Hasslein Blog: CUBING: House of Leaves


Hasslein Blog

Friday, January 10, 2014

CUBING: House of Leaves

By Duy Tano

Last year, while on vacation, I took with me a copy of Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, which I picked up based on a recommendation by my favorite comic book writer, Alan Moore.

Quickly flipping through the book, it would have been easy to call it pretentious. I mean, this is one of the pages!

There are, in essence, two main stories in House of Leaves. I'll do my best to sum it up, but keep in mind that there's no doing this justice.

The book starts off with our narrator, Johnny Truant, a seemingly normal guy, finding a bunch of articles, artifacts, and other pieces of writing by a man called Zampano. These artifacts relate to something called "The Navidson Record," a documentary released by Miramax about a family, the Navidsons, who move into a house that is bigger inside than it is outside, with a hallway that constricts and expands seemingly of its own volition. The pieces of writing are of an academic nature—critical analysis, transcripts of interviews, interpretations of the film—and Johnny Truant is trying to put them together in some sort of chronological order. But something happens while he's doing it—Johnny slowly goes insane. Or maybe he already was from the start.

See, "The Navidson Record" doesn't exist in this world. No one has ever heard of it, and yet there are all these documents about it. So what's up? Johnny leaves footnotes throughout the documents, some of them taking up more space than the Navidson story, and he's the very definition of an unreliable narrator.

It seemed like something college-age me would have eaten up, but adult me wouldn't have had the patience for.

And yet, reading it, I couldn't really put it down. I think, partly, it's because I'm primarily a reader of comic books. I'm attracted to the visual aspect of it, being able to move my eyes around and taking in the whole page, and I'm also just in general used to being able to turn the page at a quicker pace than I would if I were reading a straightforward prose novel. House of Leaves plays to both of those.

There's also the factor of just not knowing what the hell is going on. Seriously, what's going on? What happened to Zampano? What's the deal with this house? When they get to the chapter explaining what the house is, it's all full of Xs and black spots, either because Zampano crossed it out or Johnny spilled black ink over it or. . . whatever else. Why is the word "house" always in blue? Why is the word "minotaur" always in red, and why is it crossed out every time? What's with the (seeming) mistakes and typographical errors (at one point, Zampano or Johnny refers to Will Navidson's brother Tom in the first person). Is Johnny actually going insane or has he always been insane? What's with the Whalestoe Letters, published in the appendix, from Johnny's mom Pelafina, sent from her mental institution, and what are the secret codes hidden in it? Does one of them really show that she knew Zampano before Johnny had ever heard of him?

These questions are all left open, a very postmodern approach, and have spawned a lot of theories and websites—including a theory that posits that Danielewski did it all on purpose to spawn theories and websites, because the book is, in a way, satirizing or parodying overanalysis. And that's a valid point because, the thing is, you can enjoy the book without knowing the answers.

That's why I couldn't put the book down. Built with different pieces of writing and different artifacts, not unlike Bram Stoker's Dracula, you got everything you needed to enjoy the Navidson Record. You didn't need to know all the answers. Will (Navy to his friends) sets out to explore this house, and the expanding five-minute hallway in it. He recruits his friends, it affects his family, his partner Karen Green (who's afraid of the dark) leaves him because of it, but he just cannot stop looking.

When he finally goes to explore the house on his own, the book just falls apart. Words are published diagonally, randomly, in all sorts of orders. Some pages only have one word on them; some have only fragments of a word. It's a device that could easily be dismissed as trying too hard, but as a result, it's a real page-turner. When Navy goes into the house and cannot control where he's going, neither can we, the readers.

At the end of it all, Navy makes it out of the house (that's not a spoiler; it's pretty much stated from the beginning), but what state is he in? What emotions follow? What saves him? The answers, the story, they engage you on a visceral level, just as much as the structure of the book makes you think that it will engage you on a cerebral one.

And that's why I couldn't put House of Leaves down, because for all of the questions it asks (how does Navy take a copy of a book called House of Leaves with the exact same number of pages as the actual book House of Leaves with him?) and doesn't answer (Did Johnny really kill that guy?), for all the footnotes and addendums and appendices, for all the obscure hints, like the insertion of Yggdrassil, the World Ash Tree, at the very end there, and for all the flipping around you have to do, when distilled, it's actually a pretty straightforward story about the various kinds of love, and how each kind—like Navy's love of adventure—can affect others—like his love for his family.

And maybe that's the point Danielewski was trying to make at the end of it all. For all the speculation, maybe the answers that truly matter are all in front of us.

Or maybe not. It's not like I majored in English.

You can read House of Leaves by purchasing it at Amazon.com.

Duy Tano is a popular Internet blogger and comic book expert. Check out his blog, The Comics Cube!, at www.comicscube.com, which tackles all sorts of different topics for all sorts of different forms of sequential art. Superhero comics, indie comix, komiks, manga, BD—you name it, it's a valid topic for discussion.

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