Review: House of Leaves, Mark L. Danielewski

Hello to experimental fiction.  One of my roommates in college loved this book, and kept telling me to read it, and I went on the internets and found this interview with Mark Danielewski where he said something about how older readers would probably not like his book because they’ve been taught to have certain expectations of what books look like, and he doesn’t conform to those expectations because he thinks books can be so much more.  And it’s not that I disagree with him on any particular point, but his tone aggravated me, and the book looked all crazy and difficult anyway, so I didn’t read it.  Then this year Indie Sister got it for me for Christmas.  So I read it.  I can’t get books as gifts and then not read them.

House of Leaves is far less tricky than it looks and sounds.  It’s a book about a journal about an unfinished book about a [fictional] cult documentary film about a house that is bigger on the inside (and not in the friendly TARDIS way, but in a endless staircase, shifting doorways, monsters and insanity are coming to swallow you whole kind of way).  The book creates a sense of claustrophobia, with each narrator (the journal writer and his institutionalized mum; the author of the unfinished book; the creator of the documentary film) struggling to hold onto reality in the face of the terrors of the house (and their own emotional and physical baggage).

Danielewski says that he was heavily influenced by films, the way they are cut together, how their structures can mirror their stories, and that’s certainly in evidence here.  When Danielewski wants the experience of reading to reflect the frenetic pace of the action, that’s what happens:

And when he wants you to slow down, he’s going to slow you way the hell down.  Viz:

Again I say, far less tricky than it looks.  The book eases you into the habit of consulting footnote after footnote, so that by the time you get into the sections with text going in every direction, you are used to taking breaks from the narrative to read the footnotes, be they ordinarily placed at the bottom or stuck in boxes in the middle of the pages.  And I like footnotes, anyway, though I am not – as has been insinuated by friends and family – a footnote junkie.  I just like them.  I think the author was most ingenious coming up with fictional titles and authors for the articles supposedly being quoted.

The house is very frightening.  It gets progressively more and more frightening until the middle bit where (spoilers, spoilers) the protagonist’s brother gets eaten all up; and then after that I was waiting for more scariness that did not come through.  Danielewski dropped dire hints about what was going to happen to the Navidson family, and the reality was less dire than he suggested it would be.  But still I love a haunted house, and the experimental stuff was very cool – especially, especially when the book spends pages and pages full of text and footnotes discussing why Navidson goes back into the house, and then when he’s actually in the house, the text mirrors his experience of it.

If you feel like being a bit patient, and do not mind a pseudo-academic discussion of a film that never existed, House of Leaves is worth the time.  And has made me want to read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell though I hold to my previous assertion that I am in no way a footnotes junkie; but first I shall take some time out and watch Doctor Who.  I have been introducing my lovely friend tim to Doctor Who this week, and it’s making me sad to lose David Tennant, and simultaneously extra-excited to see what Steven Moffat is going to do with the show from here on.

P.S. Since writing a draft of this review, I’ve watched the first part.  Fine, fine – it’s all set-up and not much pay-off, but I am fantastically excited about the shiny new toy Russell Davies has left to the show.  Bless him, he can’t bear to let anyone go, which I suppose has created frustrated energies in him that he’s vented on Torchwood.

Have you read this?  What did you think?  Have you read any other experimental fiction sorts of books, to recommend I should read or steer clear of?

  • I’m bowing in honor of you. I think I made it about twenty pages before I got so exhausted that I stopped. This book is fascinating, yet intimidating to me all at once. I’m hoping to return to it at some point.
    Side note: I’ve never watched Dr. Who. Am I a horrible person??? 🙂 BUT….I love Steven Moffat’s work with Coupling. Brilliant, I say!

    • I have to say, if this hasn’t been a gift, I might have stopped – the first twenty (plus) pages are so packed with text. The pages are massive at the start! Trust me, the weird sideways text is easy peasy by comparison – and the book’s definitely worth the effort!

      Re: Dr. Who – You should for reals watch it. I like it because it’s light-hearted in spots and quite bleak in others, and you can pick an episode depending on your mood. And, you know, it’s just fun – they go all round the universe in a traveling blue box! Steven Moffat’s episodes are among the best. I cannot wait to see what he does with the show.

  • I’ve heard a fair bit about House of Leaves without ever really knowing what it was about, but wow… I don’t know if I could do it. Holy moly.

    • I’ve just realized that post sort of gives the impression that the entire book is like that. It’s not! There are a lot of pages where it’s far more normal-looking. I put those two pictures in because they demonstrate two extremes of weirdness. So, you know. In case that affects your decision. 😛

  • I, too, had heard about this book without knowing why it was so scary (on several levels). I read so much experimental fiction for teaching at college that I’m on a break from it at the moment. But I would certainly approach it now that I’ve read your review and if I was in the right mood. (We thought the end of Dr Who a bit on the self-indulgent side, but hey, who cares, DT is allowed a little leeway).

    • Yeah, I’ve heard the word “self-indulgent” a number of times about the Tenth Doctor’s finale. I suppose it was to be expected & anyway I expect David Tennant can make it work if anyone can. 😛

      I don’t think I could do with too much experimental fiction all together. House of Leaves was very good indeed, but a steady diet of it would get old in a hurry.

  • Eva

    I really enjoyed this in college too (and found it very readable)! I’m often curious as to whether I’d like it now, or if I’d just find it pretentious. lol I’m a total footnotes junky, though, so there’s that. 😉

    • Good to know I’m not the only footnotes addict out there! They are so much better than endnotes – it makes me so sad when a book has wonderful endnotes, because I always wish they were footnotes & thus part of the reading experience all the way through. I hate switching back and forth between the regular text and the endnotes bit. (I mean the obvious solution would be to not read the endnotes, but I can’t bring myself to stop.)

      • Eva

        OMG, I *hate* endnotes too! They’re one of my biggest pet peeves with nonfiction. But, stupid MLA is all about endnotes, so I think that’s our culprit right there. lol

  • Read it ages ago and it creeped me out.

    All I’ll say about Dr Who is that Part 2 is way, way better than Part 1, and I’ll get round to writing as non-spoilery a review as I can shortly

    • I’m so relieved you said that! I was afraid the whole finale would be an anticlimax, and I thought the Tenth Doctor deserved better. Cannot wait to watch it!