Postmodern Book Review: House of Leaves

“This is not for you.”

That’s the first line you read in the novel House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski.  If you’re a Christian, that line may very well be true.

First let me say that the book is an incredibly innovative idea that was pulled off well.  I can summarize the layout of the book like this:

Imagine you’re reading a scholarly work, maybe it’s a philosophy doctoral thesis, and it’s about a movie that took the world by storm: The Navidson Record.  The movie is a documentary (i.e., a “true” story) about a family that moves into a house, and wakes up one morning to find a cold, unlit hallway behind a door that was never there before; the hallway is much longer than the length of the house.  Upon exploration, this hallway leads to several other dark, mammoth rooms (much larger than the house itself) and a spiral staircase that leads miles and miles down.  The scholar, Zampanó, has hundreds of footnotes from other various interpretations about key scenes from the film that he either agrees with or disagrees with.  Interesting, huh?  There’s one problem: the movie doesn’t exist, no one’s ever heard of it or the people in it, so half of these footnotes are made up.  Now add another person, Johnny Truant, who has found this scholarly manuscript in the home of the now dead author.  He is compiling it and he adds his own footnotes along the way.  In fact, half of the book is his story, intertwined with the first. (They change the font so you know when he speaks.)  He goes crazy from reading the manuscript.  (You’re supposed to go crazy, too.)  Of course, this guy is not real.  (It is a novel, after all.)  Also, there are “the editors” who are compiling both works together in one book, and they add the occasional footnote.  They’re not real either.  Finally, there are 3 appendices that are supposed to be bits and pieces that couldn’t be worked into the rest or that add background information.  Confusing?  To say the least!  There’s more!

You’ve already got the multiple narrators and fonts to contend with, but then there’s the actual layout of the words on the pages.  This, personally, I loved.  Depending on the part of the story you’re in, the words are written in unusual ways that mirror the scene.  A person is alone, and so there are only one or a few words on the center of each page, for several pages. If in the scene a room is huge, the words will be a sentence or two that runs along the bottom.  If the people are going downstairs, the words are written in a step pattern downwards.  As a cool touch, every instance of the word house is blue, even if its in another language, like the German Haus.

And then there are the crazy footnotes.  Sometimes footnotes are backwards, some are upside down.  Many reference other previously-mentioned footnotes; others are missing.  You’ll need a lot of fingers to hold your places at times.  And bear in mind that while half of the footnotes are fictional, many of them are actually real, legitimate quotes that are properly referenced.

Although this was classified as a horror novel (and it’s the first I’ve ever read), it wasn’t particularly scary or horrific.  I would classify it as a postmodernist novel in every respect.  It doesn’t conform to layout standards or narrator standards, by any means.  It’s the content itself, however, that makes it really postmodern.  In the spirit of postmodernism, subjectivity is the key: the reader is forced to decide what the book means, what is true, what is false; the reader is left without much closure.  (Many movies made today reflect this aspect of postmodernism.)  Also, I would agree with some of the opinions of other readers of the book: the true and false footnotes (some dull and mundane, some stretching for relevance) are probably a satire of scholarly papers.

I was intrigued by the layout when a classmate flipped through the pages and I saw how unusual it was, so I bought it over a year ago.  School was pretty chaotic then, so I didn’t read past page 35 for year.  I just picked it back up a few months ago and I’m just finishing the appendices.

So here’s my take on it: it’s not a book a majority of Christians should read.  Thick skin is required. The side story of Johnny Truant is filled with constant profanity, drug abuse, and multiple sexual encounters that are graphically described.  I found all of these encounters completely unnecessary, as they served absolutely no point to the story.  I nearly stopped reading but then they suddenly stopped, although the profanity continued.  When I was close to the end, I was thinking that the Truant side story should have been left out altogether, but despite the offensiveness of it, I do like the intertwining of the stories.  It is an intriguing aspect to the book as a whole, I just don’t know why “literature” today feels the need to have so much profanity and graphic descriptions of sex.  I would have liked this book so much more if that was eliminated.  Ideally, I shouldn’t have read it to begin with, but curiosity got the better of me.

Now, if a Christian is interested in the main story by Zampanó, I can certainly recommend that part.  Still the occasional profanity, it is a fantastic story with some redemptive elements to it.  With the alternating fonts, it is possible to bypass all of Truant’s story and read only the Navidson Record, so if you’re feeling brave enough to try it, go ahead.

In the end, I give it a 3.5 out of 5.  It could have easily been a 5.  There was just too much to offend me in there to make me rate it any higher.  It’s too bad.

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Postmodern Book Review: House of Leaves

  1. Cliff Burns says:

    I have HOUSE OF LEAVES but, like most modernist/postmodernist/experimental fiction it requires inordinate time and energy, a focus I presently lack due to fatherhood, professional writing commitments, etc. etc. It’s the same reasoning I use when I look at my copy of David Foster Wallace’s huge book-slash-doorstop INFINITE JEST and go “Gah! Not today, mate…”

    One day, though. And when that time arrives I hope you’ll still be posting so we can swap notes…

  2. Rob V. says:

    Cliff,

    While Leaves will have you a bit dizzy from the back and forth of the footnotes, for the most part you can tackle a dozen pages a day, since the two stories take turns. You need only read the last paragraph from the last time that particular narrator spoke and you’re back on track. The focus required is only if you really want to understand Johnny Truant’s stream of consciousness (which I didn’t) or read for content despite the odd word layout (which I DID).

    Good luck

    -Rob

  3. Cliff Burns says:

    I’ve read my fair share of experimental novels and “meta fiction” (not to mention Joyce) so I should be all right. Just the time constraints, which weigh on me like Atlas’ burdens.
    Still, what kind of smart guy would I be if I’m daunted by some twisted layouts and funky writing?

Comments are closed.