House of Leaves

book cover

The plot of Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves involves a spatially unbounded, ever-shifting labyrinth that sprawls beneath a suburban Virginia home, exhausting, maddening, and eventually devouring (almost) everyone who dares to enter—and on many occasions while reading the novel I too felt in danger of getting crushed under the book's labyrinthine narrative. Not because of the effectiveness of the author's scene-setting, or even the creative typesetting which twists and writhes on the page, but because of the sheer weight of the elaborate metafictional apparatus with which the novel is encrusted. More than a haunted house story or an examination of family, history, and the beast within (though it is all of these things), House of Leaves strikes me as an exercise in the aesthetics of excess.

For example. Danielewski, not content with a straight-ahead story or a single frame narrative, gives us a setup wherein anonymous editors remark on the copious, Charles Kinbote-style footnoting job done by young punk Johnny Truant on a faux-scholarly manuscript written by blind immigrant Zampanò—a mass of analysis on a film, The Navidson Report, which does not exist even in the world of the book, being either Zampanò's delusion or his fictional creation. And in case this triple-nested narrative, in which every level of editor comments on every other level, is not enough, Danielewski throws in an extra 200 pages of appendices containing everything from scrawled sketches, to personal letters, to surprisingly sophisticated poems supposedly written by Johnny Truant while in Europe. (The only things missing from the appendices are, of course, the materials Zampanò himself intended to include; this is the kind of joke Danielewski loves.) There is a film-within-a-film-within-the-book in which real-life celebrities like Harold Bloom, Camille Paglia and Stephen King comment on The Navidson Record while trying to hit on its director's wife—an section that, while hilarious and well-executed, is also insanely self-indulgent and seems, at least at first, to add little to the novel as a whole. Everything about House of Leaves is so flamboyantly complicated, self-consciously clever and self-referential that I passed through phases of eye-rolling impatience and muttered imprecations until eventually emerging into a clearing of wry amusement, in which I was forced to take the book on its own terms: calling it "overdone" seems beside the point. Like so much gothic fiction, the novel's overdoneness is part of its charm, even if it is overdone in a slightly different way than most.

Take the footnotes. Regular readers know I strongly dislike the Foster-Wallace-esque use of ironically overdone footnotes in modern fiction. Blogging friend Anthony provided me with the perfect articulation of my feelings when he quoted Noel Coward's quip that encountering a footnote is like going downstairs to answer the doorbell while making love. But In Danielewski's hands the footnotes get so bizarrely baroque that the experience is more like: making love; getting interrupted by the doorbell; going downstairs; opening the door to some kid delivering a pizza you didn't order; following the pizza delivery kid down to the docks; getting into a fistfight; stowing away and ending up somewhere in Japan. At which point complaining about lack of sexual satisfaction seems strangely inadequate. Not only are the footnotes often themselves footnoted—and every possible clever footnote joke is carried out here, from hiding all the sex scenes in the footnotes, to footnotes on foreign-language passages which refuse to translate them, to footnotes that go on for several pages, to footnotes that refer back or forward 100 pages from one's current textual location, to footnote feedback loops that lock the reader into a referential circle, to footnotes that consist of only blank lines—but in one case we get footnotes six levels deep, with most of the page-long sixth-level footnote being itself crossed out. Plainly, at this stage criticizing the text for lack of restraint is missing some kind of fundamental precept: the whole enterprise is intentionally eschewing restraint and (perhaps) hoping to come out the other side.

But why is excess so important to this novel? The question plaguing all such postmodern and/or experimental fiction must rear its ugly head: is there any substance to House of Leaves, beyond all its structural pyrotechnics? As Karen asks her bevy of enamored experts in the film-within-a-film-within-a-book, does it all mean anything, or is it just scary? For most of the novel, I assumed that the whole elaborate apparatus of House of Leaves was a very complex way of making the point that everything is open to interpretation, that it's impossible to tell a true story because as soon as you begin documenting events you are already dealing with a simulacra, and that even if you could somehow manage to speak truth, it wouldn't matter as there is no "meaning" behind events to begin with. And Danielewski certainly dwells at length on points like these, conjuring a heated (if imaginary—remember that in the "real world" of the book, the film doesn't exist) debate about the authenticity of the Navidson Record, in which "slick" and "grainy" filmic aesthetics are exposed as equally manufactured, and one of the most compelling arguments for this film's documentary reality is simply that none of the filmmakers had the money to fake it:

They just never had enough money.
      Sonny Beauregard conservatively estimates the special effects in The Navidson Record would cost a minimum of six and a half million dollars. Taking into account the total received for the Guggenheim Fellowship, the NEA Grant, everyone's credit limit on Visa, Mastercard, Amex etc., etc., not to mention savings and equity, Navidson comes up five and a half million dollars short. Beauregard again: "Considering the cost of special effects these days, it is inconceivable how Navidson could have created his house.
      Strangely then, the best argument for fact is the absolute unaffordability of fiction.

Thus reality becomes a kind of default for the poor man who can't afford anything better, and IRS records are more convincing then the evidence of our own eyes. Of course, given that the entire fiction of the Navidson Record film is created, in the world of the book, by an ancient and poverty-stricken blind man, we are, perhaps, meant to dwell on differences between media, the resources required to create convincing simulacra in words versus images, and the corresponding differences in our levels of belief. Is it easier to believe in the truth of a film because we see it with our own eyes, or more difficult because we know all the ways in which film can be manipulated? Are Johnny Truant's dread-filled and sometimes unreliable footnotes and appendices more convincing than Zampanò's text, since Truant's commentary creates the illusion that he shares our world, the world of the observer and analyst? And if there is no "meaning" attached to any of these real or faked stories, what is our investment in their reality or lack thereof?

Besides, not only can we not tell—or even sometimes care—what's real outside ourselves, but we're likely reading little more than ourselves into a work in the first place. One of the functions of all the elaborate setup is that, like the panel of experts whom Karen asks to respond to her film-within-a-film-within-the-book, Danielewski's hall of mirrors eventually makes it clear that most people, when they look at a piece of art, see only the reflection of themselves. When Johnny Truant reads and becomes obsessed with The Navidson Record, it's the ghosts of his own past that come back to him; when Harold Bloom watches Karen's film about the haunted house, he sees his own pet theories on the anxiety of influence, and when Navidson himself enters the labyrinth under his house, he's eventually left with absolutely no visual or tactile input except what's inside his own body and head. The minotaur at the center of the labyrinth is us, as all the unsuccessfully expunged footnotes indicate, and we are perfectly capable of tearing ourselves into shreds—or, occasionally, showing ourselves compassion.

Notes on Disgust
(for more information on the disgust project, see here)

For a book that's ostensibly a horror story (at least part-time), there is remarkably little explicit disgust in House of Leaves. Less than your average Edith Wharton novel, for example. And this is interesting on a couple of levels. On one hand, suggests that disgust is a bit of an intermediate emotion: generally characters can't be simultaneously disgusted and petrified with horror. In House of Leaves, the characters' experiences progress from domestic or mundane, to slightly creepy, and then straight from there to shuddering with existential dread or outright terror. There is one scene, for example, in which our post-punk narrator Johnny Truant is so scared that he loses control of his bowels while at work; in most situations, having one's pants full of shit would be a gross-out, but since Johnny believes he is about to get ripped limb from limb by some kind of vicious monster, it's not his top concern. Likewise, by the time Truant allows his apartment to generate into a filthy mess that probably would disgust us could we see or smell it, his mental state is too far gone to register that disgust or communicate it to us. Most of the book works like this: there's just not a lot of space in which the characters have the luxury of being disgusted without the disgust being trumped by terror, and it's tempting to extrapolate from here some general rule about disgust.

On the other hand, this split between fear and disgust isn't necessarily a constant. There are plenty of horror films, for example, that combine the scary with the disgusting. Over Twitter the past few days, Sarah and I have been having come great conversations about House of Leaves and the Aliens franchise (two different, unrelated conversations). Regular readers here probably imagine I have a strong stomach because of the disgust project, but in reality I'm a total wuss about gross-out films, and I've been avoiding the Aliens movies for that reason, even though the prospect of a kick-ass Sigourney Weaver is hard to pass up. Anyway, it got me thinking: films featuring monsters or zombies that drip pus, ooze, or other bodily substances while also threatening the protagonists manage to combine disgust and fear with very little problem. Maybe the difference is that, while the film's audience can be startled and drawn into the suspense of the story, they still know that they are not in real danger and so have that part of their brains free for the disgust reaction. Whereas, even in a film, when a character is in a life-or-death situation he or she is probably going to prioritize the fear and adrenaline over the "eww" factor.

In House of Leaves, in any case, the horror is all pretty non-disgusting. Unless you consider getting hit on by Harold Bloom or Camille Paglia disgusting, that is.


House of Leaves was the October selection for the Wolves reading group, and I am scandalously late posting about it, for which I really apologize. And also apologize for the several months of non-posting. This month: Nathalie Sarraute's The Planetarium.


  • Your thoughts about the excessiveness reminds me of my own experience with Infinite Jest, which I could sum up with the words "brilliant, but excessive." It was intentional, as it clearly is here, and I think DFW was trying to embed his readers in his characters' worlds, which definitely sounds like what Danielewski is up to. And both books involve a work of art--a film no less--that people get stuck in. Interesting. I can't decide now whether those similarities make me more or less eager to read this. I'll keep it on my list for the time being anyway.

    • Thanks for the comparison to Infinite Jest, Teresa. Since I haven't read it but have heard much about it, I was wondering how the two compared while I read the Danielewski.

      I think DFW was trying to embed his readers in his characters' worlds

      This point in particular is really interesting to me because, while I can see how the footnotes, frame apparatus etc. COULD do exactly this kind of embedding, in practice I felt it often did exactly the opposite here. There was just so much meta analysis going on; it was very distancing. I've heard people say they found the book scary, but I can't imagine feeling frightened when you're reading about the supposedly scary events through the lens of 1-3 layers of academic analysis. I think I would have felt more "embedded" in a straight-ahead first-person narration—not that embeddedness/immersiveness is necessarily a goal, but it's interesting how, if taken far enough, a technique that should increase verisimilitude ends up decreasing it.

  • i thought it all was mildly amusing, sort of let's go for the overkill and let's see what happens, gently, playfully. have his "only revolutions" here but not yet got round to it. i like it when books are like this, like the "humument" or katheine hayles' "writing machine" comes to my mind too.
    but yes it wasn't very disgusting, more sort of spooky.
    i did not have much trouble with the footnote problem, after a few pages i got used to it and it was ok, fluent reading ensued. i think it was just the right amount of them, one could probably even read is as a satire of academentia or the postmodern novel if one wanted too, but i didn't want to spoil the pleasure, at times i really laughed heartily, all those mentioned, derrida, paglia etc and the way he did it, gave me plenty a chuckle.

    • one could probably even read is as a satire of academentia or the postmodern novel if one wanted to

      Definitely. This is the reading that leaped to my mind, and I probably would have enjoyed the book more if it hadn't been, but oh well. I did still like it, despite my few gripes. I think your comment about liking when books are like this is pretty key: this is a book for people who like this type of book. I don't think it's going to convert anyone, despite being pretty well-done. But yeah, like you said, the parts with the critics and other portions too were very funny!

  • Not sure my last attempt at a comment when through. It is so long ago when I read this, I realise there is much I forget, particularly the Bloom, Paglia scene. I may not have known either at the time, but either hitting on anyone is scarier than that labyrinth.

    • Sorry for the commenting trouble, Anthony.

      And ha, yes, I have to agree re: Bloom & Paglia! I think my favorite scene of a critic hitting on Karen was Derrida, who as I recall was just like "Take my we walk."

  • I've often wondered what this novel was about; now I know why few of the reviews I've read have ever really managed to explain it! :) You know my feelings about footnotes (they're bad enough in academic texts). I find I do get frustrated with books that do not, ultimately, concern themselves most profoundly with what is human and real. Some postmodern texts manage to use their game-playing to reflect more poignantly on life (and I'll be interested to see what you make of Sarraute next month). But I lose heart when the story never moves me at all. It's hard to tell what my reaction to this book would be, but in all truth, I have never felt hugely motivated to read it. I suspect it would be a lot of hard work for not much valuable return.

    • Heh, yes, it does defy quick plot summary, alright. :-) This sentiment:

      I find I do get frustrated with books that do not, ultimately, concern themselves most profoundly with what is human and real.

      represents very well the tightrope I felt Danielewski was walking throughout most of the novel. At times I felt he did want to address those real, human questions, but at other times I felt he was either a) interested primarily in aesthetic theory and questions of representation (which I can't really criticize, since I find this stuff interesting too), or b) carried away by his own cleverness. I would say it's more an interesting study or even an interesting artifact, than a moving work of art. That said, there were parts that were very enjoyable indeed!

  • I read this for fun my sophomore year of college and loved it, but I was at an age to be amused/impressed by the over-the-topness of it all (I was also obsessed with Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid and Le Ton Beau de Marot)! I had a deep affection for pomo in my late-ish teens. :) I don't know what I'd make of it now. (Also, one scene has stuck with me over the years: when he's in the dark and thus has to read the pages of a book fast enough to finish the next one and light it on fire before the old one burns out.)

    • YES, that scene with burning the pages. I tweeted about this book a lot while reading it, and when I got to that part I remember writing something like "Of course. OF COURSE there's a scene in House of Leaves where the protagonist reads House of Leaves." Can't believe I didn't see it coming. So pomo!

      I went through a similar phase to the one you're describing, and I kind of wish I'd read this book back then; I would've loved it unreservedly.

  • I got a bit lost in the machinations of this book - felt like I was looking into the back of a very complex clock, watching the gears whir and getting hypnotized by the ticking. I kept losing track of what Danielewski might be trying to do or say, kept falling off the story train while I chased footnotes around the book. I feel a bit more grounded about it all after reading your post actually, but still, days after finishing it, I feel caught up in the excess of it. Which is not to say that I didn't enjoy it. It was a mental work-out. But I'm sore and jittery after finishing it. Might return to thinking about it in a week or so...!

    • Ha, I like your back-of-the-clock metaphor. There was definitely a sense that all the machineworks were left visible - sort of like the Pompidou art museum in Paris, where all the ducting etc. is on the outside of the building. I'll look forward to any further thoughts you have, and I really enjoyed chatting with you about this book via Twitter. I'm sure Danielewski would approve of making the most of the new media to discuss his work! :-)

  • Getting hit on by Harold Bloom would produce a huge sense of disgust in me! I wanted to read this book in October, I've had it on my TBR shelf for so long, but it just didn't happen. Yourcenar took away my ambition to tackle another big book. I rather enjoy a good footnote but the execessiveness you describe could get a bit wearing. Though if it is so over-the-top, as it sounds like it is, I suppose you just hold on and enjoy the ride.

    • Ha, I am in complete agreement re: getting hit on by Harold Bloom!

      I think the "hold on and enjoy the ride" mentality is really one's best bet here. Go in expecting it to be completely over-the-top, and anticipate no kind of restraint whatsoever.

  • Damn, I was disappointed as well in the overall lack of scariness. This book is such a cult hit and people make it sound so terrifying. Parts of it were unnerving, yes, but I was expecting something on the Lovecraftian level. It's a house that's also an Eldritch Abomination.

    I actually liked the footnotes, though, especially how the structure of the book mimicked the house itself. It was more a psychological experience than you would get with a traditional narrative.

    • I know a LOT of people dig the footnotes, in general and here in particular, so am totally willing to chalk that one up to a mere personal foible. And I know what you mean about people making the book sound terrifying...but I just couldn't be scared by it with so much academic satire cushioning me from the reality of the house. Eh...

  • I've had this book on my shelves for ages, but haven't picked it up yet. Since I loved Infinite Jest, I might very well love this one too, although what I loved about IJ was its emotional depth, oddly enough. I don't think that's what is usually associated with IJ. Anyway, I will definitely try House of Leaves, and your post has given me courage!

    • what I loved about IJ was its emotional depth, oddly enough

      I've actually heard a number of people say similar things about IJ. It's a testament to Wallace's accomplishment that he manages to combine so much structural experimentation & meta stuff with genuine emotional depth. I wouldn't say there's a tremendous amount of that in House of Leaves...anyway, I'll certainly be interested in your reaction!

  • I love this, "an exercise in the aesthetics of excess". I've had this book down in my TBR lists for awhile now, but never worked up the energy to try it. I'm rather ambivalent about footnotes, sometimes they're brilliant and funny, sometimes they're just downright annoying. I'll be curious to see how the footnoting in House of Leaves works (or doesn't) for me.

    • Thanks for the nice words, Michelle. Yes, I'll be curious to see whether these footnotes come down on the side of funny or annoying for you; for me they were annoying for a while, but then got so CRAZY that they became funny. With some distance from the novel, I'd say that its sense of humor was one of the best things about it for me personally.

  • Dear Emily, happy new year! I hope that you enjoyed the holidays and that all is well. It's quiet on the book internets without you...

  • Hi Emily, long time no hear. Just dropping by to say, you were right again, When We Were Orphans is wonderful. I don't remember where I read that it was Ishiguro's most awful book, and not just from one source either, but they were so wrong and you so right. Missing you.

  • Hi Emily! I miss you.

  • For years I've heard that I need to read this book. I worked on a movie set once, and many there had read it. They were all trying to figure out how you could bring it to the screen, but they all felt that because of the complexity of this piece that it would be nearly impossible. I can't wait to check it out!

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography