Saturday, February 5, 2011

House of Leaves

In an effort to retain the feel of the novel and keep things true to the form of the review, I have preserved all differently-colored words and font choices of the author, just to capture that extra bit of weirdness. 

This is not for you
- Johnny Truant

"...and choose, however, to dismiss this enterprise out of hand, then may I suggest you drink plenty of wine and dance in the sheets of your wedding night, because whether you know it or not, now you are truly prosperous..."
-Zampano, warning both Johnny and the reader

         Way back in the dawn of time about a decade ago, I spent every afternoon after school at the Maplewood Memorial Library. To the point that the librarians all knew me by name and asked me how I was doing. In fact, they still do. Though circumstances mean that I pop up there a hell of a lot less. And in all that time, it took me a while to realize that right up front where I came in, they had seasonal displays. The first time I realized this was in October during my high school career, where I discovered, "Hey! There are horror novels stacked up here! Oh-- they're for Halloween. That makes sense." Yes. I was that dense. But less pretentious. Anyway, in amongst the usual trashy ghost stories and a copy of Harvest Home that had probably been there before the book actually went into publication, there was an oddly-shaped paperback that caught my eye. The cover had a fold-over leaf, and inside was a color plate that showed seemingly random clutter. And this book-- which might have found me as much as I found it, judging from my interactions with it, was House of Leaves. When I picked it up, I thought it was just a quirky book using different colored words and playing around with text. And it is. Sort of. It's also not quite-- oh, fuck it. Let me try to explain:
         House of Leaves is about a young man named Johnny Truant who finds a manuscript in the apartment of a dead old man named Zampano. Near the body are four large, unexplained gouges that look like an animal put them there. Being a young, foolhardy man in the prime of his youth, and not too concerned about the ethical matters of stealing from a dead man, Johnny takes the manuscript with him. Following the man's instructions with the loosely-bundled heap of papers, he begins to edit the work into something coherent, leaving his own footnotes along with it to tell his story. The book itself is mostly comprised of Zampano's critical analysis on a film that has not and does not exist, a film called The Navidson Record, thus also being about the film. And the third part of the plot is the actual film of The Navidson Record, about a photojournalist who tries to make a film about his house in the suburbs...a house that has a small architectural discrepancy of three quarters of an inch at first, but then the small closet that seems to be entirely painted black grows, each shift bringing more insane dimensions and impossible rooms upon impossible rooms, creating a labyrinth that threatens to swallow more than one of the characters who decide to do everything but leave it alone or move.
        The three plots tend to intertwine with each other, elements from one appearing in another, and feeding on each other all at once. Johnny in particular is an unrepentantly unreliable narrator, at one point even going "Hey, not fair, you say. Hey, fuck you, I say." in response to changing a few words in one passage. Later on, he invents entire sequences and openly tells us that he wanted to end a sequence by having two characters murdered, but doesn't. Johnny is openly mocking, even as he's slowly losing his mind, and the book helps him come to terms with his rather checkered life and several incidents. Oh, and it's also driving him slowly insane. Finally, he gets the book published to give himself some peace of mind, though it never stops being more than a book for him.

Oh, and did I mention that this exact same book is the one that's been in your hands the whole time? The book you've probably been trusting to remain truthful to itself on at least some level? I probably should have. Oh well.

       Yes, ladies and gentlemen, House of Leaves is a mindfuck with a pneumatic drill, a book that plays fast and loose with its own ideas and logic to gain some unknown benefit, or maybe just because it can. Text is put in different colors. A chase scene is spread out over several pages to keep you turning the pages just to reach the end of it. One particular sequence creates an air of claustrophobia by clustering the words together smaller and smaller on the pages. As the secret space (yeah, that's the best name for it) builds and builds, the sentences begin to fragment, words fly all over the page, and footnotes circle in on themselves. The protagonists (all three of them...I think) quickly lose control of their lives as the book loses control of what was once a tight, organized format. As things go on, large passages of the book are excised by Zampano for seemingly no reason, Johnny's footnotes become more and more about his experiences which have nothing to do with the book, and Will Navidson becomes trapped in the house that originally intrigued him. And it is brilliant.
     It's a very hard thing to get a book to lie to its reader on this scale. Eventually, an unreliable narrator gets found out, the tricks dissolve into gimmicks, or the narrative thread has to come to a conclusion. It's a rare feat when a book manages to make the reader doubt their own faculties when reading it, to get inside their head and under their skin the way House of Leaves does. And it does a truly amazing job. The individual voices and texts do a lot to immerse and unnerve the reader, be they calm and academic (Zampano), neurotic and frightened (Truant), or weirdly passionate and cold (Navidson. Yes, both at once). Throughout, the sense of immersion is nailed down by footnotes and references to actual things, as well as narration from voices who, in their own way, are easy to listen to. They're trustworthy in their own bizarre fashion.
     Between these voices and the immersive quality of the book, the response it evokes makes it all the more fascinating. This is a book that pretty much commits to its premise fully and wholeheartedly, a book that never backs away, never flinches, and never goes "hey, I'm just kidding, it's all a joke." That it does this makes it somehow all the better, be it the exploration of the spaces, or indeed the unhinging of various minds. In total, that it never once winks or lets on is admirable. It's like a magic show where everyone's forced to believe the illusions are real, because there is no other logical explanation for them. That a book has such an immersive tone and manages to be so fascinating that I can read it over and over again and find new things should be commended.
      But this is far from a flawless classic. Many people will have problems with the different colored words, the text that sometimes will appear upside down and backwards on the middle of a page, and the constant revisions of the truth by Truant and Zampano. There are parts where the actual critical parts are dry and all you want to do is get back to Johnny's story, and parts where Johnny's rambling on and on and you want nothing more than to read Zampano's account of Will's film. Many people don't like to be conned or played with by a book, and will dismiss it on the grounds that it's "too gimmicky", or stupid. But it's a personal choice. Give it a go. If you don't like it, then you don't have to read it.
      In the end, though, I recommend House of Leaves to read. It's something that seems new every time I read it, and it's stuck in my memory since the first time I did. It's a fantastically-written book that moves beyond its gimmicks, and it's easily one of my all-time favorites, a list of which I'll have to get to writing up one of these days, just for posterity. The book also has an awesome soundtrack in the form of the album Haunted by Poe. Maybe find a copy and give it a listen with the book if you like. It may enhance the experience and help with the immersion. My final point is, it's a good book, and well worth reading over and over again. Just watch out for the minotaur.

Next Week:  The pile of weird almost boils over with the bizarro satire/biography book Lint by Steve Aylett.

1 comment:

  1. From out of know where, March 7 - 14 is "Week of Leaves", & I'm on my 9th read... or is it 10th?

    Great review.