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December 11th, 2008


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02:26 am - Post of Leaves
Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves is a tour de force achievement in postmodern narrative deconstruction. While marketed as a horror novel, its true appeal comes from its multilayered story, which, Russian doll-style, compacts no fewer than five layers of narrative. [1] At the center is the story of Will Navidson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, and his family, who move into a house they discover has a rather unusual property: it appears to be ever so slightly bigger on the inside.1 Then Navidson opens a door that leads him into a seemingly infinite space within the house itself. Navidson's explorations and the terrifying encounters he and his family have with the house are chronicled in The Navidson Record, a documentary that infects both popular and academic culture. [help oh god Help mE it goes on forever mY god i cant find navidSon Holloway has a gun whyd he bring A gun into the void someoNe please get me out of here im trapped in this post get me out of herE im drowning] [2] The mysterious old man Zampanó writes a heavily footnoted book (also called The Navidson Record) about the documentary and its criticism.2 [3] Johnny Truant finds the manuscript after the old man's death and is compelled to bring it to light, adding his own footnotes about the way the book has affected his life. Maddeningly, he can find no evidence that Navidson or the documentary even exist. [4] Unidentified editors comment on Truant's manuscript. [5] Finally, the book House of Leaves is constructed, which the reader holds in his hands.

What Danielewski achieves by doing this (what Spin calls "an assault on the nature of story"3) is play with the very notion of fictional reality. The fiction-within-the-fiction calls into question the reality of all parts of everything: if The Navidson Record is not real, how is Zampanó able to so accurately describe it? Where do his citations come from? Some of them are legitimate; at one point he even quotes from No One May Ever Have the Same Knowledge Again, an easily verifiable source. Mixing real sources with made-up sources5 lends even the fake citations an air of credibility. Why is Truant so affected by, so obsessed with this story and what effect will it have on the reader? For the reader will often forget that Navidson's story is purportedly fiction; it is so precisely detailed as to seem real, as if that is the true layer of the tale. Pulling back further, we see that Truant is just as unreliable a narrator as Zampanó. Can we even trust the Editors? Dieses ist ein dummer Pfosten.6 For that matter, what about the book itself: the lie begins on the inside of the jacket.

And thus the reading experience of a lifetime begins. In the beginning, the reader is lulled into a false sense of security, as the most difficult aspect of reading the book is navigating the footnotes and referring to the appendices in the back (by the time the reader reaches page 100, he will have actually read over 150 pages). Soon, however, Danielewski—or Zampanó— begins using typography and typesetting to redefine what a "page" of a book (or a "post" of a journal) can do. As the characters explore a labyrinth, itself labyrinth a into morphs book the, brilliantly putting the reader in the characters' position. He uses this technique throughout the novel, which means the page length is deceptive. Some pages contain more relevant material than others. One page contains only a period. ) In addition, the metanarrative allows for [XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX] original manuscript that Truant does not or cannot fix.

Of the two running narratives, Zampanó's is by far the more compelling, surprisingly. Although he writes  he expertly retells The Navidson Record, which is quite a harrowing tale, in a manner that draws the reader in. Academic criticism is a conversation, and Zampanó allows the reader to join, approaching the story from many different angles, attempting to unpack the mystery of the house and what happened there. His writing is rich and rewarding, as it takes elements of film theory, psychology, and a host of other disciplines and applies them to The Navidson Record. In scrutinizing the people in the documentary as thoroughly as any Shakespearean hero, he exposes the hidden meanings in our smallest actions. Danielewski, however, also uses Zampanó to satirize academic criticism; some of the arguments made are truly ridiculous. Yet, as with the mixed truth of the citations, the mixed validity of the critiques forces the reader to examine what he considers meaningful. Truth, reality, meaning, significance—all of these notions are challenged by Zampanó's text and its interplay with the other texts. Truant's story, in comparison, is somewhat one-note. A protagonist out of the Palahniuk mold, he spends his time getting high and having sex with various women, some of whom he meets in the course of his research. His stream-of-consciousness ramblings can be startingly poetic, but at times, the depictions of his deteriorating mental state and growing darkness seem forced.8 Darkness, however, is a prevalent image and theme throughout the novel, and Truant's story does help enhance the discussion of humanity's relationship with darkness, both inner and outer. Danielewski uses Truant to engage in quite a bit of delicious wordplay, further digging into the meaning of language. The reader is never quite sure whether Truant himself knows the meanings of what he is saying. The reader's relationship with Truant is what propels the narrative drive: although the book is largely non-linear, Truant's insertions are chronological. As we journey further and further into the novel, Truant becomes more and more unhinged. We have reason to fear for his mental state: his mother was institutionalized. The letters to her son included in Appendix II are chilling and "dazzling."9 They shed more light on Truant and thus Zampanó, strangely enough: one of her letters includes a coded message addressed to him.10 The two (or perhaps three) texts interweave to create a very complex narrative.

There is more to House of Leaves than narrative hijinks and fancy typography. At its heart is a love story between Will Navidson and Karen Green, whose relationship is tested by Navidson's growing obsession with the dangerous house. Despite being fictional creations of a fictional creation, they feel more real than Zampanó and Truant themselves because of the immense scrutiny placed on them by Zampanó and the critics. The details add up to give the reader a very good picture of these people. This is true of the book as a whole, in truth. Danielewski's painstaking attention to detail makes the book incredibly evocative, allowing the reader to create the world of the book in his imagination. It is perhaps this trait that explains why it has proven to be so beloved in newspapers, magazines, novels, albums, motion pictures, and blog posts.11

For a reader willing to give himself over to the book, House of Leaves is an incredible reading experience. One must simply remember, at all times, that it is only a book.

Or is it?13




1It's like the TARDIS from Hell.
2These footnotes can span multiple pages, though Truant's can be much longer.
3Tyler Rechif's "Haunted 'House.'" Spin, March 2000, p. 137.4
4Missing. —Frank.
5With really amusing titles that often involve terribl(y awesom)e puns.
6According to [info]wee_warrior, this is badly Babel Fished. It means something like "The Editors are dumb" or something.7
7"This is a stupid post." [info]spectralbovine did not respond to queries about this mistranslation.—Frank.
8See Randall Munroe's "House of Pancakes," xkcd.
9See Steven Moore's "The Ash Tree Project," Washington Post, April 9, 2000, p. X03.
10I didn't even know about that until I read the Wikipedia entry. There are so many fucking coded messages in the book!
11See [info]cerulgalactus's "So: A Long Decision Had Been Made," Nov. 15th, 2008, 10:19 PM, LiveJournal.12
12[info]hastening, [info]klopman, [info]stinkyfeet, [info]a_white_rain, [info]juniper1986, [info]mominatrix, [info]bustyblonde, [info]nathan, [info]reticulate, [info]bladezzz, [info]crick_et, [info]dollface, [info]vlsmith, [info]asdfghjkl, [info]muldersgirl, [info]elasteric, [info]john43789, [info]kon_artist, [info]cute_as_a_bug, [info]jimnpam, [info]clara, [info]user444, [info]mostlikely2, [info]spledoink, [info]frum_new_york, [info]goodbyepoe, [info]france49, [info]voracity, [info]___a_fish, [info]anonymous_greg, [info]kou, [info]klembomb313, [info]tinkerballa, [info]anselmus, [info]softer_spanky69, [info]prokhozhyj, [info]glenniebun, [info]wtfmate, [info]vork, [info]22679088, [info]_____drown__, [info]shockwave77598, [info]wrongvsright37, [info]lemerde, [info]3xcube, [info]concise, [info]xxxdonkeyxxx, [info]just_me, [info]codex, [info]heyheyheyhey, [info]swarley, [info]boobsandbeer, [info]gr8writer, [info]kingsleft, [info]cacahuate, [info]maelstrom, [info]servant_of_lies, [info]random438023, [info]zaboo, [info]coffeeandink, [info]true_ant, [info]carlsbum, [info]doktor97, and [info]thumper.
13Geez, what a bunch of bull, right? I left in all of Telémain's blathering as is; be glad I accidentally deleted the appendices. But, look, I mostly agree with the guy. This book is hella fun to read, and if you get into it, you can freak yourself out by being afraid of your closet door for no apparent reason and shit. I loved it, and it's one of those books that you slow down for near the end because you don't want it to be over, you want to savor every last moment. Is it frustrating at times? God, yes! But in a kind of awesome way because reading the book dupes you into believing its—or do I mean it's?—reality. It's mildly pretentious in the sense that everything is supposed to be so incredibly meaningful, but it only means as much as you want it to. That's the beauty of it. There's way more shit in the book than there needs to be, but without all the fat, it wouldn't be the same. It's the fat that makes it tasty. So it's not for everyone, of course, you might fucking hate it, you might want to turn it into fucking compost, but come on, it might be the best book I've read all year.
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Comments:


From:sainfoin_fields
Date:December 11th, 2008 08:57 am (UTC)
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So, should wimpy people such as myself read it?
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 11th, 2008 01:09 pm (UTC)
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Yes, it builds character.
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From:cerulgalactus
Date:December 11th, 2008 01:25 pm (UTC)
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Your entry is possibly the best House review I have ever read. Well done1

1
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX totally incandescent XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX freedom XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX Guernica.2

2</b> This, and the following 4 pages of footnotes were scrawled over with black Sharpie.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 11th, 2008 01:30 pm (UTC)
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Thank you!1

1Did you catch your shout-out?
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 11th, 2008 04:10 pm (UTC)
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Come back when you've processed it all.
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From:beeker121
Date:December 11th, 2008 03:33 pm (UTC)
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That book scared the hell out of me. I ended up being unable to sleep for two nights while they were climbing into the infinite room and had to put it down. A few weeks later I picked it up to finish, but the immediacy was gone so I was able to finish and sleep.

This is an awesome review.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 11th, 2008 04:13 pm (UTC)
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I read a lot of it in bed before going to sleep; I thought it seemed appropriate. And it was always really quiet, and my closet door was slightly ajar, and yeah. It didn't really scare me, per se, but the descriptions of the house were just so unfathomably fathomable. Like I said, if you get into it, it gets into you just a little bit.

And I'm pretty proud of this review, thanks. I had a lot of fun. It's been eight years; I'm sure I'm not the first person to do one like this. But...I still think mine is pretty awesome anyway.
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From:gymble
Date:December 11th, 2008 04:46 pm (UTC)
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a) Your review rocks.

b) I really hated this book. I found the third person description of the House completely sucked the life out of what might have been a good horror story. For one thing, the entire premise that someone made a film about this House, but then had other people analyze it - nominally a real event - as if it were just some piece of fiction absurd. It pushed me away rather than drawing me in. The typesetting, the endless footnotes, etc. just felt pretentious and annoying. I kept looking for something more, some point, and never found it.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 11th, 2008 05:07 pm (UTC)
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a) Thanks. I got a real kick out of it. I want more people to see it!

b) See, I loved that. Because of course it was absurd. You didn't appreciate the satire? I mean, the media saturation this thing apparently had was just off the charts of sensibility. Yet, pretending it was real made me attempt to think it was real, how it would really work, which was fun. I do think it would have made a good horror story in and of itself, but I found this approach to it absolutely fascinating. I mean, I never would have thought that a description of a film I've never seen would be such a good read. (Unless it's a TWoP recap, right? Heh.) And I especially loved the way the typesetting mimicked the story, like with the labyrinth chapter: when that light bulb went off in my head, it was so cool. (And that chapter is stupid hilarious because the way he pulls it off is to fill up all the space with pointlessly long lists.) And then in scenes where text goes up and down and all around and gets compressed, it all helped me get into the scene and feel like I was there with them. As for the point, I think I covered some of what I thought was the point in my review.
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From:sophiap
Date:December 11th, 2008 05:56 pm (UTC)
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I'm going to have to give this another try. My issue with the book when I tried it before was that the Johnny Truant sections annoyed the living daylights out of me. I can't remember why, though. I only remember that I wound up skimming them
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 11th, 2008 08:59 pm (UTC)
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I can see how they could be annoying, really. As I said, I preferred the Zampanó sections. You could probably get by with skimming the Truant sections. They aren't especially informative about the original text, but they do offer some interesting parallels. All the texts sort of interweave.
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From:incidentist
Date:December 11th, 2008 06:41 pm (UTC)
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This is the next book I'll read when I feel up to the task of drastically expanding my concept of fiction. I've heard about it from a few people.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 11th, 2008 09:01 pm (UTC)
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Hee. Yeah, it really does make you wonder how many things you can do with a book if you break the mold.
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From:paraleipsis
Date:December 11th, 2008 07:19 pm (UTC)

I think I should finish "Tristram Shandy" first

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I would like to thank you for not putting the word "House" in blue text every time it appeared in this review. Because I am kind of an asshole, that thing where people put the word "House" in blue every time they refer to this book in any context makes me drastically less inclined to read it.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 11th, 2008 09:05 pm (UTC)

Re: I think I should finish "Tristram Shandy" first

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Ha. I did consider it, for kicks, but it didn't work in the concept of this post. I found it somewhat silly, yet I could see why he did it: it really made the word stand out and imb(l)ue it with a special power.

(Do you also hate when people talk about the movie Se7en?)
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From:golden_aurelia
Date:December 11th, 2008 08:11 pm (UTC)
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This has been in my "to be read" pile for ages. Somehow I don't think it'll make great bus/train reading so it keeps getting passed over.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 11th, 2008 09:07 pm (UTC)
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I finished it on an airplane, but I read most of it in bed before going to sleep, and I think that's the best atmosphere for it. You need it to be very quiet and empty; it helps match the mood of the house in the book. Everything is about space, so you want to be able to feel the space around you and contemplate just how large it is.
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From:smrou
Date:December 11th, 2008 09:11 pm (UTC)
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I'm curious to read this, but...I'm a scaredy cat. I don't do horror, so I don't know if I can get past that.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 11th, 2008 09:23 pm (UTC)
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It depends on what scares you. The meat of the story is about a freaky house. There aren't a lot of "BOO!!" scares; it's more psychologically unnerving than anything else, just trying to imagine the house and what's going on with Navidson and Co. If you're claustrophobic and/or agoraphobic, I would recommend staying away, though. If you have a really good imagination, that is. And Truant's stuff isn't really scary, per se, since he just talks about this intangible darkness that's following him around since he started working on the manuscript. So it's not really a "horror" novel in the traditional sense (but of course, nothing about the book is traditional). You could give it a try, since you're curious.
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From:radiotelescope
Date:December 11th, 2008 11:00 pm (UTC)
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I liked the horror scenes, but not the large parts of the book that were about the strained love story. I am just not able to be interested in strained love stories unless they're thoroughly backgrounded by dragons/spaceships/wizards/robots. (The house was too backgroundy itself to serve this function.)

The term "satire" never occurred to me while I was reading, I don't think.

I was sufficiently delighted by the idea of the house, itself, to want to explore it in some story that wasn't this one. (I started designing a text adventure about the house, but it changed enough in the design that you wouldn't recognize the original inspiration.)

I admire your review, though, I want to say that.
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From:mycenae
Date:December 12th, 2008 08:26 am (UTC)
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When I read the book it occurred to me that the house would make a fantastic setting for a text based adventure game, but I never actually pursued the idea... Is yours online or anything? I admit I'm really curious now about what you did with the idea.
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From:lynevere
Date:December 12th, 2008 02:22 am (UTC)
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Huh. Sounds really interesting, although I'm sure I'll appreciate your review more after reading the book. Incidentally, I love the fact that you have a "pretentious literary references" tag.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 13th, 2008 04:39 am (UTC)
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Oh, yes, you will definitely appreciate this review more after reading the book.

As for the tag: hee, indeed.
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From:mycenae
Date:December 12th, 2008 02:59 am (UTC)
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This is a really awesome review. The only thing I ever managed to write about this book was this.

It's weird seeing this online cause I think the colors in the books (might) represent hyperlink colors... So blue is an unvisited link (the future? the unknown?), and purple is a visited link (the past... the only sentence in the book in purple is "What I am remembering now.") and red is an active hyperlink that you are just now in the process of clicking on... so the present, but the present is... a monster? struck out? I dunno. The present is a lie? In the act of reaching for the unknown we're destroyed? Anyway.

Also, Navidson's photograph that haunts him is an actual photograph that won the Pulitzer. The real life photographer later committed suicide.

Oh, and "THE MINOTAUR" anagrams into "O I'M HE TRUANT."

Ok, I have to go RIGHT NOW and that's all the random House of Leaves trivia I could remember. I WILL RETURN TO THIS POST.
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From:mycenae
Date:December 12th, 2008 08:22 am (UTC)
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Wow, that was a scatter-brained comment. I just find the book so fun, and also freaky, but mostly fun unless I'm actually reading the bits about the horrific nothingness. It's a fantastically dense book, it really seems like you could pull stuff out of it ad infinitum (or at least ad nauseum). I read this for a class (first upper div English class, actually) and the professor was just obsessed, but she really unpacked a lot of the references and tricks to the book. Most of which I've forgotten. I will have to consult my notes.

(I'm really glad you got into reading it! Whee!)
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From:caitriona80
Date:December 12th, 2008 11:36 pm (UTC)
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Just stopping by to say that I read it earlier this year, and I loved it so much. And it creeped me the fuck out. In a really, really good way. So, yay!
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 13th, 2008 04:32 am (UTC)
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Hey, you!! Trivia: you were my backup German translator.

It's totally creepy in a good way. I'm glad you loved it too!
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From:pseudo_tsuga
Date:December 13th, 2008 03:32 am (UTC)
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Okay, this review finally convinced me to pick up the book. Now it sounds like it'd be something I'd really enjoy though it also sounds like something that's gonna have me leave the nights on for a while.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 13th, 2008 04:38 am (UTC)
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Okay, this review finally convinced me to pick up the book.
I love to hear this!! I have so much influence, boo-yah.

Now it sounds like it'd be something I'd really enjoy though it also sounds like something that's gonna have me leave the nights on for a while.
Oh yeah. You just might be a little more afraid of the dark.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 16th, 2008 06:08 am (UTC)
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Glad you liked it!
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From:astolat
Date:March 7th, 2009 11:28 pm (UTC)
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omg this review is love. (er, hi, found you via the story of your adventures with kroki_refur, staying for the reviews *g*)
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From:spectralbovine
Date:March 8th, 2009 09:07 pm (UTC)
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Ha, how'd you find your way back here? I'm glad you liked it! It took me a long time, and I want it to be appreciated by as many people.
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From:marzipan_pig
Date:August 8th, 2010 09:46 pm (UTC)
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I just read Rachel's review where you linked to this in comments, and then from this read xkcd's 'HOUSE of Pancakes' which I hadn't seen before, and now am dying of dead laughter. I feel like, I now know more about House of Leaves than I ever need to know, sometimes a good parody captures the original so well that it obviates the need to experience the original.

Seriously, thank you, the xkcd version made my afternoon.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:August 8th, 2010 09:56 pm (UTC)
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You're very welcome! I first saw that before I'd read the book, so I didn't really get it, and then I read the book and now it's so spot-on hilarious.

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