A month or so ago, while I still worked at the Mill Mountain Coffee & Tea shop, I had an interesting conversation with a customer there.
This was not uncommon. Interesting people abound in rustic, hipster-vibed coffee shops, so I’d had many an interesting conversation with customers before, but something happened this time to make the encounter stand out.
This man and I talked about many things on that slow afternoon, pausing occasionally so I could take care of some wayward customer. Honestly, he was kind of pretentious, but in an endearing way, if that makes sense. It was as if his age and seemingly-endless knowledge allowed him to be pretentious without being annoying. We talked of sociology and politics, current affairs and history, psychology and astronomy, and in the end, he told me he liked my spark and recommended a book he thought I would love.
“It’s called House of Leaves,” he said, “And it will change you.”
I told him I would read it. His description was interesting, and I was already planning on going to Barnes & Noble once I got off work, but I wish now I had never read that book. The warning at the beginning that read simply “this is not for you” is one that should be heeded.
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski is experimental fiction. It’s hard to describe experimental literature if you’ve never read it, but some of the most well-known books that fall under this category are Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, Ulysses by James Joyce, The Illuminae Files by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, and the like. (Funnily enough, House of Leaves is number one on the Goodreads ‘Popular Experimental Fiction’ shelf.)
However, something about Mark Z. Danielewski’s fiction is different. I went into it thinking it was going to be odd, a strangely-worded, confusing set-up of a book with an interesting story weaved within. I was right. What I wasn’t expecting was for the book to actually affect me in the way it did.
Let me explain now what the book is about.
It starts with a man named Johnny Truant as the narrator. He is a rather unassuming twenty-something, living and working and just trying to get by. A man who simply calls himself Zampano lives in the same apartment building as Johnny’s friend, Lude; Zampano is a bit of recluse, but kind enough. When he is not sequestered in his apartment, he takes walks around the apartment complex’s dying garden and befriends the neighborhood cats.
Then, out of nowhere, Zampano dies, and it is found that his apartment was turned into a shelter of sorts, littered with papers along the walls, coverings on all the windows, endless locks on the doors, and, strangest of all, an unfinished manuscript entitled House of Leaves that Johnny ends up inheriting purely by accident. The manuscript itself is a research project into a strange film called The Navidson Record, a documentary about a normal family of four—the father, Will Navidson or “Navy”; the mother, Karen; and the two children, Chad (8) and Daisy (5)—as they move from New York to a house in Virginia.
The house is quite normal at first, but soon it begins to shift, eventually opening a hallway in the living room into an endless, black void. The Navidson Record then goes on to show Will Navidson as he and others document their expeditions into the dark hallway, finding shifting staircases and great rooms and the possibility of a terrible beast stalking them.
As the story continues and Johnny Truant becomes an unofficial editor of the manuscript, he discovers that The Navidson Record seems to have a heated discourse surrounding it, with every type of intellectual and celebrity weighing in on whether it is true or simply another found-footage story. The only problem is, The Navidson Record does not seem to exist, and none of the intellectuals or celebrities mentioned in the manuscript have ever heard of it or of Zampano. Johnny decides to finish the manuscript anyway, and he soon begins to spiral out of control. The farther he gets into the story, the more hallucinations he has, the less he sleeps, and the more paranoid he gets, installing multiple locks on his doors, covering the windows with newspaper, and losing bits of time. At one point, he misses three weeks of work and his boss hires someone else, even though Johnny thought it had only been a few days.
Now, though that may sound unsettling, you’re most likely wondering how it changed me, and why I wish I had never read it. That part is somewhat harder to explain. The story I have presented to you is a mere summary, just barely scratching the surface of this 700+ page book, but one thing that seems to unsettle people the most is the layout.
The layout of this book evokes a strange, visceral reaction in most people, to the point that a friend of mine thought the book was honestly satanic until I described to him what, exactly, experimental fiction was. Still, there are many stories of this book changing people. Here is one such anecdote from a review by Jake Thomas on Goodreads:
“I was an RA my junior and senior years of college. One year I had a good friend of mine living in my building, and upon one of her visits to my room I put House of Leaves in her hand, telling her that she should read it. A couple of days later I was in my room, awake at some unholy hour due to my vampiric sleep schedule, and there’s a knock at my door. As an RA this is a rather unsettling experience. On the other side of that door could be a drug overdose, suicide attempt, food poisoning or any other host of problems we’re warned about as RAs. So tentatively I open the door and am relieved to find that it is not some horrific medical emergency, but simply my friend. Except my friend looks haggard. Her hair is unkempt, there are bags under her eyes and she is slouched forward, breaking her usually quite nice posture. In her hand is House of Leaves. We stand there, silently measuring each other up, and then my friend rears back and throws the book at me, then walks away. Such behavior is not terribly unusual for this friend of mine, so I make a note to ask about this later and then go back to bed.
The next day I call up my friend and ask her what exactly was the deal. “I hadn’t slept in two days,” she said. “That damn book kept me awake. I couldn’t finish it, I couldn’t sleep with it in the room, I had to get rid of it. That book f***** me up.” To this day she still can’t bring herself to finish reading [it].”
Another way to find out how much this book will mess with you is to seek out forums and message boards dedicated to it and see for yourself how the people there obsess over every little detail until their copies are littered with markings not unlike Johnny Truant’s own additions. I was not immune to this, and I left a pencil nearby every time I picked up the book, just in case.
Shown in the picture above is also the part that stuck with me the most and unsettled me to my core. It is an aside by Johnny, describing a hallucination he had at work. At the end, he proclaims: ‘“known some call is air am” which is to say “I am not what I used to be.”‘ Terrifyingly, one can realize that this is actually phonetic Latin—“non sum quails eram” which directly translates to “I am not what I used to be.” But Johnny, according to himself, does not speak Latin, and often had to get others to translate the Latin bits in Zampano’s manuscript. I don’t know why, but that is when I began to realize this book was really messing with me. Now every time I pick it up, I feel like something is pulled from me and locked inside the pages.
The center is not the center.
Le centre n’est pas le centre.
THE CENTER IS NOT THE CENTER.
“[This] book has an amazing way of crawling beneath your skin and taking root. When I read it my sleep schedule, already astoundingly bad, became even more irregular and bizarro. I started looking at things differently. The world changed. Not in any big way, but there was a definite shift, and that’s the way this book works. It comes at you sideways.” – Jake Thomas, Goodreads
The best way I can think of now to really show you how terrifying and astounding and amazing this book is would be for you to read it yourself, listen to the album Haunted by Poe (an album inspired by House of Leaves), or do both. But I do not recommend you read this book if you have any current and pressing issues with PTSD, depression, schizophrenia, or the like, and I will also offer you the warning Johnny Truant offered me the beginning.
This is not for you.
Of course, this warning only served to make me determined to read the book in the first place, and it will most likely do the same for you.