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the complete review - fiction
House of Leaves
Mark Z. Danielewski
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B : impressive effort, varied and often entertaining
See our review for fuller assessment.
|The New Yorker
|The NY Observer
|The NY Times
|Rev. of Contemp. Fiction
||Deirdre R. Schwiesow
|The Village Voice
|Wall Street Journal
|The Washington Post
Some incredibly effusive, others hardly impressed.
Most like at least aspects of the house-horror story, but opinion is sharply divided regarding the literary devices and trickery.
From the Reviews:
- "Danielewski is a master of suspense, and his gift, in this postmodern Gothic centrepiece, places him somewhere between H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe in the grand old tradition of American horror fiction. Unfortunately, the way in which Danielewski chooses to create that suspense can be a little indigestible." - Cameron Woodhead, The Age
- "Danielewski’s novel will appeal to anyone interested in the book as an artefact. At a time when its future seems threatened, he demonstrates the uniqueness and versatility of a book. His work will also intrigue those who enjoy the literary equivalent of art that is entirely conceptual, as the idea behind it is far more interesting than the execution. Or, put another way, the novel is much more interesting to talk about than to read." - Thomas Wright, Daily Telegraph
- "Wenn David Foster Wallace mit Infinite Jest (1996) den letzten großen Roman des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts geschrieben hat, dann Danielewski den ersten des einundzwanzigsten. House of Leaves, im amerikanischen Original 2000 erschienen, ist Familienroman, Horrorthriller, Literaturwissenschaftssatire, kulturhistorischer Essay, Junkie-Story, Mythenspiel, Ehedrama, Erzählexperiment, Snuff-Gewaltporno und zugleich die ironische Reflexion all dessen: ein metafiktionaler, postmoderner Hypertextroman, der all die Computer-, Netz- und Rhizom-Metaphern einlösen will, von der die Literaturtheorie der letzten Jahrzehnte immer nur träumte. Ein Jahrhundertroman also. Und ein Haus." - Richard Kämmerlings, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
- "It is not often that a reviewer devours a 700-page novel at one sitting; but I did, recklessly ignoring slimmer volumes that had more urgent claims upon my attention. House of Leaves is partly hobbled by the invasive, unconvincing voice of Johnny Truant, but it is nonetheless a rare debut: genuinely exciting in its technical and literary exuberance." - Steven Poole, The Guardian
- "The novel may be, as a whole, too clever for its own good. Certainly, it doesn't shy away from deliberately boring or infuriating passages. But Danielewski must be acclaimed for attempting something far more difficult than the usual haunted-house book, or even the run-of-the-mill literary experiment. The signal achievement of House of Leaves is that -- despite the evasions and wrappings -- the story escapes from its prison of paper and creeps into your mind, making it one of few fictions genuinely to approach the nightmarish." - Kim Newman, The Independent
- "Damit ist angedeutet, dass es sich hier um ein Textlabyrinth handelt, in dem man gut -- und gerne! -- Tage und Wochen verbringen kann; wobei auch Leser, die nicht jeder Fährte folgen mögen, voll auf ihre Rechnung kommen. Denn insbesondere die Haupterzählung des Romans ist gedanklich wie gestalterisch ein Meisterstreich." - Angela Schader, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "Both daunting and brilliant, the novel is surprisingly fun to read, a sort of postmodern fun house where the reader becomes the author's partner in putting the story together." - Malcolm Jones, Newsweek
- "House of Leaves is a ragged cut-and-paste job, with scattered original bits. (...) A kaleidoscope of shapes and colors won't save a weak sentence, and Mr. Danielewski's sentences, lots of them long and lyrical, are too often rickety." - Adam Begley, The New York Observer
- "(Danielewski's) book is funny, moving, sexy, beautifully told, an elaborate engagement with the shape and meaning of narrative. For all its modernist maneuvers, postmodernist airs and post-postmodernist critical parodies, House of Leaves is, when you get down to it, an adventure story." - Robert Kelly, The New York Times Book Review
- "It would be strange and difficult stuff were it not for Danielewski's skills as a storyteller: his book, for all its critical digressions and deliberate obscurity, sucks you in like a Stephen King novella." - Peter Beaumont, The Observer
- "Is it the new Pale Fire ? No. But Danielewski is today’s new heavyweight contender." - Michael Hemmington, Review of Contemporary Fiction
- "House of Leaves is a rich work of the imagination. Brimming with ideas, it is funny, gleeful and wickedly dry. Danielewski is as frightening for his erudition as for his understanding of horror, which he brings dancing into the 21st century." - Nicola McAllister, The Spectator
- "Unlike some of the more academic experiments produced by American novelists in the 1960s and 70s, however, House of Leaves is also remarkably readable for a book of its size and density (...) (I)t is an entertaining, intermittently rewarding book, and one which will need to be read several times before the reader can begin to make up his or her mind." - Chris Tayler, Times Literary Supplement
- "The result teeters on the line between genius and self-indulgence. (...) Not all readers will have the patience to work their way through the Talmudic multiplicity of references and commentary, but the genuine spookiness of the Navidson story, combined with Danielewski's slyly humorous cultural commentary, makes it a worthwhile exercise." - Deirdre R. Schwiesow, USA Today
- "It is frustrating that House of Leaves is such a mess, because when Navidson's story glints through the murky waters of Danielewski's prose, it grabs hold and won't let go. (...) But in the end this deft onomatopoeia becomes tiresome in the general atmosphere of senseless typomania. (...) Danielewski's bloated and bollixed first novel certainly attempts to pass itself off as an ambitious work; the question for each reader is if the payoff makes the effort of slogging through its endless posturing worthwhile." - Emily Barton, The Village Voice
- "Mr. Danielewski's typographical mischief is all cleverly designed to intensify the creepy power of his engrossing novel." - Elizabeth Bukowski, Wall Street Journal
- "Danielewski's achievement lies in taking some staples of horror fiction -- the haunted house, the mysterious manuscript that casts a spell on its hapless reader -- and using his impressive erudition to recover the mythological and psychological origins of horror, and then enlisting the full array of avant-garde literary techniques to reinvigorate a genre long abandoned to hacks. The novel may look like Frankenstein's monster in its patchwork assembly, but it's alive! It's alive!" - Steven Moore, The Washington Post
- "Der Witz des Tristram Shandy besteht darin, dass der Roman nie zu sich selber kommt. Sein ganzes Leben wollte Tristram erzählen, sein Buch aber ist ein auf Dauer gestellter vierter Akt; Tristram wird nie erwachsen. Die Spannung des Lesers steigt infolgedessen ins Unermessliche des Unerfüllten, und mit Danielewskis Roman verhält es sich letztlich nicht anders, Autorintention, vorhanden oder nicht, hin oder her." - Wieland Freund, Die Welt
- "Das Haus ist ein maximal üppiges Buch, das an keiner Stelle formlos oder wirr wirkt. Das Einzige, was einen an Danielewski zuweilen nervt, ist sein unermüdlich Fährten legender und dann wieder gezielt entwertender Fleiß. Da hat einer sich etwas sehr streberhaft darum bemüht, dass Pynchon und Derrida applaudieren und zugleich das Publikum des Blair Witch Project Fingernägel kauend mit Schwitzehänden sich an die Seiten klammert. Doch meist versöhnt sein Humor" - Diedrich Diederichsen, Die Zeit
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
House of Leaves is presented as a book "by Zampanò, with introduction and notes by Johnny Truant".
The bulk of the book (over 500 pages of it) is devoted to what is called The Navidson Record, an account of a film and the history and interpretations of and reactions to it.
In addition, there are six exhibits, three appendices, an index, credits, -- and "Yggdrasil" (a one page sort of afterthought).
House of Leaves is an adventure.
It's a neat-looking text, with some clever effects.
The whole thing is presented as a mock-documentary, a heavily annotated book on The Navidson Record (with three levels of footnotes -- Zampanò's, Johnny Truant's, and then the nameless book publishers', differentiated by three different typefaces), and a variety of supporting material -- including collages, poems, and a letter to the editor -- in three appendices (one for Zampanò, one for Johnny, and one of "Contrary Evidence").
In his introduction, Johnny Truant describes how he came across Zampanò's manuscript after the old man's death, and a bit about what he knows about the mysterious author himself.
Among the most noteworthy facts: Zampanò was blind, but his great book is about a film .....
Johnny Truant saves the manuscript and becomes obsessed with it, editing and annotating as he puts it together and presents it in this final form.
The story of Johnny Truant is also told in House of Leaves, as Johnny records his reactions to the text and reveals bits from his past and present in footnotes to the text (sometimes extending over several pages).
Johnny is a confused guy, working (without great success) at a tattoo parlour.
In a book where fact and fiction blur constantly it goes without saying that Truant is not his real name, and that some of the stories he tells are not true.
His difficult childhood, and his complex relationship with a long-institutionalized mother are gradually revealed over the course of the book.
(Some 60 pages of letters from Johnny's mother are also included in one of the appendices.)
The main storyline is, however, that of The Navidson Record.
It is described as a film made by Will Navidson, a Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist, and distributed by Miramax.
(...) while hardly a blockbuster, the film continues to generate revenues as well as interest.
Film periodicals frequently publish reviews, critiques and letters.
Books devoted entirely to The Navidson Record now appear with some regularity.
Numerous professors have made The Navidson Record required viewing for their seminars, while many universities already claim that dozens of students from a variety of departments have completed doctoral dissertations on the film.
The history of the film, and then the film itself are described in great detail.
Will Davidson and his "longtime companion" Karen Green moved into the house on Ash Tree Lane with their kids, Chad and Daisy.
Will likes to film everything, and he mounted High 8 cameras with motion detectors all over the house -- as well as constantly going around with handheld movie and still cameras.
Everything seems fine at first, although some undercurrents of discord are already visible.
Filming in the house Navidson discovers that there is more to the house than meets the eye.
At first the discrepancies are minute.
Measuring the house Navidson determines that it is a tiny bit longer when measured inside than when measured outside.
He calls on his brother, Tom, to help him get to the root of the problem, but things only get thrown more out of kilter.
In fact, there is a lot more to the house: new rooms and spaces open up inside the house.
Navidson begins to explore the place, and then enlists others to help him, filming the various efforts to get to the bottom of it (though much of the film records only darkness).
This story, which turns into a fairly eery horror story, is well done, the suspense building, the inexplicable well presented.
There is some fun typographical play here as well (though some might find it annoying), especially as the characters progress to the deeper recesses of the space.
Danielewski also presents parts of the text here reversed on the back of pages (so the text can be read front and back, as it were) and within the text itself (layers of meaning), in corners, at all angles.
Some of this seems mere experimentation for the sake of experimentation, but occasionally it is effective -- a rapid succession of pages with only a few words on each -- or downright scary -- e.g. when there are only a few lines of text at the bottom of each page and a huge blank space above them.
Exploring the house is too much for almost all that venture in.
Will and Karen's relationship suffers greatly, and worse comes to those who venture into the unfathomable void.
The indeterminate shape-shifting space defeats them all.
The place remains a mystery: there are no plausible explanations for it, and Danielewski (and his various authors) don't try to present any, considering possibilities but acknowledging that none are fully convincing.
Danielewski has a great deal of fun with the footnotes, referring to both invented and actual sources.
This pseudo-academic documentation is clever and amusing -- though with nearly 500 footnotes it can get overwhelming.
Other noteworthy aspects of the book include sections that are crossed out but still legible, as well as sections that are crossed out (or burned or otherwise destroyed) and no longer legible (though in some cases the footnotes to the missing text have been preserved).
There are extensive quotes, many in foreign languages, and even a page in Braille.
(Regrettably the otherwise fine copy editing allows a few foreign typos to seep in -- and some of the translations provided are disappointing, including the last footnote:
Rilke's Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr is translated as "Whoever has no house now, will never have one" when it should be "will never build one" or "won't ever build themselves one" -- i.e. the operative verb is "build" not "have".)
There is a "transcript" of comments from people such as Camille Paglia, Douglas R. Hofstadter, Harold Bloom, and Anne Rice -- though Johnny doubts the authenticity of the transcript.
There is a glossary, pictures and collages, and enough variety to keep the reader entertained for much of the book.
There's even an Index, but it is not quite as helpful as one might hope.
There are clever bits to it -- cf. the entries for "god" and "God" -- but too much is missing to make it a useful tool.
House of Leaves is not a grand success.
Some of the writing is very good -- most of the exploration of the house is very well done, and the collection of letters from Johnny's mother is also quite good -- but Danielewski can not sustain it throughout.
Occasionally he strains too much for effect, and often he overwhelms the reader with the sheer mass of material.
The heft of the book, and the variety, make for a generally interesting read -- there's almost always something new around the next corner or the next page -- put there are longueurs.
Johnny's own story is also not quite as fascinating as Danielewski seems to intend it to be.
His page-long digressions in footnotes generally don't offer quite enough to satisfy, and neither he nor Zampanò strike one as fully-realized characters.
They seem quirky for the sake of quirk, two-dimensional and decidedly literary inventions rather than real people.
A warning appears between the brief Foreword and the Introduction: This is not for you.
It's something to consider -- though it can simply be seen as an author covering all the bases, an easy excuse when readers complain what they are being subjected to.
However, it is, of course, also an anti-dedication, and something to keep in mind: who is the person that Johnny is addressing with these words.
(The typeface makes it clear that these words are Johnny's.)
House of Leaves is well worth perusing.
Danielewski is willing to take risks and willing to try novel approaches -- he and publisher Pantheon (a Random House imprint !) are to be commended for their adventurousness.
There's a lot here that is interesting and amusing, and some that is really quite good.
It is a lot to wade through, but it is a fun wallow.
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House of Leaves:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
American author Mark Z. Danielewski was born in 1966.
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