Waxing Press

Book Review: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

book reviewsIan WissmanComment

I'm not going to get into much of a "review" of this book, much has been written about it. You likely know what's at stake in it. You know its history. Instead, I’m going to go into how the book came to me, and what impact it left. If you’re not familiar with House of Leaves, then you basically need to know it’s a book about a critical review written by a blind man of a film that doesn’t exist, transcribed by a man who found the notes in a trunk in an abandoned apartment. The film is about a man whose house has within it, a pitch black labyrinth he then sets off to explore with colleagues and friends.

When I was in high school, I was a failure of a student, but dedicated to reading and playing in punk bands outside of the public school hallways. I read some pretty typical high-schoolian stuff (Fight Club, Hitchhiker’s Guide, etc.) that was fun and interesting, but pretty conventional too. Then I heard about House of Leaves on a local punk message board, The Neus Subjex. I bought the book the next time I was at a bookstore and—without an iota of hyperbole here—it fundamentally changed the way I thought about and what I sought from literature. It turned me into a more "academic" mindset, and expanded what I expected to get from the kinds of books I read. It re-structured my whole experience of reading, and was a seminal moment in how I became the person I am today.

A common complaint is that the book is just full of gimmicks, games and tricks with naught beyond the playful toying Mark Z. Danielewski does with his audience. The writing in the book that is often pointed to as "gimmicky," ie. the self-referential meta stuff, the funky page layouts, the footnotes, etc. all serve physical, mental, theoretic functions that deepen the experience when you give them the due diligence required. For example, there's a moment where the footnotes start falling out of order forcing the reader to flip back and forth around the pages to figure where to go next. Then some notes start referencing back to other footnotes, causing a lost-in-the-labyrinth feeling in the reader that heightens the sensory experience, and mirrors that of the characters in the book. To be more succinct, the "gimmicks" serve specific, evocations of experience that deepen the reading beyond eye-scanning black letter forms on white paper. There are legit aesthetic concerns in general, such as the seemingly pointless Glas-inspired layout that doesn’t do much in terms of actual Derridian deconstruction. However, overall, I find people who cry "gimmick" with MZD are missing the book's aesthetic goals, or perhaps merely not interested in this kind of textual engagement.

I probably read this book five times between the ages of 16 and 20 and hadn’t read it since. So there was a danger in re-reading it now knee-deep in my 30s. I've read mounds of more-incredible novels since (and surely because of this book). If anything, HoL is a great intro to how to read those more intense, laborious texts. And this reading has allayed some fears that the book wouldn't age well for me. I still love it, deeply beyond the nostalgic bond I have with it. I remember so much of it profoundly—not just the pulse of the plot points, or visual moments, but the feelings of fear and awe I had when I read it that first time in 2002. But, that might be one of the saddest things in reading it this time: I didn't feel like I was still getting new things from it as I did in my younger days; not much other than deeper connections to The Familiar, which rewarded in their own right. Slowly, toward the end of the book, it dawned on me that this would likely be the last time I read it, if not ever again, then at least until I'm very old and very distant from this time and place. I hope it will find me well.