It’s tricky writing about a book when you want to extol its virtues, while at the same time giving nothing about it away.
So here’s my suggestion: if you have ever had even the slightest inclination to read House of Leaves, then go now and get it from wherever you can, and read nothing else about it. Don’t flip through it when you get it, don’t read reviews, just go and buy it and read it and develop one of those unseemly crushes usually reserved for humans or a pack of pugs.
If you haven’t heard of House of Leaves, well… now you have, so again, please stop reading this, please, and go out and devour the novel. It’s the one of the best things I’ve ever read, and I won’t entertain the thought that it won’t be one of yours.
The only reason I’m starting with this preamble is because I’m indescribably envious of anyone who still has the opportunity to read the book completely ignorant of what it’s about or how it’s written.
I first heard about House of Leaves when I was seventeen, and was so taken with the concept that I researched as much of it as my dial-up internet could handle. I poured over reviews, blogs and forum posts, and while the book easily lived up to my expectations, a recent conversation with a friend showed me the errors of my ways.
“You know how amazing you found the book?” Tom said to me, in the gushing tone only fans of the work don’t find appalling. “You know how you loved how fucked up it got, and how it blew apart what you were expecting?”
I nodded along like a bobble-head.
“Imagine if you had no idea it was going to do that…”
The words resonated. He was spot on. I was so acutely aware of how mind-bending House of Leaves could have been, should have been, that a third friend who was absent-mindedly leafing through Tom’s copy at that moment got quite a fright as I lurched towards her with a wordless bellow, tore the book from her hands and demanded that she experience it from scratch.
After composing myself and apologising, before letting her know that she would totally understand after she read it, I decided I’d tell the world about this book – without telling a thing about it as I did so. Mainly because I think everyone should read House of Leaves at some point, but also so I can stop committing any more outbursts.
Now, an article on a book which contains nothing about the book itself would be completely unprintable and rather shit, so I will (reluctantly) go ahead with the aforementioned panegyric.
But please, unless you’ve read it, hated it and wish to be angered by my frankly disturbing love for the book – or you want to read along and agree with my opinion, or you don’t like it when writers give real-time instructions in an article and on principle you’re now going to continue reading despite me – STOP READING. NOW. Please.
House of Leaves is one of those meta-, self-referential, book-within-a-book, ergodic-literature novels that are admittedly very easy to hate. The first layer follows the diary of Johnny Truant, who uncovers an essay written by a man called Zampano, and who apparently also has a lot of sex. The second layer is the essay itself, which is about a fictional documentary called The Navidson Record, which as the third layer concerns itself with following the lives of renowned photographer Will Navidson, his wife Karen and their two children.
Even within the first few chapters you can start to see how well-crafted the text is: Truant’s notes are colloquial and frank, Zampano’s study measured and academic, and within that academic prose, the story of the documentary seems to simply arise from beneath it. It’s masterful. I love it. I’m gushing. I don’t care.
As you get further into the book it starts to get harder and harder to read, and not only because the prose starts to match the declining mental state of all three of the protagonists. The way the work is printed even starts to mirror the narrative in ways that tore my seventeen-year-old brain apart. As one small example, an entire section of the essay is reported as having been burned with a sprinkling of fine ash. While that mystery reveals itself, the text starts drop random letters and words, replacing them with brackets to mark where the ash had burned through the paper. It’s not exactly mind-blowing, but the whole book is filled with little things like this, and they just get more and more creative. The ‘tunnel’ sequence is a particular favourite of mine.
There’s also the way you can get lost within footnotes of footnotes of footnotes, which force you to flip back and forth between pages; there’s a mysterious tick on the bottom of a single page that no one has ever worked out; certain words are always printed in a certain colour which gives the entire book an unnerving vibe; there are pages and pages of entirely fictional academic papers, and all of them are annotated properly.
Simply put, House of Leaves is an odd type of fun. You don’t just read the words on the page; you read the entire book. While this could be seen as a cheap gimmick, it’s combined with the fact that Danielewski is also a fantastic author. House of Leaves would still be a brilliant piece of work even if it was written in a standard way. Danielewski didn’t have to do all this extra work. But he did. Show off.
I was so influenced by House of Leaves that I even submitted a suite of poems in the same ergodic style in my first year of university (gaining a Distinction+ and no, you will never see it). Instead of girls or bands or stand-up comedy, I used to daydream about this style of writing; that’s how captivating I found it. It was my first experience with something so alien, so foreign, so new, that, if nothing else, it showed me that there are possibilities in art that I haven’t even thought of yet.
And here’s the thing: I’m so confident in the book’s ability to make people a mewling mess of praise that, even if you disregarded my forewarning (and must you always be so pig-headed about these things?) and you’ve read this whole piece, I still think you’ll love it.
Reading this testimonial is much like reading the novelisation of a Michael Bay movie – it won’t do the original piece justice, and you were warned repeatedly not to do it. And you did it anyway.
This is a fntastic b[ ]k and an exciting piece f art in it[ ]wn right. G read Ho[ ]e of Leaves.
Mitch Alexander is a 25-year-old left-wing, vegetarian, atheist, utilitarian metal head, stand up comedian and philosophy major who hates labels. When he isn’t being politely ignored at dinner parties he’s usually being politely ignored on comedy stages across Australia.