House Of Leaves Summary

Mark Z. Danielewski

House Of Leaves

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House Of Leaves Summary

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A novel constructed from a cult classic originally passed around as a heap of pages from friend to friend, House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski, is a psychological, ergodic novel consisting of three different, but intertwined, story lines, each told from the perspective of a different person. Containing experimental choices in form, including colored words, hand-written pages covered with side notes, doodles, and drawings, text written upside down or vertically across the page, and other unusual typographical features, which mirror and represent the multi-layered plot line, House of Leaves attempts to render the traditionally linear novel form into another type of psychological experience. The reader must participate experientially in the construction of the text, unlike a traditional novel that presents a linear story without any input from the reader.

Johnny Truant, Los Angeles tattoo parlor employee, is looking for a place to live. He breaks into an old man’s apartment, with his friend Lude who lives in the same apartment building, and finds a trunk full of papers. Recently, the old, blind man, Zampano, was found dead in this apartment with strange claw marks in the wood surrounding where his body fell. Johnny steals the trunk full of papers and attempts to put them into a coherent order. Johnny’s story, both his activities in his own life and his reconstruction of Zampano’s papers, forms the first thread of the three main narratives.

In between drunken binges, drug-fueled bar scenes, and sexual encounters with crazy women, Johnny becomes obsessed with putting together the Navidson’s story. When Johnny puts the story together, it reveals Zampano’s impressions of a documentary film called The Navidson Record. Thematically, Zampano’s blindness intentionally echoes other blind writers such as Homer and Jorge Luis Borges, who notably published phony translations and reviews of non-existent literary works. Zampano’s pages are filled with footnotes and references to both non-existent and real literary works and authors, including records of interviews with real celebrities’ about the documentary, such as Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick, Ken Burns, and Camille Paglia.

However, Truant claims that he can find no record that the family or the documentary ever existed. As Johnny falls further into Zampano’s record of the Navidsons’ story and his own obsession with the story, he loses contact with reality, becoming convinced that a monster with claws is following him and that the monster is real. Eventually, his paranoid delusions overcome him to the point that he cannot leave his apartment, except to get food and books from the library. Danielewski intentionally creates Johnny’s unreliability as a narrator to undermine the reliability of the narrative, and the novel, as a whole, forcing the reader to constantly question what is real and what is not real within the narrative. Zampano’s retelling of The Navidson’s Record forms the second thread of the narrative.

In The Navidson Record, Pulitzer-prize winning photojournalist Will Navidson and Karen Green, a former fashion model, move into a house on Ash Tree Lane in Virginia with their two small children, Chad and Daisy. The Navidson’s story forms the second thread of the narrative. Will Navidson makes a documentary film about their house and the bizarre things that happen there.

After returning from a trip, the family discovers a new closet connecting to the children’s bedroom, then a long, dark hallway appears in a living room wall. In addition, the house grows to be bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. No one, including Will’s carpenter brother, Tom, or his friends, can understand it. They put together an expeditionary force to investigate the mysteries of the ever-expanding hallway, and Will films the results. At the end of the hallway, over time, appear an expanding maze containing a descending spiral staircase, other hallways, and many rooms. The corridors and rooms are completely silent, except for a low growl that is heard occasionally. The walls are uniformly gray and featureless. As they explore, various members of the expedition experience delirium, madness, or death. The final filmed and edited documentary is released as The Navidson Record, after the Navidson family flees for their lives to New York. Tom dies, sacrificing himself in saving Will’s children from the house.

Unable to let the mystery go, Will Navidson returns to the house. Will is eventually rescued only when Karen overcomes her claustrophobia and retrieves him from the maze inside the house.

The third thread of the narrative, called the Whalestoe letters, consist of letters from Johnny’s mother, Pelefina, who is confined to a mental hospital. Her narrative contains increasingly incoherent ramblings, which also includes secret messages, which can be decoded by reading the first two letters of consecutive words.

The mixture of real people with possibly non-existent events, footnotes containing references to both real and non-existent books, along with Johnny Truant’s growing mental illness and the questionable reality of The Navidson Record ultimately all underline the major theme of the novel: what is real and how do we know what is real? In the end, Johnny publishes the House of Leaves under Zampano’s name, while Will and Karen return to their children and build a new life in Vermont.

As a literary work, Danielewski plays with several genres both through deliberately satirical and genuine use of literary conventions, including the horror genre, with echoes of Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe, the epistolary format, used in many historically important novels, such as Tristram Shandy (1767), postmodern deconstructive elements through the disjointed, multi-layered narrative format, and even ending the Navidson’s narrative with overturning a myth—here, the woman rescues the man from the labyrinth and the monster within it, rather than vice versa. This literary experimentation draws the reader in and forces the reader to confront notions of reality and madness, with no easy answers or escape.