House of Leaves… Book of Pages!?

Let’s continue the mineshaft’s literary streak. I recently read Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, a book that people seem to either completely love or completely hate. Oddly enough, I fell somewhere in the middle, so this will function less like a book review and more like a recommendation and some points of caution.

For those of you who don’t know, House of Leaves is a very complicated and very deliberate book. There is a book within this book, which is an essay discussing a documentary film about a haunted house. There are many different artistic forces in this book, from the description of the documentary film direction, to the book within the book, to the character who found said book, to the editors notes… all of them are talking, sometimes all at once.

So it’s confusing. But is it rewarding for those who want to take the time and read it and have that “figuring it out” experience? For the most part, yes. There are moments of this book that are absolutely brilliant. House of Leaves will really keep you guessing, and by just a few pages in, it becomes quite a page turner as well. At the book’s “most fictional” level – the level most distorted by disputes over fact and fiction and the many different voices, is the haunted house story. This is by far the most compelling part of the novel, and the book is worth reading just for that.

But what about all the extra stuff? Well… I found it to be a little hit or miss. Some sections I found to be really creative and interesting, others I found to be pretty uninteresting or needlessly obtuse. House of Leaves plays with the “parameters” of the novel as an object by playing with page spacing, font, letter coloring, and footnotes. Sometimes these will come off as clever, other times they come off as strange for the sake of strange.

I will mention now that I didn’t have time to read the many appendix sections, since the book had to go back to the library, but perhaps I will take the time to hunt it down again in the future. So, with that strange recommendation, let’s go to some quick points of caution and points of interest… depending on who you are.

– There are many new or at the very least newly presented literary ideas. Tons of experimentation. Writers and those interested in offbeat literature will find this interesting.

– The story of the house is quite scary. Not scary in a walls dripping blood way, or a screaming ghost face way, but in a very subtle and creepy way. It’s that kind of “there is something wrong with the universe… and it might be out to get you” fear… this will be a deal breaker for some people I’m sure, but I absolutely loved it.

– It’s really confusing. The question is whether you will believe it’s needlessly confusing or not. I fell somewhere in the middle on this topic as I mentioned. Some people will refuse to rest until they decipher the meaning of every little strange bit… others will shrug off the whole book as pretentious.

– The many layers of the story are often distracting, perhaps on purpose. I found during one section where the horror part of the book within the book was picking up, where many characters were in danger and there was tons of suspense, there were many long and dull interjections from the “unreliable narrator” who discovered the book within the book. It’s probably done on purpose, but I found it absolutely irritating.

– Footnotes. Footnotes within footnotes within footnotes. Many times, the footnotes are citations to essays that don’t exist, written by people that don’t exist. Sometimes they’ll take up a third of the page. If that doesn’t sound like your kind of summer reading, avoid this one.

So, House of Leaves is a unique book that I totally don’t regret reading. I hope this little post helped you ascertain whether you should check this one out and let it haunt your thoughts or not.


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July 2009
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