Thursday, April 03, 2014


Wowza... just finished House of Leaves. It's definitely one of the strangest books I've read in a while. It's one of those books which is strange both in structure and in content. Reading it has been a bit of an expedition in and of itself: not unlike going on a hike, you go through peaks and valleys, learning how to navigate the different terrain you encounter, gradually getting to know the land better as you continue towards your destination.

I have a hard time comparing it to anything. It reminds me most of The Raw Shark Texts, though that's probably not a fair comparison, since TRST came out after this (and very well might be inspired by it). House of Leaves is darker and more bizarre; if pressed, I would probably categorize House of Leaves as an experimental literary horror novel, while The Raw Shark Texts is more like a literary thriller. However, the books share a similar creative use of typography, where the words aren't just used for the semantic meaning they carry, but arranged in particular ways on the page to help tell the story.

Here too, though, House of Leaves goes far beyond, with a truly dizzying number of techniques. The first and most obvious is its extensive footnoting: around 500 for the entire novel, ranging from a single word to a dozen pages in length. The footnotes come from three separate authors (or, rather, two authors and "The Editors"), with the later authors often referring to or correcting the earlier notes, rather like later sediment covering original stone. At first glance it seems like a work of academia, between the footnotes, appendices, exhibits, and index. However, as you delve deeper into the book, its strangeness becomes ever more apparent.


One of the high points for me was a chapter that I think of as "The Labyrinth" (and, in fact, receives that as a proposed name near the very end of the book). Narratively, at this point in the book the characters have started to explore a mysterious series of rooms and hallways that have impossibly appeared within their home, extending into places where they shouldn't exist. As they quickly learn, the architecture of this place is strangely mutable: doorways appear and disappear, rooms grow bigger or smaller, new turns appear in halls. Most of the men are excited to explore, but this is balanced against the danger of losing their way.

Appropriately enough, the text in this chapter forces you to experience the same disorienting relationship to changing space as the characters are experiencing. You read the text, which includes a footnote. You read that footnote, which refers forward to another footnote several pages later. You flip to that later footnote, and see that it links to two different footnotes, and must pick which of those to follow, each in turn leading down their own chain. Eventually you reach an end, and backtrack to the earlier junction, venturing down the other path. Then later on, you intersect with those paths you earlier crossed, and can either revisit them (entering the rabbit hole again) or press onwards. The whole experience feels like reading a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, except for its dry technical language and underlying dread.

In many instances, it becomes clear that it's the structure itself that's important and not the meaning: syntax rules, semantics holds no power. There are some extremely long lists, such as naming every architectural style that's ever existed, or thousands of photographers. I have to admit that I read through all of them, and felt a bit like a sucker doing so: there didn't seem to be any hidden meaning or message within them, and I don't know enough about the fields to tell if there's some deep Joycean stuff going on in there. (For example, pretty much the only photographer whose name I recognized was Robert Mapplethorpe, but I'm left wondering if he was a sole real name mixed within all the fake names invented for the book, or if those were all real photographers in the first place.) However, there's a certain power that accumulates from such persistence in lists, creating a sort of droning, monotonous, monomaniacal obsessive atmosphere. Beyond that, though, the lists became more important for their presentation within the text. In an early case, a long footnote was split across small sections of successive pages, leading you further down and down and down as you read; then, once you reach the "bottom", they flip around, leading you gradually back up, page by page, the way you came. In another case, a footnote "burrows through" the page, leading you down a small box embedded in the middle of the page; the reverse of the previous page can be viewed on each opposite page, as if the ink had burned through.

These modes grow more elaborate as you progress deeper into the labyrinth; at one point, I sat in front of a mirror, holding the book up beside me, so I could read the reversed letters making up one particularly nefarious footnote. I'm sure I looked like a crazy person doing that. I'm sure that was the point. Likewise, I was the guy on the subway who would hold up a book, looking closely at the page; then flip the book 180 degrees and read it upside-down for a while, all the while flipping back and forth as though looking for something. Just saying: if you see something, say something!

I don't think I've experienced anything quite like the labyrinth in another book. In a certain way, it reminded me a little of the Circe chapter of Ulysses, where the established and familiar narrative style drops away and leaves you in a different mode, feeding on the intensely distressing activities taking place. But, where Circe occurs near the end of Ulysses and serves as a kind of climax, here the Labyrinth comes near the start of the novel, and helps establish many of your expectations for how the remainder of it will work.

At long last, you emerge from the labyrinth, and here too the typography continues to make you experience the story through the mechanics of reading. At its height, the labyrinth was a dense clustered mess with dozens of separate footnotes, all in tiny type, filling every square millimeter of the page. Now, though, you escape the maze, and into the enormity of the Great Hall. Now a single page might contain only a single line of text. From page to page, the text may grow gradually lower, as the characters descend the Staircase; or it might cluster at the top of the page, as they need to keep their heads down to stay beneath the ceiling; or divide into two pieces as the characters split up. Later in the book, the text becomes entirely unmoored, as Navidson loses all sense of direction and gravity itself seems to cease.

While there's a spacial metaphor at work here, there's a temporal one as well. One of the biggest dangers of Navidson's house is that they can't know how long a journey will take. You might spend a day walking down the stairs, and then seven days climbing back up. That adds to the disorienting, sinister atmosphere within the house. Likewise, there was a point while I was reading The Labyrinth when I was sure I wouldn't finish this book before July: each page was so dense, and just had so much text, that I felt like I was proceeding at a crawl, and was well aware of how many hundreds of pages still lay ahead of me. But, conversely, I flew through later sections simply because of how few words there were; even taking my time to savor the sense of spaciousness, I could easily read several dozen pages in less time than a single page in the Labyrinth would. All that to say, at any given point I wasn't at all sure of how far along in the book I was, and couldn't get my bearings. Which made me think about something that I, for one, don't even think about when it comes to reading (physical) books: by their very nature, we know how far we are, how much is left to go, and what we should anticipate. If you're at page 450 in a 500 page book, you automatically (and, by this point, probably subconsciously) know that the climax is imminent, and are already preparing yourself for the coming drama and the wind-down of the story. In House of Leaves, though, I always felt adrift (in a good way), never sure of where I was or what to expect.

As for the story itself, it's very hard to read this book and not think of The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, or any of the other "found footage" horror movies of the last 15 years... which would be a shame, except that House of Leaves was started about a decade before Blair Witch kicked off the sub-genre, and at the very least anticipated it and at the most inspired it. The content of House of Leaves focuses on a film called The Navidson Record, which, like the later actual movies, was shot by "ordinary" people who didn't realize the troubles they were about to encounter. This film is discussed as a real, historic artifact, which has inspired a vast number of critical articles and previous academic papers examining its artistic and metaphysical implications. The book does a lot to ground the movie, describing how a teaser was released on bootleg VHS cassettes and gained interest in the underground festival circuit, then how the Weinstein Brothers eventually purchased the rights to the complete movie and released it through Miramax, along the way quoting reviews from Anthony Lane in The New Yorker, along with a very wide-ranging set of interviews with luminaries such as Stephen King, Anne Rice, Harold Bloom, Hunter S. Thompson, and more, all providing their own candid reactions to the events of the film.

Of course, this is all fictional; what's really cool about it, though, is that it's fictional within the context of the novel itself. This is one of the most heavily-mediated works of fiction I've encountered. The actual story of The Navidson Record was written within the novel by an elderly blind man named Zampano. (The irony of a blind man describing a movie is an irony present but not commented on throughout the whole novel.) Zampano dies, seemingly of natural causes at an old age, but there are some mysterious details surrounding his death that alert us to something strange afoot (he kept dozens of cats, who all disappeared shortly before his passing; the floors of his apartment have been marked with what seems to be the deep claw marks of an enormous beast). His finished but unedited manuscript is discovered by a stranger named Johnny Truant, a Los Angeleno tattoo assistant in his early twenties. Johnny takes the manuscript home, and eventually decides to organize and edit the many disparate pieces of the manuscript (handwritten and typed in a variety of different hands and styles). Along the way he inserts his own footnotes, which depict his increasing unease with the content of the manuscript, and a growing sense of horror as the terrors contained within the fictional novel seem to be intruding on his real life. Johnny grows increasingly unhinged as the novel progresses, starting to hallucinate and growing obsessed about The Navidson Record. He intellectually knows that it isn't real - no such movie was ever released, none of the real people described within the text ever said the things attributed to them, all the footnotes are either citing publications that don't exist or articles that were not published within them - but at the same time, he can't shake the conviction that the events which occurred within this work of fiction are reaching out to smother his non-fictional (from his perspective) existence.

And then, in a final layer of mediation, Johnny's manuscript itself finds its ways into the hands of Random House Books, the real-world publisher of the novel, and a final level of authorial gloss is applied over the entire book. This final level is less present and visible, mostly providing some missing translations from French and German, or explaining some of Johnny's stranger statements. But, of course, this final layer is also the most present, since it's presumably the author himself who is presumably inventing all the layers below him. (Once again, I often found myself thinking of the concept of The Wick from Neal Stephenson's Anathem here, as I shifted between "higher" and "lower" levels of reality or fiction.)

All of this was pretty fascinating on its own right, with each layer commenting on the reliability and faults of the layer below itself. It was also pretty interesting in the context of a horror novel, too. When you think about it, the job of any horror book or movie is to take a fictional fear from a work of art you're experiencing, and seek to convert that into a present fear that infects your actual life. So, you see a woman stabbed to death in the shower in Psycho, then feel a twinge of fear the next morning when you take a shower. Rationally, you know that there's no connection between the two, that there's a barrier which keeps the monsters from invading our lives... and yet, very well-constructed works of horror can weaken that barrier, letting us mentally superimpose the unthinkable onto our ordinary lives. I think that, by repeatedly showing how bad events from one acknowledged work of fiction can cross over and cause damage in a supposed life of non-fiction, House of Leaves primes our minds to mentally continue the chain: Zampano created the House of Leaves, and then was killed by the creature he invented; Johnny read Zampano's novel, and then was pursued by that same beast as it leaped into his world; and now we are reading Johnny's about desperate position. What will happen to us? (Again, to cite the horror movie trends of the last fifteen years, it's the same general idea shown in Ringu/The Ring. We've already seen how a movie can violate the laws of movies and break into the real world. So what happens to us now that we've seen that same movie?)

Johnny's unraveling is probably the most disturbing aspect of the book. He seems like a bright, charismatic person, albeit one with a troubled past. As he grows more obsessed with The Navidson Record, he begins to encounter truly macabre scenes: often accompanied by horrible stenches of death and decay, he witnesses catastrophic accidents, suffers grievous injuries, sees predators approaching him, losing control of his bowels. And then, we immediately learn, none of it actually happened. The car didn't crash; his arm isn't broken; there's no creature there; he hasn't soiled himself. In almost any other book or movie, this would feel like cheating - "Oh, it was all just a dream!", a way to get the cheap thrill of a jump scare without responsibility of following up on an actual plot development. But, within the particular context of House of Leaves, this very same technique is actually extremely effective. The very threat that Johnny is facing is a disintegration of his mind, as all those aspects of him we liked are slowly drawn away from him and he is turned into the husk of a man. Or, what if they aren't hallucinations, and he isn't losing sanity? Well, that's even worse, since that means that the evil is invading this world in very real form.

All this talk of "horror" and "darkness" is very vague, and you might think that I'm being unspecific to avoid spoilers, but that's only a small part of it. The very nature of the badness in this novel remains mysterious throughout, simultaneously impossible to deny and impossible to comprehend. In horror, it feels like there are two different types of approaches to take, the very specific and the very general. Specific horror gives us a very detailed and highly realized threat to fear: Norman Bates, The Gentlemen, Freddy Kreuger. General horror provides a lingering atmosphere of dread and free-floating anxiety, denying us the release of confronting our foe: The Haunting, H. P. Lovecraft, Tristero. House of Leaves falls very decisively into the general camp. There's some speculation as to the nature of the threat they face, and it certainly seems to be very old and very powerful, but any time they seem close to meeting it, it's revealed to be something else. This lets the fear grow bigger and bigger as the novel progresses, and, as is usually the case, ultimately ends up being far more frightening than a specifically-identified foe would be.

 So, Johnny is definitely an unreliable narrator, and Zampano even more so, particularly since he's an author creating a work of fiction within this world. It's interesting that, while Johnny is supposedly the one who is performing the non-fictional work of fact-checking and organizing Zampano's text, his passages are the most novelistic, with vividly drawn characters and lots of action. In contrast, Zampano uses a very dry academic tone throughout, but he's ultimately describing fiction. It's a fascinating job Zampano's set himself to, inventing hundreds or thousands of straw men from other academic papers that he has made up, and then taking the role of an impartial observer, being careful not to offer his own opinions of this fictional movie (which he created), but citing independent sources to offer balanced opinions about it. In the few instances where he drifts from this mediated style of writing, though, Zampano seems to let some of his own (potentially real-life) prejudices slip through. For example, Zampano seems to have a very negative view of Karen Green, Will Navidson's partner. He regularly implies that she is unfaithful to Will, and a bad mother to their children. However, whenever Zampano gets around to actually sharing the details (hundreds of pages after his first insinuating remarks), the evidence seems remarkably flimsy. After talking about how Karen "cheated" on Navidson with Wax, we "see" the footage that caught the act, which showed Wax kissing her in the kitchen, then her reacting in surprise, and then leaving the room. Not exactly the act of an adulterer. Later on, Zampano seems smugly righteous when he writes about Karen's affair with an actor; but his only sources for this infidelity are the actor himself and Karen's sister, both of which are presented within the text as being supremely untrustworthy. Anyways, it's interesting to think about what, if anything, we're meant to draw from this. Is Zampano (the heavily-mediated author) subconsciously projecting his own misogynistic prejudices down onto the characters he created? Is he deliberately crafting these people to play roles, and just doing a poor job of establishing them? Or is something else going on?

I also thought it was interesting that Zampano's attitude towards Karen seemed to improve so much after she left the house. He starts giving her more of the benefit of the doubt, and acknowledging the stresses she's been under, not just during the explorations but for her entire life. In the end, there's actually a pretty heartwarming reunion between the two, ending things on a surprisingly high note. That, in turn, made me wonder if Zampano's insinuations were crafted in order to give her more of a dramatic arc: an invented redemption might be better than no redemption at all.

Finally, a few thoughts on the title. The word "house" is very prominently featured throughout the book, and at first it seems obvious that the book is named after the Navidson house. That said, where does the "of leaves" come from? Leaves really aren't mentioned in any capacity throughout nearly the entire book. After I'd read more than halfway through the novel, I started to speculate on what the title could mean. My first thought, especially given the aforementioned collaboration between text-as-writing and text-as-meaning, was that the "of leaves" referred to leaves of papers, and therefore "House of Leaves" was... well, was "House of Leaves", the very book we were reading, referring back to itself.  The house is the book, and the book is the house. Like I noted above, many of the properties we ascribe to the house are shared by the book itself: the way it changes form, the way its passages divide and multiply, the way you can lose your sense of time and place within it, the way it speeds up and slows down, how you start to feel disoriented as the distances change, etc.

So, that was my working theory for a while, but then, later in the story, we see an actual book called House of Leaves. This is a book that Navidson has at a time when he is lost, and alone, and convinced that he might die. He's wanted to read it for a while; now he has the time, but he's nearly out of light, with only a couple of matches yet. He has several hundred pages of the book left, and only a few matches, each of which will only burn for less than a minute. And so, he comes up with an absolutely brilliant solution. He lights a single match, and uses its light to read a single page. Then, he rips that page out of the book, rolls it into a tight cylinder, lights it with the last stub of the match, and then uses the light of the burning page to read the next page. Each page takes almost exactly as long to read as to burn, and so he continues, racing to keep ahead of the flame, chain-smoking his way through an entire novel.

I don't know what that means, but I thought it was awesome, one of my absolute favorite passages in a book crammed full of memorable scenes. Interestingly, we never learn what Navidson's book House of Leaves was about: I'm very tempted to think that it's the same book we're reading, and Navidson is reading about himself, but I don't think there's anything in the text to support that, and it seems likely that Zampano would have mentioned if that were the case. More broadly, that scene seemed like such a great way to summon up the mood of the book: hopeless, and desperate, but still able to appreciate beauty.

After the very end, in some of the end material that follows the conclusion of the main narrative, there's a poem (page 563 in my edition) that seems to obliquely reference the story we've read about, with lines like "walls keep shifting." However, in this context, it seems to be comparing a house of leaves to the world. When you think about it, whether they're leaves of paper or leaves of a tree, a house made of leaves is extraordinarily fragile. Any and every action would risk destroying it. It's funny that, in all the time I spent thinking about this book and the meaning of the title, I had completely forgotten that very literal implication of the name.


I'd like to end with a quotation that, while not representative of the story itself or its style, is a pretty great example of the stylistic play and structural ambitions of the book:

(Now that I think about it, I guess I've always gravitated towards written legacies (private lands surrounded by great bewildering oceans (a description I don't entirely understand even as I write it down now (though the sense of adventure about words (that little "l" making so little difference), appeals to me-- ah but to hell with the closing parent)he)see)s) (sic)

So, uh... yeah! I was going to say that this book left me speechless; as you can see from the mountain of text above, that isn't actually true, but it's certainly one of the most original things I've read. It would be an interesting, challenging read if only for its technical structure, but beyond that, it manages to weave a fascinating, odd, and occasionally terrifying story that stretches across multiple levels of reality. I can't say I recommend it to everyone, but if you enjoy reading strange fiction, or have just wondered what a horror novel written by a demented post-graduate student would look like, you should definitely pick this up.

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