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Review: House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski

This one is too hard to describe, so I’m going to go with the publisher’s website:

Johnny Truant, wild and troubled sometime employee in a LA tattoo parlour, finds a notebook kept by Zampano, a reclusive old man found dead in a cluttered apartment. Herein is the heavily annotated story of the Navidson Report.

Will Navidson, a photojournalist, and his family move into a new house. What happens next is recorded on videotapes and in interviews. Now the Navidsons are household names. Zampano, writing on loose sheets, stained napkins, crammed notebooks, has compiled what must be the definitive work on the events on Ash Tree Lane.

But Johnny Truant has never heard of the Navidson Record. Nor has anyone else he knows. And the more he reads about Will Navidson’s house, the more frightened he becomes. Paranoia besets him. The worst part is that he can’t just dismiss the notebook as the ramblings of a crazy old man. He’s starting to notice things changing around him . . .

This book is a little strange.  Well, a lot strange.  This synopsis doesn’t mention that sometimes, the words are scattered in weird shapes across the page.  The word house is always colored blue.  When Navidson climbs a ladder, for example, the words assemble themselves into a column, forcing you to turn the book to the side and read upwards.  When the book references other articles, they are sometimes displayed as cut-outs within the text.  There are prodigious numbers of footnotes and about a third of the book is pseudo-academic, breaking apart and analyzing the Navidson movies, which are at the heart of this whole mess.  This book is supposedly post-modern at its very finest.  I have to confess, I’m not a fan of post-modern.  Creepy, yes, science fiction, more and more, stories within stories, yes.  Reading a pseudo-academic text when I have enough academic texts to read?  Not so much.  I can totally see how it builds upon the story and adds to the general atmosphere, but not for me.

This book, originally distributed through the internet and popular through solely word-of-mouth, has now been picked up and published for the world to read.  I can see how those who like experimental, questioning, thinky reads can sink deep into this one.  I like thinky reads, but I don’t like experimental when I have to turn the book upside-down or try to catch all the clever references in the text to get what’s going on.  More, I didn’t like Johnny Truant.  Whenever I saw his font, I groaned internally.  He’s not even close to a productive member of society.  He spends most of the book panting over girls he can’t have, watching his life go to nothing, and complaining that a book has changed his life and scarred him forever.  I didn’t find his scary scenes creepy because I didn’t care if something ate him.  I would have been happy.  I’m discovering more and more that I don’t really like scummy characters who make no efforts to redeem themselves.  His life story explains to some extent how he got where he is, but maybe I’m just too much of a goody-goody, because I can’t get into these characters’ heads and I struggle a lot with feeling for them or caring what happens to them unless they make some effort to better themselves.

What I did like, and what I liked a lot, was the story of the Navidson record.  I was creeped out by the house and its endless black hallways.  I was interested in the development of the relationships between Navidson, Karen, and all the men who help them investigate their strange house.  I was perplexed myself by the house and what it all meant.  This storyline and discovering what happened to Navy, as he’s nicknamed, was what kept me reading this book until the end when otherwise I’m sure I would have given up.  I would have preferred this book to be stripped of all its post-modern, fancy, academic trappings and to just be a regular science fiction novel about a house.  It probably wouldn’t have achieved its cult fame that way, but I do think that it would have made a much better story and a more arresting read.  Is that just me?  Probably.  

I was glad I liked some of this book – it didn’t look likely for a while and I abandoned it for about three weeks in the middle of reading – but I can’t honestly recommend it.  My fiance also read it and he is the one who urged me to read it myself (it was my book to start with), so obviously it does appeal to some.  Just not to me.  

Check it out on Amazon and Amazon UK.

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