appendices, and bibliographies of non-existing books-and novel. As the story grows increasingly odd, so does the writing -- containing everything from vertical text to poems and even sheet music. This writing style may seem unnecessarily trendy at best, extremely annoying at worst, but it surprisingly works within the context of the novel. It works because it adds to the mystery that is at the center of House of Leaves. The reader must work his way through the dense text as he is exploring the story, just as Johnny Truant must wade his way through Zampano's rambling work, and the Navidson family slowly discovers the unusual properties of their new home.
There are definitely some problems with House of Leaves. First, for a horror story, it is not all that scary. There are certainly some frightening parts, but these are few and far between. Second, it is clear within the story that the characters-Navidson, Zampano, Truant, and others-are very deeply affected by the house on Ash Tree Lane, but at times it is unclear how they are affected or why. This is a serious complaint. Finally, at times it seems like Danielewski is attempting to bite off more than he can chew by making an earth-shattering book. It seems like he wants to the reader to be as affected as the characters, but then again, I was not sure how or why I was supposed to be affected. House of Leaves works on the pure entertainment level only. Although it does contain some fairly emotionally-charged scenes, I do not expect it to change many peoples lives.
Nevertheless, the good aspects of House of Leaves clearly outweigh the bad. In particular, Johnny, who the reader grows to know through his footnotes and observations on Zampano's work, is a very interesting character. By the end of the book you will most likely find that you are more curious about Johnny Truant than you about the strange properties of the Navidson's house. I should warn you that this book is definitely not for everyone. Because House of Leaves is so unique, I fully expect that the number of people who enjoy this book will be about equal to the number of those who hate it. Nevertheless, if you are in the category that enjoys it, the risk is definitely worth taking.
(Submitted 4/17/00 by Notre Dame law student Julio.)