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Books I Haven’t Read (part eight)

In which we fail to read “House Of Leaves” by Mark Z Danielewski


Books I Haven’t Read has come round once again. I considered leaving it for a while, after the last Book I Haven’t Read – the Author I Hadn’t Read managed to find it, and left a comment calling me “pathetic”. Ah, well, if you’re going to ego-surf, you have to be prepared for what you might find.

No risk of that happening with this post, though, because there’s already so much on the internet about this installment’s author, he’s unlikely to get around to discovering this place. Today’s Book I Haven’t Read is one that I’ve already warned you* would be coming. It’s House Of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski.

When I mentioned I’d be writing about House Of Leaves, I invited people who had read it to own up and tell me how they managed it. Nobody did. Whether that means noone has managed it, or, more likely, not very many people read this site, I’m not sure. No responses, though. I’m not the sort of person to get rid of books,** but a few years ago when I was very short of cash I did try taking some down to a local second-hand bookseller to see what I could get. House Of Leaves was turned away, unsellable. I ended up using it as a doorstop.

It has some good ideas in it, but in the end it’s just too hard a read. There are too many things packed in, too many different layers. It has to be unpacked like an onion; like an onion there seems to be nothing solid in the centre, but it has no flavour to make the unpacking worthwhile. Take the endless academic footnotes, for example. Flann O’Brien’s Third Policeman famously includes a parody of academic footnotes, long ones, telling a whole story in themselves. It’s done with a light, delicate, comedic touch, though. Danielewski’s parody of academic footnotes, with notes going on for page after page after page, is dull and heavy-handed.***

If you have managed to read House Of Leaves – all of it, without skipping bits – then I’d still like it if you let me know. I’d like to know if it’s worthwhile getting to the bottom of it all, if there is anything lurking to find in the middle. I strongly suspect there isn’t, though. I strongly suspect that was supposed to be the point.

* if you’re a regular reader

** Heresy! Heresy!

*** although the list of buildings in footnote 146 – which is spread out over eight complex and densely-typeset pages – does include one building that I used to live next-door to. Mind you, the list is so long, every reader of the book has probably lived within 100 yards of one of the listed buildings at some point.

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One comment on “Books I Haven’t Read (part eight)”

  1. aldo_cowpat says:

    Yeah, I’ve read it.

    “like an onion there seems to be nothing solid in the centre”

    This is certainly true. It doesn’t really resolve the Johnny Truant plot (which I didn’t like) and the Navidson plot (which I did like) just sort of… ends… without it being clear what has actually happened or what the impact on the overall plot (the linkage between the truant and Navidson plots) is.

    “but it has no flavour to make the unpacking worthwhile”

    For the most part, I disagree with this. As I said, I couldn’t be arsed with the Truant parts at all. In fact, if feeling uncharitable it could be construed as merely there to allow for some gratuitous sex, because we all know all boks have to have that, right? The Navidson Record, however, is a different story. Till he goes through the door it’s almost Stephen King-lite, but then it becomes something else completely. A travel journal for terrain that can’t be described? Entirely possibly. All I know is that the sequence akin to polar exploration left me shattered. The stylistic tricks, easy to write off as flummery, actually enforce the same mindset as the character on you. Bored about having to turn the book around to follow the text, feeling that you’re just rehashing the same ground and it’s not going anywhere? So is Navidson. Infuriated by chasing footnotes (especially the one I had to get someone to tell me where to find) which appear to add nothing and only serve to show that you’re not as knowledgable as you thought? Snap.

    Ultimately, the book is an immersive experience. Rather than try and induce empathy with the characters, Danielewski somehow makes you physically feel the same turning an intellectual exercise on his part into a physical one. For that, if nothing else, it’s a remarkable achievement.

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