House of Leaves: A Critical Review

GDES 253: Theory & Philosophy of Visual Communication

Individual Research Writing (PDF)

This work of design is a book titled House of Leaves, a fictional piece of “interactive” literature by Mark Z. Danielewski that has been defined by some as a fantasy mystery novel. This book, published as Danielewski’s debut novel on March 7th in 2000 by Pantheon Books and Random House Books was awarded the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award in 2001, because a Guardian First Book Award Nominee in 2000, and a James Tait Black Memorial Prize Nominee for Fiction, also in 2000.

The work being described is the paperback version of the book, a total of 705 pages in English. It is a paperback book with a slightly worn black cover, heavier than its two-inch thickness initially appears. The cover is cut so that the edge of the book peeks past the cover, leaving the colorful edge of the first page showing. The title of the book and author, set in serif small caps, is white in contrast to the dark cover — all except for the first word of the title “House” which is set in blue type and the words “a novel” in small pink text at the bottom of the title, the reader’s first hint of this book’s unusual treatment of color and typography. Behind the text, a glossy black-on-black geometric pattern extends, maze-like, from a central spiral design in the center of the cover.

House of Leaves, written from the point of view of its unreliable narrator Johnny Truant, begins when Johnny mentions to his friend Lude that he is looking for an apartment. Lude and Johnny break into an apartment in Lude’s apartment building, previously been occupied by an elderly man named Zampano who died under strange circumstances. In the apartment Johnny and Lude find Zampano’s work, a trunk of papers full of the research of a documentary titled The Navidson Record that apparently describes a family who moved into a house on Ash Tree Lane only to make the discovery not only that their house was bigger on the inside than it appeared on the outside but also began to expand into a mysterious maze – silent but for an odd growling sound. Unable to find evidence of the existence of either the house or the documentary, Johnny becomes obsessed with piecing together the story of The Navidson Record that was Zampano’s work and the Navidson family that had lived in this strange house. The remainder of the book, an undeniably confusing set of stories within stories, is written along three major threads that the reader must follow: Johnny’s narrative, Zampano’s description of the documentary, and the story of the Navidson family.

House of Leaves challenges the reader not only within its conceptually intricate content but also in the form and organization of the text itself. The novel was specially typeset by Danielewski himself to match the content of the story; the author employs several methods of storytelling that qualify this book as a work of design. The three main narratives within the novel were each set in a different font – Johnny’s in Courier, Zampano’s in Times, and the Editor’s in Bookman, leaving the reader to follow the intermittent storyline based on the switching typefaces. The text, in its description of a maze of a house, is organized as a labyrinth itself. The text is turned sideways, upside down, angled in different directions on the page; it must be read forwards, backwards, sometimes one word at a time when the reader encounters pages with just one or two lines of text. Within the story there are endless footnotes upon footnotes that lead the reader in circles, type set to overlap on itself, and even further pushing the author’s satire of academia, a full index in the back of the book. House of Leaves is also unique for its use of color: the word “house” is set in blue throughout the entire book.

House of Leaves fits into several genres, the primary few being psychological fantasy, romance, and horror, but was written by the author as satire of academic criticism. The novel has been called “ergodic literature,” a term created and defined by Espen J. Aarseth in Cybertext – Perspectives on Ergodic Literature as literature requiring “nontrivial effort” on the part of the reader. This novel in different contexts could come off as either a fascinating work of storytelling or a pretentious jumble of nonsense, one that either draws its reader totally in or pushes the reader out. The complexity of the non-linear story is intimidating yet fascinating, made even more so by the novel’s unique typesetting and formatting. The story itself leaves much up to the interpretation of the reader, while the text is designed to both clarify and confuse, doing both effectively throughout. Having the form follow the content of the book is a concept usually more recognizable in children’s literature: the use of graphics, typefaces, and illustrative text would not be unfamiliar to a child. This level of visual complication, of typographic insanity, is for some reason prohibited in moving into the “adult” world as if literature for adults must somehow allow the content to take absolute priority over form at all times. House of Leaves, an attempt to break this tacit agreement, is successful in some ways, less so in others.

House of Leaves has been praised for its unusual formatting by some, who believe that it contributes to the content of the story, and scathingly ridiculed by others who consider it an impossible disaster. The book as a work of design must be critiqued as a whole; it would be extremely difficult and possibly unproductive to view this work as merely a story separate from its form, when both were so intentionally considered in the making of House of Leaves. This is not to say that the story is mundane, but that this work must be taken in its entirety. It might be argued that this novel is successful in the sense that, as a work of psychological fiction, this novel is meant to promote further thought, which – regardless of the reader’s end opinion of the book – it almost never fails to do. There are some that despise this book with a passion, insulting it as a disorganized mess not worth the effort necessary to read it, while others recognize the novel for its consideration of how typesetting might also be a literary device; the ways in which this text influence the reader are not only through words but the ways in which those words are arranged. The full experience of House of Leaves eventually pushes the reader to question their own interpretation of the work. The visual and textual obstacles that the reader encounters in deciphering the novel are meant to confuse, as they undeniably do well, but can also be understood as a challenge dependent on both literary and typographic design.

As a work of design House of Leaves is successful in that it accomplishes the author’s purpose of prompting thought through both the form and content of the book. The reason this book is sometimes abandoned entirely by readers is the same reason it draws other readers in; it is maddeningly fascinating and due to its convoluted, multifaceted format requires a great deal of work to understand. House of Leaves binds color, typography, and a plethora of literary codes together into a complex form of storytelling that effectively makes full use of the form and composition of the book to create a work of literature that seems to extend past its fantastic world to capture its fascinated audience.

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