House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Synopsis from book flap, courtesy of

Years ago, when House of Leaves was first being passed around, it was nothing more than a badly bundled heap of paper, parts of which would occasionally surface on the Internet. No one could have anticipated the small but devoted following this terrifying story would soon command. Starting with an odd assortment of marginalized youth — musicians, tattoo artists, programmers, strippers, environmentalists, and adrenaline junkies — the book eventually made its way into the hands of older generations, who not only found themselves in those strangely arranged pages but also discovered a way back into the lives of their estranged children.

Now, for the first time, this astonishing novel is made available in book form, complete with the original colored words, vertical footnotes, and newly added second and third appendices.

The story remains unchanged, focusing on a young family that moves into a small home on Ash Tree Lane where they discover something is terribly wrong: their house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

Of course, neither Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Will Navidson nor his companion Karen Green was prepared to face the consequences of that impossibility, until the day their two little children wandered off and their voices eerily began to return another story — of creature darkness, of an ever-growing abyss behind a closet door, and of that unholy growl which soon enough would tear through their walls and consume all their dreams.

The verdict:

House of Leaves was alternately impressive, infuriating, and rewarding.
In short, it was fucking phenomenal.

I was initially reticent to pick up the book; the comparisons to Chuck Palahniuk turned me off, as i find Palahniuk to be the Dan Brown of would-be edgy, post-modern literature. (Sorry if that offends.) I figured that if this was just going to be Palahniuk, part deux, it would not be worth my time.

Having read House of Leaves, I can understand the basis of the comparisons between the two writers. While Chuck Palahniuk treats his characters with contempt and reeks of judgmental grandstanding, Mark Danielewski’s writing has none of the moral superiority and shock value stylings that makes me grit my teeth (and that made Chuck Palahniuk famous).

But I digress.

House of Leaves is a story within a story about several movies documenting the events that transpired in Ash Tree Lane. In keeping with (pseudo-)academic convention, the text is replete with footnotes, some of them directing the reader to yet more footnotes, and there are appendices and exhibits at the end of the book. Though footnotes and appendices are usually in place to aid the reader, that doesn’t always happen here. A footnote will tell you to flip to Exhibit C, only for you to be informed that Exhibit C is missing.

Our (anti)hero is Johnny Truant, a young tattoo apprentice, whose own descent into obsession seems to run parallel with Will Navidson’s. Will Navidson is the award-winning photojournalist who finds himself living in a house on Ash Tree Lane, a house that suddenly produces a closet which becomes a hallway which in turn evolves into a self-contained labyrinth, defying all laws of physics as the labyrinth means that the house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Zampano is the writer of an unpublished treatise on the phenomenon on Ash Tree Lane; his death is the catalyst of this unfortunate story.

Johnny Truant takes it upon himself to make sense of Zampano’s writings. Along the way, he fucks a lot of women, does a lot of drugs, thinks about his mother a lot, and starts remembering other people’s memories. Oh, and as it turns out, there is no record of a house with a self-contained labyrinth on Ash Tree Lane, nor is there a record of the documentaries that Zampano wrote about, and there’s barely any record of Zampano himself.

What does it all mean? What’s true and what isn’t? Who’s real and who isn’t?
Fuck if i know.

Sound confusing? It is. To try and explain more would be impossible. I could write ten pages and barely skim the surface.

Is the book overhyped? Yes, but, surprisingly, only a little. My honest opinion is that it’s the best debut novel I’ve read since White Teeth.

I have a feeling that literature and/or philosophy students will be writing their theses and dissertations on House of Leaves for years to come. if you want critical analysis, then wait for the earnest student to present you a painstakingly researched document. All can do is recommend the book so you can make your own judgments.


Filed under Debuts, Postmodern Literature, Speculative Fiction

3 responses to “House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

  1. Carlos

    Interesting observations on the book. I have to admit I like your characterization of Palahniuk as “the Dan Brown of would-be edgy, post-modern literature.” (I’d been trying to think of a good analogy for CP’s hacky, formulaic and popular style. I may have to borrow your analogy in the future.) I just finished reading House of Leaves and found it interesting how similar Johnny Truant’s story was to the book Choke. Of course, the similarities highlighted many of the flaws of Palahniuk’s novel.

  2. I tried to be a fan of Palahniuk, but I really just can’t will myself to like his bawdy aestheticization of violence. I have to admit, though, that I really liked Fight Club as a movie, whereas the book underwhelmed me.

  3. Pingback: Booking Through Thursday: The End « The Ax For The Frozen Sea

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