The May 2006 Book Thread

Okie dokie, here’s my more detailed thoughts on House of Leaves. Sorry for the length.

This is really a weird book. So weird, in fact, that any discussion of it pretty much has to be dominated by its structure. Basically, there are 6 “layers” to the story, each of which the reader is directly or indirectly exposed to:

Layer 1: A photojournalist named “Will Navidson” moves into a new home, along with his family. To procure content for a documentary he want to make on the experience, he sets up cameras everywhere a la some reality TV show. Navidson soon discovers that, impossibly, the house is bigger inside than it is outside, and that it contains an entrance into a city-sized --maybe even planet-sized—labyrinth. The maze is constantly shifting its dimensions and it kind of wears down and eats people who enter it.

Layer 2: Navidson uses his film footage to make a series of films about the house, the longest of which, The Navidson Accord becomes a kind of underground Internet and art house sensation.

Layer 3: An old, blind man named “Zampano” somehow writes an overly academic study of The Navidson Accord documentary, replete with obtuse footnotes and references. It is Zampano’s document that constitutes maybe half of the real-world book that the reader is plodding through.

Layer 4: A Los Angeles tattoo parlor employee named “Johnny Truant” finds Zampano’s document after the old man dies and begins reading it. Truant starts to go crazy and makes copious footnotes on Zampano, the Navidsons, his dwindling sanity, and his own debaucherous lifestyle. These footnotes comprise roughly the other half of the novel.

Layer 5: An uncredited editor makes further notes about all of the above, including Truant’s own footnotes. So you sometimes get the editor’s footnotes on Truant’s footnotes on Zampano’s footnotes on the manuscript about a documentary about a family moving into a crazy house that eats people. But wait, we’re not quite done yet.

Layer 6: In the new and expanded version of the book that I read, Johnny Truant’s mentally unstable mother adds another level of complexity by writing letters to her son, commenting on and adding a different perspective to many of the things Truant discusses in his footnotes.

Did you get all that in one read-through? If so, you’re a freak. If not, take another look so you can appreciate the complexity of what I’m talking about here. This is one challenging (in a good way) book to get through, what with its demands to keep track of two ping-ponging storylines. Truant’s footnotes would often start right in the middle of one of Zampano’s sentences and go on for several pages about his life of drugs, sex, and sickness before dumping the narrative right back where it was before he interrupted. Zampano’s parts, in harsh contrast to Truant’s, are stuffed with academic language, long passages in German or Latin, and obscure references to essays, books, and other sources.

The other noteworthy thing about The House of Leaves is its typography. This novel really pushes the written word to its limits as a medium by how it uses white space and the orientation of the text to correspond to what’s going on in the story at the time. For example, in one part Zampano is describing an expedition into the gargantuan innards of the house. While he writes about how the endless passageways twist and turn back on one another and constantly shift so as to obliterate any sense of direction, the words on the pages actually change orientation so that they are presented sideways, upside down, or even backwards. In another section that describes an incredibly large open space above the characters’ heads, the pages contain only one line each at the bottom, above which is nothing but empty white space. There’s other weird but meaningful stuff, like using blue font for every instance of the word “House” and tying that back to larger meanings. It’s really cool stuff.

You may notice that I’m not saying much about the actual story or characters in the book. That’s because with the possible exception of Will Navidson, there’s not much there to talk about. The story is kind of interesting, but it’s nothing that couldn’t be handled by a short story rather than a 700+ page novel. It’s pretty straight forward and not very complex in terms of plot or character development. It’s also not as scary or thrilling as you might expect from something shelved, as it was for me, in the “Horror” section of the bookstore.

The thing about The House of Leaves, though, is its bizarre structure and its avant-garde typography. Those, along with the sense of mystery that they create, are the main things to appreciate and applaud about this book. I’m not saying that the story isn’t cool or interesting in parts, but it’s not what’s going to get you through this tome.

Just finished David McCullough’s 1776. I know there are a lot of history buffs here. Can anyone recommend an engaging book covering the entire war?

Next on my list is His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis which I understand is a good compliment to 1776 from the biographical point of view.

Alan – How is A Crack in the Edge of the World? I was in San Francisco in March and have been thinking about picking it up since I got back.

Unfortunately, shamefully, I haven’t started it yet… am finishing up Cobra II now, which I must say is everything everyone [and I] billed it to be earlier: an authoratative account of Gulf War II that everyone will base their work on. It’s beyond good.

— Alan

I started reading Steven Erikson’s series recently (Which starts with Gardens of the Moon). The first book is hard to get in to, his writing style isn’t conducive to quick reading, but I plowed through and it turned in to a really interesting book. Very complex. Reading the second book now and enjoying it even more.

Huh. I read this book back when it came out, but it didn’t have these passages. I wonder if it’s worth buying the new version and reading again for. Also, the version I read contained a version key on the inside cover or on one of the publisher’s pages describing various versions which supposedly existed. For some reason I seem to recall 4 versions, but I only remember three: one had no coloring, one had the word House always in blue as you mentioned (this was the version I had), and one had in addition to the blue House the word Minotaur always in red. After looking about online I was led to believe that there was only the one version and they key was some sort of joke or story-relevant tidbit I didn’t get, but now I’m not so sure.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book as well. Like you said, the story never went anywhere particularly special, but the different writing styles of the various authors and the text presentation matching the content and the many themes and theories and the amazing atmosphere really gelled into a very enjoyable experience.

And you probably already know this, but the author Mark Danielewski is the brother of the singer Poe. For the single of her song Hey Pretty, she recorded a different version from the album version, containing a passage from the book narrated by her brother.

There were two different versions of HoL - one with “House” in blue and one with all struckthrough text in red - and the strikethroughs were always dealing with the Minotaur symbolism. I have the red version. “House” was printed in a light gray which still stood apart from the rest of the text, so I still get a little bit of that effect.

I know there is no “full color” version, but I don’t know if that’s because there was never really intended to be one or if MZD couldn’t get the publisher interested.

The Wikipedia page on HoL has a pretty good rundown of the different versions, as well as a bunch of other stuff:

Apparently the letters were also published as a separate book called “The Whalestoe Letters.” It seems to be on Amazon.com, but honestly I just kind of skimmed them. They’re not exactly riviting and seem like they’re there just for the hardcore fans wanting to dig out details to create or support theories. I’d go to the bookstore, find the newest version of HoL that contains them, and take a peek first.

Just finished Stackpole’s Dragon Crown War Cycle.

Started a book of Ian Rankin short stories,Beggar’s Banquet.

I just started reading a book called Vellum by a fellow named Hal Duncun. It’s a War in Heaven/Angels Battling Amongst Us type of story, but it’s got a little bit of a HoL vibe to it, in that the passages jump around quite a bit in context/place/time. Not far enough into it yet to reccommend or not.

Hum what am I reading now? Dipping back into Clash of Kings from time to time. And been rereading “The Science in Science Fiction,” a circa-1982 coffee table book surveying various sci-fi stories and books and movies, and where they get the science right and wrong. Some of it is dated of course but it’s still got lots of good information.

How was it? I just picked up the first of his new series “A Secret Atlas” the other day mainly because I found the idea about a series based on a family of mapmakers intriguing.

I’m always looking for good new fantasy…someone else that was reviewing this book on Amazon suggest Ricardo Pinto book, The Chosen. It also sounded pretty good.

Pinto’s creative, but the books are slowww…
If you’re looking for a novel take on Mayanesque cultures, you’ll enjoy it. If not, you’ll have trouble staying awake. I’ve stuck with it because I figure there has to be some kind of payoff; the series hasn’t quite reached the Jordan Threshold for me yet.

Death in the Silent Places, by Peter Capstick. You might have heard of Death in the Long Grass, he’s a very good Rourke-esque white hunter that will have you terrified of leaving a plane in Africa.

Also poking through Cold Hit, by Canell. Popcorn, but he’s always good for a read.

H.

I enjoyed it, but don’t get too fond of any of the characters…

Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey.

Finished up Financial Peace, might as well take the next step.

Finished The Far Side of the World and moved on to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Now that I’ve read the book I realized that the film Master and Commander changed the Far Side story around a lot but that was probably necessary. The story as written would have made for a very dull film. The script basically combined actions and quotes from other books with the Far Side setting, and very effectively so.

I’m currently reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon and am transported; I’m in love with it.

Next on deck is Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins.

I also thought that was a real crackerjack of a book.
I really liked the writing and strong sense of place and time.

Almost done with Hobb’s last Fool book, having read through the previous 8 in order of their publication.