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House of Leaves
Mark Z. Danielewski
Pantheon Books, 709 pages

House of Leaves
Mark Z. Danielewski
Mark Z. Danielewski was born in 1968. At Yale, he studied English Literature and then he went to UC Berkeley. He took off to Paris for a year and returned to attend film school in Los Angeles. It has taken him 10 years to write House Of Leaves, his debut novel. He lives in Hollywood.

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A review by William Thompson


"In my Father's house are many rooms..."
-- John 14:2

"The finest act of seeing is necessarily always the act of not seeing something else."
-- Attributed to M.G. Cafiso in House of Leaves

"Thus one craves what by seeing one has in fact not seen."
-- Attributed to Lazlo Ferma in House of Leaves

"Whoever you are, go out into the evening,
leaving your room, of which you know each bit;
your house is the last before the infinite,
whoever you are."
-- RainerMaria Rilke Rilke: Selected Poems

This glimpse into House of Leaves, quotes and sources both textual and in footnotes, hides as much as it reveals, like the novel itself variously a riddle, a labyrinth, an echo upon the spatial page. And yet this is a tale about "how words themselves can also write," in part a semiotic exploration into what is meant by meaning and what is not.

A challenging, at times brilliant, often frustrating and equally rewarding novel, it is a work that must be viewed as a sum of its parts, if for no other reason than that any review implicitly plays into the scientific notion of quantification similar to "Physics [depending] upon a universe infinitely centered on an equal sign." While the book in many ways defies the idea that 'God for all intents and purposes is an equal sign... something humanity has always been able to believe in [being] that the universe adds up,' any explication necessary to a description of the novel is certain to fall into the very misapprehensions that the book itself intentionally represents and refutes.

Similar to the hallways and rooms that mysteriously appear and disappear in the house on Ash Tree Lane, any attempt to shed absolute light in order to define the shifting, shadowy corridors and passages of this book are likely to remain transient and ephemeral. The book is written in a manner that reflects some of the enigmas it embraces: questions of perception, epistemology, semiotics, identity, time and spatial anomalies, the construction of meaning or even Sexton's "awful rowing towards God." At once both discourse and narrative, two stories or, depending upon perspective, three running parallel yet at times temporally joining, neither the narrative nor expository elements are direct or linear in presentation, instead convoluted or discursive, stairways and spirals without clear beginning or end, much of the narrative informed by footnotes, appendices, collections of letters, even the layout of the words upon the page. The reader continually finds himself directed elsewhere, at times within a seeming maze of text that mirrors the actions and experiences of the novel's characters, and can appear as baffling.

This manner of presentation creates a distance between the reader and the narrative's characters and events. Yet this approach to the author's composition is intentional, in part pointing to the alienation experienced by many of the narrative's protagonists, both towards their own identity and the world around them, as well as their relationships with others. Distance, emotional, spiritual and spatial, is just one of the novel's manifold themes, or, as is observed by one of the book's characters: "So many voices... A rattle of opinion, need and compulsion but masking what?" In many ways the book's composition is "A pointed reminder that representation does not replace. It only offers distance and in rare cases perspective." Or alternately perhaps that "stories actually help [people to] look away," that "we all create stories to protect ourselves." Nowhere in the book does a theme or motif, even the composition, carry simply a singular meaning or intention.

Some of the novel's conventions seem at surface more reassuringly obvious, and it might be tempting for the reader to dwell within their familiarity, to look to this story through the screen of their greater visibility, though I suspect the book's other elements will confound any such attempt. The evolving, often footnoted story of Johnny Truant and his amorous adventures in LA with friend Lude are reminiscent of any number of hip, modern fictions, at least if one ignores the more sinister elements of the character's evolving interior dialogues, or the implications of his mother's letters found in one of the appendices. The recounting of The Navidson Record, arguably the central or at least motivating story to the novel, a document of a documentary film so to speak, cinematically following the exploration of the title residence with almost expected and horrific consequences, draws from and topically parodies developments in recent films such as The Blair Witch Project or "reality" television, in the process revisiting the widely and long publicly debated topic of documentation, identity and authentication as represented by film and the photograph, a discussion visible for some time now, especially in regards to photojournalism and digital imagery, subjects which the book clearly identifies both in the use of film as a means to record ongoing events within the mysterious house, as well as the choice of its director, Will Navidson, as a Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist. Here, too, many will feel on familiar ground. And obvious borrowings from the horror genre -- cats that go strangely missing; an unexplained death with claw marks found on the floor; interior spaces that are freezing; something that waits in the dark; a mysterious house whose interior spatial anomalies defy the laws of physics -- initially and at surface seem to provide a readily identifiable setting for the reader.

However, in the book's opening it is immediately declared: "Much like its subject, The Navidson Record itself is also uneasily contained -- whether by category or lection," and this announcement is reiterated at the book's conclusion, when "In those final shots, Navidson gives a wink to the genre his work (and by implication, the author's) will always resist but invariably join." This assumption by the author awaits confirmation, for while borrowing from the conventions of horror, this novel is most likely to make the average reader of genre fiction uncomfortable, placing demands upon them more normally reserved or associated with literature. Not unexpectedly, it is here, within the reviews of mainstream literary criticism, that to date this novel has received its greatest acclaim and attention. While perhaps being able to be adopted under the loose rubric of "speculative" fiction, this work's primarily literary aims are obvious, not necessarily by the complexity of its themes but by the density and characteristics of its metaphor and format -- this is, in terms of its layout, a resurrection of experimental fiction, perhaps the most impressive I've read -- as well as the essential appeal of its many referents, likely to remain hidden or disguised to the casual reader, and directed more towards academia and literature. Additionally, while obvious and more commonly occurring references -- biblical, literary and scholarly -- leaven the text liberally, as has become popular within certain literary circles over the last several decades, typified by authors such as Pynchon and Eco to name but a few, a merging of fictional and non-fictional elements is taking place, with a significant amount of space devoted to discourses in disciplines outside what is traditionally ascribed to fiction or the notion implicit for most in narrative, ranging from acoustics, psychology, architecture, photography, early American history to geologic timelines, mentioning just those that come immediately to mind. More obscure or erudite references are present as well, such as Zampano's blindness harkening that of Homer, Johnny's exploration of the pronunciation of an expletive mimicking Nabakov's opening lines to Lolita, or the style of writing present in the first half of chapter V, a section discussing echoes and seeming to parody that of Umberto Eco, the author's literary cleverness elsewhere within the novel too apparent to dismiss the possible connection. That any of this is meant to serve the genre reader is highly improbable.

By and large, within the author's literary intentions, this novel is both noteworthy and successful, though because of its inherent complexity and the demands it places upon the reader, this will not be a work that will appeal to everyone. It is difficult, for example, to say, in terms of its narrative elements, that it is enjoyable to read. The very layout of the novel can become distracting and requires close attention. Certain sections, such as chapter V, with its pedantic discourse at the opening, followed by Johnny's often rambling and free-associative reminiscences, are wearying and difficult to follow. Elsewhere, the experimental layout of the page does not always appear to possess an intrinsic or informing purpose, instead existing only as an intrusion and contrivance. Words and sentences having gaps meant to represent burn holes in the Holloway portion of the narrative are particularly annoying. And, as indicated earlier, the intent and manner of presentation of the narrative places an emotional distance between the reader and the story, its rewards largely intellectual and requiring equivalent mental effort on the part of the reader, only somewhat alleviated by those moments when the author displays poignancy in his handling of the revelation of Delial's identity, or the reconciliation between Will and Karen, Johnny and the memory of his mother. Will's brother Tom offers brief and hilarious episodes of comic relief in the midst of terror, and there is a sense of compassion towards his characters that the author shows throughout his story. Nonetheless, the primarily intellectual concerns of this novel dominate, and will disappoint anyone seeking the more immediate rewards associated with a conventional or less inaccessible approach to storytelling and narrative elements.

My observations thus far barely skip the surface of what this book has to offer, especially for those willing to accept the mental and compositional challenges present. I do not even touch upon words cleverly arranged on the page to reflect the narrative action, nor the brilliant manner in which the author continually mirrors back metaphoric and narrative content in a way that subtly shifts, alters and expands upon his novel's perspective, even when appearing to unravel or becoming parenthetical, to later be rejoined and only further enhance, strengthen and inform the narrative. To add further here would certainly require an essay of exegesis well beyond the scope of this individual review, regardless of any sense of lack compelled by a thorough reading, and I am sure will be addressed elsewhere later as literary criticism catches up with the discussions this book is certain to engender around the university campus. Similarly, do not expect all its gifts to be revealed in a solitary telling. Thought provoking, at times compelling, an impressive, some might say monumental work that will well reward those interested or willing to attentively exchange the effort.

Copyright © 2001 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction, as yet unpublished, although he remains hopeful. In addition to pursuing his writing, he is in the degree program in information science at Indiana University.

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