Let’s Talk Books — House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Warning: Spoilers!

Well it’s been a while since I’ve written one of these! As many of you know, I didn’t exactly have a satisfying reading year in 2016. It got to a point where I felt discouraged to pick up books, and I started enjoying my fiction in other forms. That’s not to say I’m not interested in reading literature anymore, but for the time being my pursuits in finding new books to talk about have considerably slowed down.

Today, however, I do have a book to talk about that interested me to the point of actually looking forward to read something! House of Leaves is a horror/romance novel that really, really loves to play with format. And if you remember my post on the ttyl books, I’m most interested in reading books with more creative presentations.

So House of Leaves is set up like a collection of fictional notes, academic-style essays, and interviews regarding a fictional film called The Navidson Record. One of the main characters, Will Navidson, moves into a new home with his wife Karen and two children, hoping to either take a break or retire from a life of traveling the world for his photography career. He wishes to document his family life in a quiet, suburban environment for a change, so he sets up cameras around the house to capture everyone’s day-to-day activities.

When the family returns home one day, they find an undiscovered door that leads to a hall connecting two rooms in the house. Looking at floor plans reveals that they didn’t just miss it, but this hall isn’t supposed to exist at all. Will also discovers that the dimensions of the house are off by 3/4 of an inch; the inside of the house is slightly larger than the outside. He calls his brother Tom to help investigate any possible causes, and eventually a new door appears in their home. This time, however, the other side of the door is more threatening. There is a very dark and cold hallway that leads into a seemingly endless maze. When trying to explore it, Navidson gets lost and almost doesn’t make it back. Not only is the inside a labyrinth, but the halls shift, making any progress markers pointless.

Navidson eventually makes it back home, but his curiosity needs answers. Although he promises not to go back because of a promise to Karen, he does hire a professional explorer named Holloway and his crew to investigate for them. Navidson also outfits them with filming equipment so Holloway’s crew can document what they find.

Eventually the team discovers an enormous, spiraling staircase that leads deeper underground. However, after descending for at least half a day they realize it’s not ending and decide to head back. Future expeditions cause problems with Holloway’s mind, convincing him there’s a monster lurking somewhere. Navidson, Tom, and their buddy Billy also believe something else is lurking in the darkness; they find unusual scratch marks in the halls and Holloway’s team also finds their progress markers shredded as well. Holloway eventually shoots his own teammates, who flee and try to survive until Navidson finds them with his rescue team of Tom and Billy.

They eventually make it out, but one of the crew dies in the process. Navidson also finds a recording of Holloway’s final moments before killing himself, and sees/hears the body being dragged away and consumed. The house eventually starts transforming outside of the mysterious hallways; floors in the main house collapse and threaten to swallow everyone inside. When Navidson’s daughter is still trapped inside when everyone else has escaped, Tom goes back to rescue her. He gives her to Navidson just before the house takes his life.

Karen, who has already had enough of her husband’s shit, finally convinces him it’s time to go. Karen takes the kids while Navidson says he’ll meet with them in a couple of days after he tries to salvage his footage. However, he doesn’t return, and Karen is conflicted whether she should finally just leave him or if she should go find him herself. She eventually does go after him; Navidson couldn’t help himself and needed more closure about what the house actually is. Karen rescues him from the dark and that’s it… sort of.

What makes House of Leaves unique is that this main story is basically a summary of Navidson’s documentary, which was released as a film in the book’s universe. There are intentionally missing pieces to this whole story, so if it feels unfinished I supposed you could say that’s one reason why. The “essays” on the film that summarize the plot (and give genuinely interesting insight into small details in the film that expand or theorize about different parts of Navidson’s relationship with Karen or the house itself) I believe were written by an old man named Zampano, but I’m not 100% sure on that. Mixed into that are journal entries, newspaper clippings, interviews, and other material that try to help us understand the mystery of this house, this documentary, and whether or not it all really happened.

Zampano is the person that was compiling all of this information together. He died before House of Leaves even started, and it’s here that the other main character of the book comes into play. And unfortunately, he’s the worst part of the entire novel for me: Johnny. He’s a 20 or 30-something guy that works in a tattoo parlor and mainly goes around abusing drugs, getting plastered, fucking random girls (sometimes all three at once), and ejaculating philosophy to… I guess make him seem deeper than he actually is. If you couldn’t tell, I’m not exactly a fan of this type of character, so being stuck with him for half the book when something infinitely more interesting is going on in the other half really hurts an otherwise great reading experience for me.

So for whatever reason, Johnny takes an interest in Zampano’s work and begins editing and finishing the compilation himself. During this time, he suffers from hallucinations, feelings of cold, claustrophobia, and other symptoms that parallel those suffered by the exploration team in Navidson’s house. I guess there’s supposed to be some kind of connection from reading about the situation to actually being in the house itself, but with Johnny’s self-destructive habits I can’t even take him seriously as a narrator. And while he may have been meant to be an unreliable narrator in the first place, seeing him abuse his life so often makes me think his symptoms have nothing to do with The Navidson Record, but just with his drug and alcohol abuse.

In fact, I don’t really feel like Johnny has anything to do with The Navidson Record at all. I think he was meant to be a vessel in which the reader can see that the collection of essays, interviews, etc. were meant to be a work of fiction within this fictional world, if that makes sense. I think if House of Leaves was, by itself, this random collection of documents, readers may not understand that this is a work of fiction. So Johnny is essentially a character in this book that was meant to discover The Navidson Record and present it to the reader in a more understandable way.

And if that’s all there was, then that would be fine. The thing is, among the many footnotes throughout the book, Johnny will randomly go off into tangents on his nights of debauchery that honestly didn’t feel like they held any real purpose. There would be so many times when I’d be in the middle of an exciting discovery about the halls in Navidson’s home, only to be interrupted for 10 pages about how Johnny dropped acid with some random girl and then went back to her house to fuck her. I found everything about Johnny extremely obnoxious; I ended up skimming his sections just to get back to The Navidson Record, which I honestly think this entire book should have been about. To make matters worse, the end of The Navidson Record is kind of tossed to the side in favor of a series of letters from Johnny’s mother to him. There’s a good 60-70 pages worth of letters, too, which makes the actual ending to House of Leaves pretty anticlimactic.

Johnny’s sections aside, though, House of Leaves was the most interesting book I read in a while. It had me captivated and I looked forward to each time I sat down to read it. The books plays with format a lot, not just with the different types of documents, but with page layout as well. The book is close to 700 pages long, but a lot of the pages don’t even have half a page’s worth of text on it. Sentences and words are sometimes scattered about the page or arranged in a certain way to compliment the way the halls in Navidson’s house are changing or how the mental state of certain characters is transforming.

The only thing that disappointed me (aside from Johnny) is that there are no real answers given to what the deal with the house was or if there was a monster inside. There are some clues given throughout the text that hint the house exhibits interstellar properties and that it may predate the Big Bang, but that’s about it. I don’t necessarily hold this against the book, though. Mystery and horror stories often don’t offer satisfying answers; the thrill of the buildup is usually supposed to be more satisfying than the conclusion. And since this is also supposed to be a romance story, I’m happy with the way Navidson and Karen’s relationship was explored and arguably fixed by the end of the book (which I’ll admit I haven’t done a very good job explaining in this post).

All in all, I definitely recommend checking this one out. 700 pages is a lot, but with how the pages are laid out I’d say it’s more like 400 pages. It’s a different kind of book, so if you’re looking for something to read that’s less traditional please check it out!

Thanks for reading and I hope you’re having a great week! ūüôā

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House of Leaves
by Mark Z. Danielewski – Published 2000 by Pantheon – Paperback, 709 pages – ISBN 9780375703768

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Let’s Talk Books — Looking for Alaska

Warning: Spoilers!

Oh, John Green. You make my head hurt.

You might remember my reviews of The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns a while back. The Fault in Our Stars was pretty difficult for me to digest, while Paper Towns gave me a much more enjoyable experience. I wouldn’t say I hated The Fault in Our Stars, but it did frustrate the living shit out of me because of how obnoxious both main characters were, as well as the majority of the book in general. Paper Towns had noticeable flaws as well, but I was genuinely happy to find myself appreciating it more.

So here I am again, this time with Looking for Alaska. I honestly didn’t know what to expect, considering my polarizing views of the two previous books. Would it be obnoxious and pretentious like The Fault in Our Stars, or would it be a standard, albeit entertaining YA read like Paper Towns?

I’d like to say it was a mix of those two experiences, but Looking for Alaska was difficult for me to form a concrete opinion on. It was entertaining; I certainly didn’t hate it. But I can’t say I liked it with complete honesty, nor can I say it also didn’t frustrate the living hell out of me.

To give a brief synopsis, this Florida kid Miles goes to some boarding school in Alabama in search of a Great Perhaps, an annoying phrase (used more than I care for) to describe his desire for something bigger and better than his current life is giving him. He meets his roommate Chip, whose nickname is the Colonel, who gives Miles the nickname Pudge. He introduces them to Takumi, some Asian kid who’s really good at rapping, and Alaska, the goddess among teenage girls that will change Pudge’s life forever.

The main area of fun for these Alabama kids is pranking the students they call Weekday Warriors, kids whose parents are super rich and go back to stay with them during the weekend while the rest of the poor students stay on campus. And the number one rule for kids attending this boarding school is not to snitch on anyone. So it’s basically a prank war between Pudge’s new friends and the Weekday Warriors with little to no involvement of the faculty.

During his time there, Pudge falls in love with Alaska and all her eccentricities (I’ll talk more about her character in a little bit). Alaska’s room gets flooded as a prank by the Weekday Warriors and many of her coveted books are ruined. She and the gang end up getting those snobby rich kids back by messing with their hair gel so their hair turns blue.

Yeah, not really that great of a revenge prank if you ask me. Permanently damaging a collection of books against dying a few students’ hair blue… one of these things is drastically more hurtful than the other.

In fact, damaging Alaska’s books doesn’t even seem like a prank, so much as straight up vandalism. And the previous prank the Weekday Warriors pulled was tying Pudge up and throwing him in the lake. That’s like — no, is — intent to kill. Aren’t pranks supposed to be, you know, fun? Like minorly inconveniencing someone so everyone can have a good laugh?

But hey, no snitching right? Anyway, Alaska freaks out about something one night and drives off somewhere. She crashes her car and gets killed in the process. I’d be more sad about this, if I didn’t see it coming. Considering the book is separated into a “before” and “after” section with each chapter labeled “x¬†days before/after,” as well as her suicidal warning signs, it kind of seemed inevitable to me, even if I hadn’t seen the major spoiler on the copyright page when I began reading.

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What was I doing looking at the copyright page? I like to know when each book I read was written. Don’t blame me if the publisher decided to spoil the story before it even started.

Anyway, Pudge and the Colonel blame themselves for Alaska’s death because they helped her sneak out even though she was drunk and emotionally unstable. They spend the rest of the book (which is a little less than half of it) trying to figure out if Alaska killed herself and what really happened that night. It reminded me a lot of the adventure Quentin and his friends had while trying to figure out where Margo disappeared to in Paper Towns. In fact, this book almost seemed like a prototype for Paper Towns. Although maybe I’m just starting to see the similar patterns and themes I’ve heard all John Green books have.

Anyway, they eventually deduce that Alaska must have remembered she didn’t bring flowers to her mom’s grave on the anniversary of her death, which she had already blamed herself for her entire life, and crashed into a cop car on her way to the grave. Pudge defends Alaska by saying she thought she could squeeze past the car and her death was an accident, but Takumi thinks she felt too guilty about failing her mom again and made a last minute decision to kill herself. So like Life of Pi, Looking for Alaska leaves the truth ambiguous so the reader can pick their own ending. Unlike Life of Pi, however, I don’t think it was handled as gracefully and seemed more like a cop out.

Personally, I think she killed herself. I don’t think it was planned, but considering all the warning signs of wanting to die and her reckless, impulsive behavior, I don’t think there’s really any other way to look at the situation.

Or maybe it was just an accident, and like many adolescents left without closure, I’m just thinking too much about it. Who knows.

All right, so this book was an entertaining read, I’ll give it that. It wasn’t as good as Paper Towns — nowhere near as good — but I didn’t hate it. For a 200 page YA novel, I’ve done worse before. My problem with it? Actually, it’s a lot of little things that snowballed for me and made the whole experience extremely distracting.

Let’s start with the nicknames. Everything has a nickname. The friends, the collection of students known as the Weekday Warriors, the one teacher that’s more or less the only teacher we ever see, the principal, the stare the principal gives (Alaska apparently calls it the Look of Doom according to page 21 of the copy I read, although I’m 90% sure I remember it referred to as The Stare at some point), the fried burritos served in the cafeteria — everything has one.

I’m not against nicknames as inside jokes to show the closeness of friends, but the introduction of each and every nickname felt extremely forced. It felt like instead of showing different scenes where these characters are actually bonding, the nicknames are forced into my face to make me believe they already have. For example, Pudge is practically forced to accept his nickname after hanging out with the Colonel for, like ten minutes. And it’s so awkward I really had to wonder what the point to it was at all.

And don’t call me Chip. Call me the Colonel.

“I stifled a laugh. “The Colonel?

“Yeah. The Colonel. And we’ll call you… hmm. Pudge.”

“Huh?”

“Pudge,” the Colonel said. “Because you’re skinny. It’s called irony, Pudge. Heard of it? Now let’s go get some cigarettes and start this year off right.” (13-4)

I’ll assume Chip calling himself the Colonel is also irony, as well.

Speaking of scenes that show how close these characters are — they’re a little scarce. I can still tell these friends mean a lot to each other, but I think that could have been shown better. I still don’t really know much about why they’re important to one another, other than they’re not Weekday Warriors.

Most of the scenes that involve the friends hanging out involve smoking and drinking. And that’s it. Like the nicknames, Looking for Alaska really wants to shove the fact that the main characters smoke and drink a lot right into your face and grind it into your skin.

And if they had interesting conversations, or talked about anything substantial, or did something more often, this wouldn’t have seemed like a big issue for me. Hell, even if they didn’t, what really got me was the frequency and forcefulness John Green used to let me know these characters are teenagers that absolutely¬†need to show how mature they are by excessively,¬†exclusively smoking and drinking.

And I know I was never really into drinking, and I’m a wet blanket, and blah blah blah — whatever. It’s not the recreational use that bothers me, it’s just the way it’s presented. It reminded me a lot of high school, when students wanted to prove how mature they were by bragging about all the smoking and drinking they’ve been doing to an obnoxious extent that in reality came off as juvenile.

Other YA books have done a better job portraying bonds and experiences between people through underage smokes and drinks. Perks of Being a Wallflower, for example. Yeah, I didn’t think the characters were particularly interesting in that book either, but I was able to appreciate the relationship between them more because the book let scenes play out more naturally. In Looking for Alaska, it feels more like a bunch of frat boys planning to get wasted whenever they can.

Alaska herself was… sort of interesting. I guess. She was the most interesting character in the book, anyway. I definitely liked her more than Hazel from The Fault in Our Stars, but I thought Margo from¬†Paper Towns was a better written character. Like Margo, Alaska’s also pretty toxic. Unlike Margo, she’s more of an annoying toxic character than an entertaining one. To start off, she’s pretty hypocritical. For example, she’ll be criticizing the boys for sexualizing women in one scene and then saying she’ll “flirt” her way to obtaining alcohol from a liquor store without needing an I.D. in another one. In fact, the very first scene we see with Alaska in it, she’s telling a story about how her friend grabbed one of her boobs and I think she’s supposed to sound offended, but she ends her story making it sound like she’s almost bragging…?

So first day of summer, I’m in grand old Vine Station with this boy named Justin and we’re at his house watching TV on the couch–mind you, I’m already dating Jake– actually I’m still dating him, miraculously enough, but Justin is a friend of mine from when I was a kid and so we’re watching TV and literally chatting about the SATs or something, and Justin puts his arm around me and I think, Oh, that’s nice, we’ve been friends for so long and this is totally comfortable, and we’re just chatting and then I’m in the middle of a sentence about analogies or something and like a hawk he reaches down and he honks my boob. HONK. A much-too-firm, two- to three-second HONK. And the first thing I thought was Okay, how do I extricate this claw from my boob before it leaves permanent marks? and the second thing I thought was God, I can’t wait to tell Takumi and the Colonel.” (14-5)

Alaska’s also pretty moody, which I actually enjoyed. Her moodiness was one of my favorite parts of the book. She’ll be nice and every high school nerd’s fantasy girl one minute, then distant, somewhat cold the next. Many of the characters point this out as a huge flaw of hers, and even Pudge uses this as a reason not to fall for her. Moments like these are probably the most realistic depictions of drama in the entire book, and I welcomed them dearly.

The problem is, these flaws feel overlooked and underdeveloped. At the end of the day, despite any negative feelings characters show for Alaska throughout the entire book, I still feel like the novel wants me to worship her like Pudge. Maybe it’s because Looking for Alaska is told from his point of view, or maybe it’s because she died halfway through and people don’t normally talk shit about the recently deceased, but I felt like the book was trying to force me to fall in love with Alaska too, even if she wasn’t a great person.

At least during the ending of Paper Towns, Margo sort of breaks down and we, as readers, can see she’s not the perfect goddess Quentin made her out to be. That book ended on a note that felt like the two of them were now on equal ground, with Quentin viewing her as a peer rather than a girl perfect to fall in love with (at least that’s how I remember it; it’s been seven or eight months since I’ve read Paper Towns).

In Looking for Alaska, though, I don’t get the same impression. I mean, I think Pudge comes to similar conclusions, but I feel like the book itself still wants me to think she’s a great force that would change my life forever if I had met her.

Ultimately, if I had to sum up what I didn’t like about Looking for Alaska, it’s that it feels like it’s romanticizing toxic behavior. The book wants me to believe Pudge’s group of friends, especially Alaska, are mature beyond their years and just merely being around them is enough for Pudge to infinitely grow as a person. But how everything was presented felt very juvenile to me, and it really hurt my experience with the book. I really would have liked if there was some deeper reflecting on all of these character flaws and seeing them actually develop more. I know it’s YA and I shouldn’t hold my standards as high, but considering it won an award and all the praise John Green gets, I couldn’t help but be disappointed.

Three books in by this author and I still don’t understand: what do people see in him that I don’t?

Most John Green fans are teenagers. I don’t forget what it’s like to be one. The desire to move onto bigger things, the feeling you get when you meet a new group of people that makes you feel at home, finding someone that makes your heart explode in a glorious orgasm every time you see them… I remember those feelings. I still deal with some of those feelings. John Green books have a lot of these in them. But I hate how he tells his audience how to feel in really awkward ways instead of showing them in better written scenes.

I think I’ve gone on long enough. I’d like to repeat that Looking for Alaska was an entertaining read, but I couldn’t ignore everything that made me feel so frustrated. And I don’t think it was any one thing so much as a buildup of a bunch of smaller things.

And I’ll give John Green credit for one thing — all of his books I’ve read stood out to me. Maybe not for the most admirable reasons, but each of them left me pretty opinionated and with a lot to talk about. The absolute worst a book can do for me is be boring. To leave me with nothing to say, to fade from my memory mere minutes after finishing it, to make me start counting down pages from the very beginning. None of John Green’s books came close to that, and for that I’m thankful.

Still, with three books under my belt, I think it’s safe to say John Green probably isn’t for me. I’d like to leave it at that, but I’ve got a pretty good feeling I’ll end up reading An Abundance of Katherines at some point in the future. Here’s hoping it’s a better experience!

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Info for my edition of Looking for Alaska:

  • Published 2006 by Speak
  • Paperback, 221 pages
  • ISBN 978-0-14-240251-1