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I'm not a particularly voracious reader of fiction. Most of my reading is in the form of books and magazines about science or history. But I do try to squeeze in a novel here and there -- usually something from the canon of classics. I never write about them on this blog because I doubt I have anything of value to say about them. Besides, being predominantly a video game writer means that I lack the vocabulary for expressing critical opinions of non-interactive media. I struggle to get by with the reviews of movies and TV shows that I write.

However, I read a rather unique novel over the summer that I do feel I can discuss. In large part, my willingness to talk about this particular novel comes from the fact that this particular novel actually has an interactive element to it that makes some of my video game criticism lingua more applicable. The novel in question is House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, published by Pantheon Books in 2000.

I was introduced to this book by a YouTube video from Noah Caldwell-Gervais about the 2019 Blair Witch game on the XBox. Towards the end of the video, he talks about the conclusion of the Blair Witch game, which involves surreal, looping hallways. He goes on to talk about the recent fad of looping hallways, which has been seen in games ranging from Blair Witch to Layers of Fear to P.T.. He then talks about a novel which may have served as an inspiration for these games, and which attempts to simulate the feeling of being lost in a corridor (and the ensuing madness that it brings on) through the structure and organization of the text itself. This piqued my interest, and I promptly hopped onto Amazon and ordered a copy of the book. I was going to have a lot of downtime during the stay-at-home lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic, and needed something to help kill the time.

I was inspired to read House of Leaves after watching Noah Caldwell-Gervais' critique of Blair Witch.

Indeed, I ended up enjoying House of Leaves, which has become a sort of paradigm shift for me in terms of how the written word can engage the reader. For me, House of Leaves is a watershed work of literature, in much the same way that Demon's Souls was a watershed video game. House of Leaves is my first encounter with true "ergodic text" (unless you want to count the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books I read as a child) and has redefined (for me) how a textual work (such as a book) can go about engaging its audience, and how it can tell a story in a more interactive manner than other peers in the respective media.

It's impossible to discuss this book and its merits without going into spoiler territory. As such, there will be some minor or moderate spoilers in this review. I'll try to keep them as light as possible, but consider yourself warned.

Lost in the pages

House of Leaves employs several framing devices to tell multiple narratives simultaneously. At the center is a documentary movie, called The Navidson Record about a family (named the Navidsons) exploring a supernatural house that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, and which regularly changes its interior size and geometry in increasingly impossible ways. This movie is being reviewed and researched by a third party named Zampanò, who is writing a book about the documentary in the hopes of determining if the documentary depicts a real supernatural phenomena, or if it is the work of Hollywood trickery. Zampanò dies while working on this book, and his research is recovered by a third party named Johnny Truant, who attempts to piece together Zampanò's research and finish his work. Both Zampanò and Johnny become increasingly obsessed with The Navidson Record, and eventually go mad.

To further obfuscate the work, the introduction establishes that the original version of the work was a series of scattered pages, photographs, video clips, and audio recordings that were passed around on paper, VHS, and cassette tapes before being posted piecemeal to internet message boards in the mid-to-late 90's. The scattered documents were eventually collected by a book publisher and edited together into a single published work, which is implied to be the novel that you are holding in your hand.

Danielewski employs multiple framing devices to tell between 2 and 4 concurrent narratives.

Zampanò transcribed the events of the film into text, along with his own interpretations and commentary. Then Johnny reviewed Zampanò's notes, and added his own interpretations and commentary on top Zampanò's commentaries, while also maintaining a journal of his daily life (and decline in sanity).

Herein lies the central gimmick of House of Leaves: the novel uses various typographic tricks and changes in perspective to try to disorient the reader, as if the book itself is a maze that you must traverse. Each "author"'s text is presented with a distinct combination of fonts, text sizes, margins, and so forth, in order to distinguish who has written what. However, each author (and the editor at the publishing company) have inserted footnotes into the lower-level texts that contain further context or interpretation based on their own research.

Many of the footnotes are just bibliographic references to (mostly fictional) external books, magazines, TV interviews, and so forth. But many of the footnotes feature a large chunk of the actual narrative, and therefore must be read. A footnote might be indicated in the middle of a paragraph (or sentence), referring the reader to the bottom of the page. But that footnote might proceed onto the next page, and may encompass multiple pages, and each footnote may, itself, contain footnotes of its own. There might also be references to content included in one of the book's several appendices, some of which are as long as entire chapters. This creates a certain interactive element, as it is up to the reader how to resolve the various footnotes.

Some footnotes refer to the appendices, which can be as long as entire chapters.

Do you immediately stop reading the current passage in order to read a lengthy footnote that may go on for pages? Or do you finish the current passage, then cycle back to any footnotes you may have missed? Or do you read the entirety of The Navidson Record, and then start over and read all of Johnny's footnotes in their entirety? In some senses, the action of turning the pages back and forth mimics the actions of the characters. Whether that be Navidson and his cohort attempting to navigate the impossible maze beneath his house by exploring one hallway, then cycling back to explore another; or Zampanò and Johnny flipping through different books and video clips to cross-reference their own research.

It also opens up the possibility (and fear) of you, the reader, becoming "lost" within the book itself. Footnotes may be embedded within footnotes, which may send you down a spiraling path of text passages before you have to flip back to a previous page and hope you remember where you left off. It might not be a bad idea to have 2 or 3 bookmarks handy for this one!

This is the first novel I've ever read which I feel I could write a strategy guide for!

Shape-shifting text

But it gets crazier and more interesting. As the story descends deeper and deeper into its own rabbit hole, the text itself starts to morph and shape-shift to mimic the transforming geometry of Navidson's house itself. Some parts of the book might require the reader to flip the book 45 or 90 degrees to read text that has been re-oriented. In other cases, the position of the text on the pages mimics the shape of the corridors that Navidson and his party are exploring. A line of text describing a descent down a corridor might literally descend diagonally across the page. Font sizes and character spacing might change to convey increases or decreases in the size or scale of an environment.

The shape and pacing of the text itself mimics the action of the story.

Some sections of text seem intended to evoke a sense of agoraphobia, while others want to instill a sense of claustrophobia. During moments in which the characters panic, the density of text might decrease to a few words on a page, causing the reader to rapidly flip pages to mimic the frantic behaviors of the characters.

The changing structure of the text forces the reader to change how you hold the book, how quickly you flip through pages, and in which direction(s) you flip the pages. It all served to grab and hold my attention much better than most other novels I've read.

One of the reasons why I don't read as much fiction as I'd like is that reading often makes me drowsy. I might sit on the couch, open up a book, read 2 or 3 pages, and then start dosing off. It makes it hard for me to remember what I've read because I might have been half asleep, and it slows down the pace of my reading to a crawl. If I actually do end up taking a nap as a result of reading, that will also mean I lose hours of the day that could have been spent on other constructive efforts or entertainment.

The reader is expected to flip back and forth between pages, and also to hold the book sideways or upside-down.

I did not have this problem with House of Leaves. The more interactive physicality of the book kept my mind and body alert. The irony is that I would sometimes lay in bed with the book in the hopes of it being a sleep aid, only to end up laying in bed for upwards of an hour as I read several chapters.

Different stories

The fact that I also enjoyed the story certainly helped to keep me awake and interested. The account of The Navidson Record kept me intrigued and excited about what was to come. I wanted to turn the page to find out how much more crazy this supernatural house would get. I also found the character dramas between Navidson, his wife, and their friends interesting enough to keep me reading.

The Navidson Report, and character drama therein, interested me more than Johnny or Zampanò's stories.

Unfortunately, much of the early half of the novel is the less enjoyable story of Johnny Truant. Johnny's story starts off strong, as it's mostly an account of Zampanò's mysterious delirium and death, and Johnny's reaction to finding Zampanò's notes about The Navidson Record. But Johnny's story starts to feel kind of dumb and juvenile. It's all parties, sex, and drugs. Every new character he meets is some gorgeous young woman, some of whom are strippers and porn actresses, who are all desperate to have sex with him, and he describes in detail their breasts and physique. The writing itself came off as very immature, as if it had been written by a horny 14-year old.

I have to assume that this was deliberate by Danielewski, as the writing for much of The Navidson Record was almost clinical. I'm also not entirely sure if we're expected to take Johnny as a reliable narrator in the first half of the book. The shift in writing and in Johnny's own priorities, seems to highlight the dramatic changes that The Navidson Record brought about in him, as if The Navidson Record were a drug, and he was becoming hopelessly addicted. In the second half of the book, Johnny is definitely an unreliable narrator, but I'm honestly completely unsure when this transition happens (or if it happens), and how much of the earlier parts of the book can be taken at face value.

Even though Johnny's story ramped up (for me) in the back half of the book, I did feel like it kind of petered out into an anti-climactic, un-fulfilling conclusion.

The novel was marketed to me as a "horror" story, but the multiple layers of the story allow it to jump around multiple genres. Sometimes it's gothic or cosmic horror about struggling to understand a mind-bending landscape; other times it's a romance about a disaffected couple re-discovering their love for each other; and in yet other cases, it seems to be a drama about drug abuse or living with schizophrenia. It also frequently descends into farcical comedy and biting satire, mostly aimed at literary criticism and the mass media. It covers a lot of ground, and combination of stories, styles, and genres elevates all the individual elements, making the whole story greater than the sum of its parts.

I can't say that House of Leaves is the best book I've ever read, but it is certainly the most unique.

Some sections of the book appear much more intimidating to read than they actually are.

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