Book Review: House of Leaves

It’s hard to know how to explain the story of House of Leaves, which is deeply layered. I suppose one could start the explanation with what is essentially the core story, Navidson, an acclaimed photographer moves with his family into a country home in order to rebuild bonds and find a calmer, more cohesive life together, only to discover that the house is much more than it seems.

That explanation just barely scratches the surface of this book, however. The story begins with Johnny Truant, who learns of the death of a man named Zampanó and discovers a chaotic stack of papers in the man’s empty apartment. As he starts to put them together, his life starts to fall apart.

The papers involve a heavily footnoted critical analysis of what may or may not be a documentary called The Navison Report, which reveals the story of the family in the house with dark, abysses in its corners.

At every layer, there’s the chance that the person recording the story and their own story could be falsifying, shifting the meaning, changing the story. Yet, despite all this layering, I managed to still connect with the Navidson family and feel for their ordeal. The house lost none of its unsettling terror and there was more than one night I found myself staring into the dark of my room thinking about this book, body tense with anxiety and fear.

Since the book is told through Johnny Truant and his assemblage of discovered papers, it’s a bit disjointed as parts of it have been torn up, burned, or lost in some form or another. The assemblage sometimes unfolds in knots of disjointed text and footnotes that barely seem to make sense, at other times, almost all text seems to vanish from the page. In each case, the nature of the text on the page parallels the experiences of the family and companions who attempt to explore and discover the secrets of the house.

This is a book that certainly will not work for everyone. The layering, the disjointed text takes more work to get through, and might cause some to loose the thread of the story and connection with the characters.

For me, this book worked perfectly. I adored it and will definitely be buying it again, so I can read it again.

A Very Long Footnote:
Before I ever knew there was a book called House of Leaves, I used to listen obsessively to a CD called Haunted by musician Poe. The CD was fascinating to me, because if listened to from beginning to end, it unfolds a story of a woman trying to deal with the death and the ghost of her father, trying to reach out to her mother, and trying to find a way to let go of the past.

The CD is in part a tribute to Poe’s father. Following his death, she found recordings of her father speaking on a great many subjects and she incorporated these into the interludes and spaces between the main songs. These interludes create a kind of dialog between her and her dead father, in essence, between her and his ghost.

At one point in the CD, a little girl’s voice speaks out amid eerie sounds and says, “They say it’s a house of leaves.” This line stuck with me more than any other on the CD. You could even say it haunted me.

It wasn’t until years later that I learned that there was a book titled House of Leaves and I began to wonder if Poe had been referencing the book.

I later learned that Poe’s real name is Anne Decatur Danielewski; she’s Mark Danielewski’s sister. The two had discovered their father’s tapes together and had each been inspired by them. The book and the CD are companion creations and echo each other in several ways. I love learning about these kinds of connections.

For example, Poe’s biggest hit off the CD, “Hey Pretty,” features Mark reading from an abbreviated chapter of the book (which when I think about it is super sexy, and since they are siblings makes it kind of gross).

Several of the songs have titles that reference the book, including my favorite song “Five and a Half Minute Hallway” and an unsettling mixture of voices and sounds called “House of Leaves“.

A few of the lines from the songs are quoted in the book in several places, which kind of influenced my reading a bit, bringing perhaps more depth and meaning to lines and phrases that might have seemed off hand to those who have not heard, or loved the CD as I have.