The Least Predictable Books We’ve Read

House of Leaves by Mark Z. DanielewskiHouse-of-Leaves

This unpredictable book was a great genre-blend (bend, even!) novel; its been called experimental and even has a cult following. Yet for me, it is taxing in its execution. I’ve enjoyed books which challenge conventional format before, but this book went so far beyond where it needed with format, that it took away from the enjoyment of the story itself (or rather, both stories.) Many people find it one of the best, most horrific books they’ve read, a novel that amazed them or will haunt them– or both. I just can’t bring myself to agree, though I was a little bit creeped out and I do see the appeal, the beating my brain took on just trying to decipher the text was too unpleasant.

This text is laden with footnotes, side notes, sideways notes, and (what I call) “window” notes; some make sense to the story and some don’t; some are real citations or quotes, and some are not. They might be in English, German, Latin… one sentence might span an entire page. The book had picture appendices, though the relevance of some of them elude me. There were times when the text was missing or jumbled because the “page” it was taken from had been physically damaged somehow. (Note in this circumstance “physically” is in the eyes of the character who is copying the story he found, not a damaged book in reality for the reader.) This was obviously a tremendous effort on the author’s part to sync every detail. It was most likely a labor of love, for while I can appreciate it, I don’t care for it–and most novels which come across in this manner appear to be author’s babies to which they just had to finish giving birth, a personal vision seen through to fruition.

For me, the best part of this novel was the story within the story: the down and out young man, Johnny, his relationship problems with people and his vices, and his relationship to the written words he was transcribing.  This story could have been the novel itself, and it sort of was, being told among the footnotes.  I wanted more from Johnny. I connected to him as the (mostly) main character. I wanted to know what the hell really happened to him, and perhaps with more detail. Alas, I got scraps of his dissent into madness; and yet I still felt more fulfilled with the gaps in Johnny’s tormented tale than I did with the story of Will Navidson.

The main story (that is, the one not read via notations) is that of Will, a filmmaker, and his wife Karen.  They purchase a house in a rural town to escape the stress of city life and try to reconnect with each other and their children.  In this house, however, supernatural situations keep occurring.  Friends, other family, and so-called experts are brought in to help uncover just what is happening; answers aren’t really found. There’s vague speculations and guesses, but no conclusions are found. In fact, a horrific escalation for a few chapters still leaves the reader hanging. All that we get is a mostly anticlimactic ending.

I was frustrated indefinitely with figuring out the references. I wanted more from the Johnny Truant story.  I was depressed about Will’s brother’s sacrifice. I was angry that Karen was so absurd and then suddenly things mattered to her. I was annoyed  that Will just couldn’t let it go. I was appalled that the children were on the verge of neglect most of the time. I honestly didn’t expect the ending events–thus it is my choice for this staff pick, but is not my pick as a book that I enjoyed more than pained to read.

“How could anyone be lost in a house for days anyway?” (p 6)  Well I certainly was… I was lost in the House of Leaves, trying to find my way through the cumbersome formatting and notations. Too bad: it had a lot of promise.

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