House of leaves (Mark Z. Danielewski, 2000)

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House of leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000).

Score: a one-of-a-kind book.

House of leaves is not for you.

House of leaves is a book about a guy who finds a manuscript about a film that does not exist about a house that’s haunted as hell. It’s a book that’s a labyrinth. It looks really confusing, but it’s not really. The in-universe book is written by Zampanò, a blind film critic and scholar that writes like a freshman and knows it, and these passages are in Times New Roman. The manuscript is found by Johnny Truant, a sleazy assistant at a tattoo parlor, who nevertheless can keep up with Zampanò’s nonsense, and is increasingly affected and haunted by the manuscript. His passages are written in Courier New. Meanwhile, Zampanò describes the events in the plot of a documentary called The Navidson Record, to which he provides a gargantuan amount of references from other scholars, film critics, journalists and pretty much anyone who had anything to say about anything and a soapbox that was tall enough. Despite the fact that no one else in real life has ever heard about Navidson or the house at Ash Tree Lane. Navidson moves there with his family looking for a peaceful life, only to find out the house they bought is bigger on the inside than the outside, and contains a huge, shifting, pitch-black maze.

House of leaves is many things: it was marketed as a cosmic horror story, while some people see it’s more prominently a love story, and what I think it is more prominently is a huge fuck you to the world of academia and scholarly writing. I never thought a parody of scholastic and pedantry could be a thing, but so it goes. Zampanò is shameless about quoting primary sources he never read, adding huge chunks of unrelated ravings about random topics to already fat and excessive footnotes or defending outlandish and clichéd theses, along with the unnecessary quotes in exotic languages that Johnny complains so much about. This was the late 90s and Google Translate didn’t exist. If you’re not familiar with how these intellectuals and smart people roll, you’re going to miss out on a lot.

But the mindfuck goes further. Every single instance of the word “house”, in any language and anywhere on the book is printed in blue, and no unambiguous explanation has been given. Some pages are half blank, with upside-down or mirrored text. And it’s not done just because. The chapter that develops the theme of the labyrinth has extremely confusing footnote structure, to the point it has different columns that must be read in different orders and footnote marks that lead to the beginning of the passage all over, like it’s described that real mazes have. The passage that introduces the Minotaur opens with a paragraph shaped like a key and closes with one that resembles a lock. And seriously, make what you will of Johnny, I’ve just given up already.

Because I’m convinced that it’s also a huge fuck you to people who like to give confusing or obscure stories weird interpretations and conspiracy theorists in general. Danielewski is out for you too, guys. “House” is always written in blue to screw with you and in the end it’s just a novel.

A friend who is skeptical of it asked me: “would it still be worth reading without all the weird layout and colours?” and the answer is still the same. It wouldn’t be the same book without them.

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