Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Book review: HOUSE OF LEAVES by Mark Z. Danielewski

We all create stories to protect ourselves.

If there's a book that had influenced how I view stories and literature, House of Leaves would be it. How would I begin to explain it? It is a book about a fictional paper about a fictional documentary called The Navidson Record. It's a story within stories, with many narrators and layers. A family of a famous photographer buys a new home, and they discover a mysterious hallway. An impossible hallway somehow appears on the wall (but when you look on the outside, there is no other space, the hallway leads to this impossible space). 

At first, it is just a hallway. 

I will never forget the moment and the shivers in my spine the scene where Navidson walks through it and sees another hallway to the right. Then, upon further discovery, that inside is an immense, shifting, dark labyrinth whose mystery they will try to uncover. 

I can't summarize and describe this book so simply because its difficult... here be winding passages, testing the possibilities of text, a book as immense and complicated and unpredictable as the dark labyrinth in the book. Navidson and his wife Karen and their two children are changed by the inexplicable horror of the labyrinth. Navidson sets up 'explorations' inside the house with another host of interesting characters. Some people die. All this told in an analytic, academic style. Which sounds silly when I describe it that way.

The manuscript of The Navidson Record was written by a blind old man named Zampano who died under mysterious circumstances, the text found by a guy named Johnny Truant. The text of Navidson Record is interspersed with Johnny's writings while he progresses through the text, adding annotations and his own life experiences. Which is full of (actually annoying) stories about his sexual activities and women-hunting with his friend Lude. We also see how Johnny is changed by the fear of that inexplicable hallway.

(My favorite part though, is his schizophrenic mother's letters to him from the mental hospital to Johnny.)

What's most interesting about the book is its an exquisite work, too. Each page is an experiment in typography and format, which was especially effective in the last parts with Navidson's 'last exploration'. The text reflected his progress: the text is narrow and dense while Navidson ventures to narrower passages, winding and scattering all over the pages where the labyrinth expands and contracts, giving us the effect that we ourselves are traveling inside. And always, there is the growl of an unseen something echoing through the walls, and you never know when the place will change. 

I know I can't fully describe this book, but I just wanted to write about it because of how much it means to me. I read it in digital copies back in high school and I just recently splurged on a real full-color edition because House of Leaves is meant to be read as a real book and never has reading a book been such an immersive experience. It will challenge what you think a story could be, and what a book could be. And it is also a beautiful story.

[The ending passages and also the last scene of The Navidson Record]:
Navidson does not close with the caramel covered face of Casper the friendly ghost. He ends instead on what he knows to be true and always will be true. Letting the parade pass from sight, he focuses more on the empty road beyond, a pale curve vanishing into the woods where nothing moves and a street lamp flickers on and off until at last it flickers out and darkness sweeps in like a hand.

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