Family Reads: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

 Welcome to Family Reads! Family Reads is a monthly feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book. Posts with a link-up go live around the last Sunday of each month, so feel free to grab the banner and join in however you like.

Reno: Sister’s pick this month is House of Leaves, a chunkster that’s been on my TBR list since July 2012. It’s difficult to motivate me to read lengthy novels. Sister gave me plenty of notice for this one, so I read a little bit each day through December, occasionally blazing through intense or sparsely filled passages.

Sister: I saw this book on the shelf at work and flipped through it. It looked really neat and weird, which I thought might make it interesting. I asked some people at work about it and they encouraged me to read it.

Sister gives this book 3.5 stars; I give it 4 stars.  You’ll get more out of this discussion if you’ve read the book (though we do avoid spoilers below). This post takes a different format than previous posts, because I didn’t realize I wasn’t recording until halfway through our discussion =.= Here’s our discussion on the structure of the book and the layering of stories.

No room in the house exceeds a length of twenty-five feet, let alone fifty feet, let alone fifty-six and a half feet, and yet Chad and Daisy’s voices are echoing, each call responding with an entirely separate answer. (57)

We noticed a common theme of ‘beyond the realm of the known’ between Sister’s picks – Annihilation, The Wake, and House of Leaves – for Family Reads. Our discussion depend heavily on asking why? without providing many answers! House of Leaves overwhelmed us in this sense. We both enjoyed the story lines of Johnny and the Navidsons, but quickly realized as our discussion progressed that one could ask why? about nearly every aspect of the book and not come to any solid conclusions. Our why? questions about House of Leaves took a different direction that our why? questions with Annihilation and The Wake. Previously, we asked why? about in-story situations, characters, explanations, etc., and we filled in some answers with our own theories. With House of Leaves, we found ourselves wondering “Why would the author do this or that?” With an experimental novel, it’s hard not to ask yourself that question. Sometimes the answer appears easy (ex. the disorienting layouts convey a hint of what it’s like to be in the dark room) while other answers would take more thought than we were willing to put in on a Sunday night (ex. what does the index add to the story?). We wondered whether Danielewski had a purpose to every choice he made, or whether some things he just threw in to mess with the reader or (to put it more politely) allow the reader to build on and interpret in their own way, giving them a chance to own the story and make it uniquely relative to them. Some other features we wondered about: the pause buttons, the Yggdrasil page, the missing Reston and Last Interviews, the note ‘This is not for you’. The layering of the book itself astonished us. You’ve got the Navidson videos, Zampano’s commentary (and commentaries of numerous others), Johnny’s commentary, and Johnny’s life story. Danielewski created all of those together. Impressive!

One of the bigger questions we considered was why did Zampano write The Navidson Record, and why did Johnny add his own story to it, making it public for all to read. Did Zampano actually have access to these videos that Johnny could find no evidence of? Did he know the Navidsons? (Sister theorizes that the Navidsons might have been relations of Zampano’s.) I have a tough imagining that the Navidson’s aren’t real, but I also have a tough time imagining that Zampano didn’t make the whole thing up. The fact that we know relatively little about Zampano (compared to the Navidsons or Johnny) makes it even more difficult to distinguish what might have been true or real. Zampano and Johnny are both unreliable narrators, so you can’t really pin anything down with certainty. (Then I wondered, in what way would the reader benefit from being able to define what is true or not in the context of the book? A question beyond our ability to answer!)

Sis agrees with those who consider it a love story. She also felt that Johnny’s story was the main story, but that both stories need each other to work. I loved the Navidson’s story most, but for the creepy bits rather than the ‘love story’ bits. I would have enjoyed reading that even without Johnny’s additions (though I also loved Johnny’s character and voice).

We found this book a little overwhelming to discuss, though we enjoyed the story and its surface layers (I particularly liked how Zampano wrote in a pseudo-academic style, still delivering intense and shocking moments). There’s so much going on! With Annihilation, we had a nice little list of things we wanted answers to. With House of Leaves, you could spiral off your discussion into infinite discussions. We barely scrapped the surface. I wonder if Danielewski has given any interviews about House of Leaves. I’d be interested in hearing what he has to say about the whole thing, but I also like the idea of leaving it a totally self-contained work. Have you read House of Leaves? Does it intrigue you or does it just look weird? If you’ve written a Family Reads post this month, add your link here.