House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
House of Leaves is a wild ride of a novel that not all readers will immediately find enjoyable. Mark Z. Danielewski mixes a lot of different narrators, goes off on many meandering paths, and sprinkles in a healthy dose of footnotes to keep the reader confused… and drawn in.
The story centers around a mysterious film of an even more mysterious house. This house defies the laws of physics; it defies all sense of time and space. This film has been researched by an old, blind man named Zampano. A troubled youngish man crosses paths with Zampano’s notes. Even this narrator is highly suspect. He goes by Johnny Truant but that is not his actual name.
So we have a druggy man who was abused as a child sifting through a large collection of notes from a blind man. Those notes pertain to an absurd film of a house that may or may not have existed. The film is a finished product, thus highly edited. Thus, there are many layers of questionable narrators compiled together in a mostly complete story.
The story surrounding the “Navidson Record” and the film surrounding reaches a conclusion. But the reader is left wondering how much is real versus how much is the trappings of a man who is likely suffering from mental illness.
There is much more detailed information, entire websites dedicated to this book, so my review will only scratch the surface. Also, I don’t wish to give away too much (even if I could). The footnotes may be off-putting to some but they get easier to deal with. Plus, many of them are critical to the story. Many, alas are not. Although there are probably many hidden meanings amongst these.
Similarities to Infinite Jest
I read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest in a month and a half when my youngest son was a newborn. I was up at all hours of the night and sleep was often unachievable. House of Leaves, and Danielewski as an author, are the closest I’ve come to matching this sort of bizarre, meta-fiction.
Both novels revolve around a film. Both have lengthy, sometimes disconnected, but highly important footnotes. Both deal highly with mental illness, drug abuse, and the struggle between what is real and what is in the mind. Wallace illustrated perfectly what it is like to be depressed. Danielewski is nearly equal as we dive into not only Truant’s mind, but the writings of his mother from a mental hospital.
These books use photography and videography to question how much we should allow art and entertainment to influence us. And while both are clearly fiction, how much of art in any form should we trust or believe? This becomes more relevant every day as media becomes more and more entwined into our every waking moment, diluting our reality.
The footnotes reference a lot of magazine articles, books, and interviews. Most of these are made up. But some of them include real authors and you could spend a lot of time researching these.
There is also a lot of missing materials. The main text will reference a footnote and then the footnote is missing. Other sections are crossed out (some have been “burned”).
There is a lot of information about photography (as well as cinematography) that I found extremely interesting. Photos and videos can easily be manipulated but part of that manipulation is what makes it meaningful. The best example in the book is the Pulitzer Prize winning photo Navy took of a girl on the verge of starving.
The picture takes a single moment of time and space, cutting it down to a young girl with a waiting vulture in the background. There was other information present at that time and space, but the photographer chose only what is displayed in the photo. But it also shows the mindset of the photographer. Does he intervene? Can he intervene? Or is bringing this image to the world bigger than anything else he could have done at that time?
Photography is so ubiquitous now that everyone can pose as a photojournalist. But to be an artist takes much more than pointing a camera and releasing the shutter (or pressing a button on a phone).
Seven Stages to Accomplishment (Photography as Art)
- Explorer (Courage)
- Surveyor (Vision)
- Miner (Strength)
- Refiner (Patience)
- Designer (Intelligence)
- Maker (Experience)
Steps 1 through 6 can take years to master, if they ever are mastered. Getting to that number seven is difficult.
House of Leaves requires a bit more from the reader than a traditional novel. But it is an exciting ride if you are willing to dive in without a lot of preconceived notions. However, to really get the most out of this you’ll likely need to reread it.