Note: This review is part of the Booklist 2005 Project.
Wow, the Booklist 2005 Project is working out great for me. It’s led me to three of the best books I’ve read in years: Cloud Atlas, Oracle Night, and, most recently, House Of Leaves. In fact, House of Leaves has hit the “favorite books of all time” list, right up there with A Prayer For Owen Meany and The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
House Of Leaves is a bit hard to describe — not only because if defies description, but because it’s one of those “revealing anything about it reveals a lot about it” books, and you want readers to go into it cold if at all possible. It is often compared to The Blair Witch Project, as both are about fictitious documentary movies that start out mundane and then abruptly veer into the weird and supernatural.
Another reason why House of Leaves is hard to describe because it contains an almost sadistic number of levels. Let’s start at the innermost one. Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Will Navidson decides to make a documentary about his family’s move into a new home, and, to that end, wires the whole house up with cameras and audio equipment. Later, after the house‘s bizarre qualities have been revealed and documented, Navidson splices together his footage into a full-length motion picture called The Navidson Record. Several years after the movie’s release, a man by the name of Zampano writes a scholarly examination of the film, drawing on the documentary itself as well has hundreds of secondary sources to completely analyze the events depicted. Zampano never publishes his work, but it is found posthumously by a young punk named Johnny Truant, who then heavily annotates the manuscript, supplementing the tex not only with additional information about Navidson and Zampano, but about his own life as well. Truant eventually gets this version of the book published — complete with all of Zampano’s and his own footnotes intact — and this is the book that we, the readers, are supposedly holding: a book about a book about a movie about a house. And then, having built all that up, the foundation is removed: one of the things that Truant reveals in his footnotes is that Will Navidson and The Navidson Record don’t actually exist.
I’m one of those people who loved The Blair Witch Project, because I totally bought into it. One of my superpowers is the ability to completely suspend my disbelief when the circumstances warrant it, and I managed to convince myself that I was watching an actual, terrifying, found documentary film. A know a lot of people who hated Blair Witch, and I sympathize with them. I can’t imagine enjoying the film if I hadn’t swallowed it hook, line, and sinker — it would have seemed pretentious, gimmicky, and obnoxious.
I’ve heard a lot of people use those same three words to describe House Of Leaves. And it seems like half the people who start the book give up on it before the end. Again, I understand completely. I would have done the same thing, if I hadn’t been utterly ensorceled by the premise. Despite the fact that author Mark Z Danielewski put four layers between me and the house at the heart of the book and went on to emphasize that the house was fictional even within the context of the story itself, I was still riveted. I read House of Leaves every chance I got: before going to bed, on lunch breaks, even at stop lights when I had the book with me in the car. In the first case, when I’d read House of Leaves at night, I would often lay awake and think about the book for a while before drifting off to uneasy sleep. I mean, I’m not kidding: I loved this book. And I’ll probably read it a second time before the year is through.
As with movies, there’s an order of magnitude between books I’d rate a 9 and those I’d give a 10, some magic line that separates the “great” from the “holy smokes amazing!” It’s not for everybody, but, for me, House of Leaves fell squarely in the latter category.