Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Book Review: House of Leaves

book cover for House of LeavesJohnny Truant gets a call in the middle of the night from his friend Lude. Apparently, this weird old guy (Zampanò) died in his apartment building, and the landlord left the door unlocked for Goodwill to come and clean the place out the next morning. Johnny heads over and the two of them find this manuscript in a trunk. The manuscript is an analysis of a documentary, The Navidson Record. Skimming through it, Johnny notices that it is annotated with footnotes referencing other people who have either analyzed the film or interviewed the people who took part in it. The film concerns a house that is larger on the inside than the outside. Curious, Johnny takes it home with him.

What the reader holds in her hands is that manuscript with all of Zampanò's narration and analysis of the important aspects of the The Navidson Record; analysis of said film by others, including quotes and footnotes (Yes, footnotes); and Johnny's commentary on said notes plus tales of his experiences with the book and its negative impact on his life.

It's clear from the introduction that Johnny is going to be an unreliable narrator. It then becomes the task of the reader to decide what's real and what's the result of what appears to be schizophrenia. Considering Johnny and Lude seem to be characters out of a Bukowski novel (appropriately enough, even living in L.A.), the lines are easily blurred.

For me, it was all about the house. Any time the narrative strayed from that, my interest dropped. Johnny's story wasn't compelling. Zampanò's analysis with all of its quotes and references wasn't compelling. Dozens of pages of two sentences, two words, or even one word. Upside down text. Mirrored text. Footnotes of whole lists of every named architect, architectural style, and inventory of everything you can find in a HomeDepot smacks of OCD. None of that was compelling. I'll give Danielewski points for his ambitious experiment, but its obsession with documentation as a means of drawing attention to a descent into madness was tiresome for me.

Why Danielewski chose to go this convoluted route rather than telling a straightforward story about the house that the Navidsons lived in is beyond me. Was he successful in generating buzz about his work and compelling people to buy it? Absolutely. It could've been a solid selling haunted house story with elements of myth and cosmicism, but he went further down the proverbial rabbit hole and added extra layers of meta-analyis and tangential 90s fictionalized memoir. And he was successful, so good for him. But I suspect that this over the top experiment may have generated blowback in terms of building a long term audience of readers. On Goodreads right now, this book has 150,000 ratings for an average score of 4.07. That's excellent. But his next most populous book has 5,600 ratings, a 96% drop.

It may just be coincidence, but I'm wondering if Danielewski heard Soundgarden's "Room a Thousand Years Wide" and decided to include it among his fictional footnotes. Why? Well, there's a footnote attributed to a "Chris Thayil". Kim Thayil wrote the lyrics for the song, which appears on the Badmotorfinger album in 1991, during the time Danielewski wrote the book. "Chris Thayil" could be an amalgam of Chris Cornell and Kim Thayil. If that sounds crazy, then House of Leaves isn't for you because that is the sort of thing that permeates this book.

3 stars